Creating Realistic Worlds, Part 1

World Building - By David KeenerHow do you design realistic worlds?

This is a problem unique to science fiction and fantasy writers (and sometimes even game designers). The challenge is to create a world that seems realistic, without rousing the ire of fans who rightly point out things like unrealistic locations for mountain ranges, implausible deserts, unlikely climates, overly regular coastlines, etc. Additionally, the world shouldn’t seem so artificial that it was clearly designed solely to support the needs of a story.

Designing a realistic world can be a daunting task, so the first principle we need to apply is “divide and conquer.” Let’s separate the design process into components, and deal with each section of the problem separately. Here are the major components that I’ve identified:

  1. Mapping Strategy: There are lots of ways to produce a map of a world. Since worlds are typically spherical (yes, yes, I know about Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and a few other counter-examples, but I did say realistic worlds), all two-dimensional maps involve some degree of distortion. Our goal is to choose a mapping strategy that will support our efforts to design a realistic world.

  2. Geographical Features: Our world needs features like continents, oceans, mountains, volcanoes, etc. Our goal is to develop a step-by-step process for generating these features on our world map in a natural and realistic fashion.

  3. Climate: We want to develop a realistic world so we can avoid the dreaded “It was a rainy day on planet Mongo” syndrome. If our world has realistic geography, then we should be able to specify climate features like ocean currents, deserts, jungles, and rivers with some degree of plausibility.

  4. Flora and Fauna: Given the opportunity, life will develop. How do we create plausible lifeforms in realistic ecologies?

  5. Solar System: Planets don’t exist by themselves (unless they’ve been ejected from a stellar system, in which case they’re really cold and boring). What does the rest of your world’s solar system look like?

I’ve always enjoyed the technical aspects of world building, and I’ve engaged in world building for years — most often for elaborate worlds for roleplaying games. I’m also just a little tired of all the stereotypical “Class M” worlds, all narrowly constrained copies of some particular Earth climate, that I see in a lot of science fiction. Accordingly, I decided to produce a series of “World Building” installments covering the diverse areas that must be addressed to design realistic worlds.

I’m a “kill many birds with one stone” kind of a guy, so I’ve got some wide-ranging goals that I hope to accomplish with this series. First and foremost, I hope to inspire other writers to develop more fully realized worlds, with obvious benefits to their writing and to the experiences of their readers. Second, I’ll be using these techniques and strategies myself to design some of the worlds that I need for my upcoming projects. Third, I hope to gather this content eventually into an ebook and sell it online (although I plan to keep all of the installments online for free as well).

I hope you enjoy these “World Building” articles. More importantly, I hope you find them useful and relevant to your writing process. Let me know what you think of them. Your feedback is welcomed.

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1 Comment

  1. Posted November 25, 2013 at 1:36 PM | Permalink

    This is what I affectionately refer to as the “Blog Entry from Hell.” It completely and totally stopped me in my tracks until I realized that it was actually struggling to become a non-fiction ebook. What you have here is the introduction to a significantly larger piece – i.e., my blog entry kept expanding on me.

    Even worse, for the upcoming installments, I ran into two issues:

    1. I had to produce lots of graphics to accompany the piece. This is something that is well within my capabilities, but takes time. And time away from writing, the actual production of words, messes with your word count production goals.

    2. Some of the graphics I wanted to include are graphics, notably maps, for which I have to secure the appropriate permissions from the rights holders. So, that is in progress.

    Meanwhile, let me assure you that there’s some neat stuff coming down the pike. It’s just a lot more work than I was originally anticipating.

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