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World Building, by Russell Cornhill

I remember reading somewhere that all writers of fiction have to do some form of world building – whether it’s the cold of a North Atlantic ocean, the muddy, blood-soaked trenches of World War One, the glitzy night club realm of a drug baron, the castles and hovels of medieval knights or a totally alien planet with giant desert worms. How do we do it – research and imagination, plotting and pure seat-of-the-pantsing, or a combination of all? It doesn’t matter. What is important are the two factors I’ll call the fun and the work.

The fun, like any description, is in the detail because world building is a giant description or, in a sense, character building. It’s the details that will draw the reader in and make the world more real – the blood-red sap that oozes from the slash in the cactus-like plant, seeping around the needle-sharp thorns until it drips on to the sand, sizzling and billowing back as a smoky gas that burns the nasal passages and gags in the throat.

Okay, a bit too much there. Still, it’s the details that count and as the writer you need to choose the details that are important for the reader to understand the world. Sometimes that’s easy, sometimes the ideas are so firmly imbedded in your head you need someone to tap you on the shoulder and say ‘Ah, I didn’t quite get what you meant …’ Bugger! Back to the drawing board.

So, basically stick with the aspects that your plot or theme revolve around or that you need for your character building and leave the rest to the reader’s imagination. A good travel brocher only points out ‘appealing’ details – substitute interesting, alarming, exciting, terrifying, etc. After all, once the writer is finished, it becomes the reader’s world and the world will be slightly different for each reader. That won’t matter if the  writer gets the framework right. To make those aspects real to the reader, no matter how alien the world, we can only use human senses and human emotions. That’s all I can use anyway.

So I have to devise a goblin culture that can seem real but doesn’t have to describe every aspect. One of the interesting points is avoiding the ‘they all look the same’ syndrome. The more alien the race, the more difficult that can become. I also have to build a physical world and I’ve chosen to mix known with unknown, that is, my Land (and flora and fauna) is based very, very, loosely on the North American continent. That makes some things easier but means I’m open to criticism if I get something wrong. That’s a worry because I get lots of things wrong.

Then I have the religion/magic system to get right. Ah, I wish I’d gone for more satire or outright spoof. It’s much easier when it’s all tongue-in-cheek.

Which brings me to the second part – the work.

Getting the world building to fit seamlessly into the story is part of the craft and that can be fun too. The part that isn’t that much fun is making sure everything is consistent.

Pray for good proof readers and good editors.


Russell Cornhill bio page

The Goblin WarGoblins!: An Underearth AdventureSamiha's Song (Chronicles of the Tree)A Game of Thrones: Book 1 of A Song of Ice and FireThe Road to Rome (Forgotten Legion Chronicles)Description and Setting: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Believable World of People, Places and Events (Write Great Fiction)Many Genres, One Craft: Lessons in Writing Popular Fiction

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