Wednesday, August 18, 2010

World Building, Part 1: Top-Down Construction

Any author working in a science fiction or fantasy world has to confront the topic of world building at some point. I'm sure many authors don't even think about the process and just dive into it. But there are authors, like Tolkien, who will spend years crafting elaborate, breathing worlds with expansive histories and peoples. Some of these visionaries go on to create incredibly fine details. You could actually study the Elvish language from Middle Earth, for instance. Or the Klingon language from Star Trek.

But where do you even start developing a world that rich?

Building worlds is a daunting task for anyone to undertake. I am a writer and I have a passion for creating video games. Creating worlds is a subject I've spent more than two decades exploring. The process started for mostly financial reasons. I played Dungeons and Dragons a lot and couldn't afford to purchase the manuals for every TSR world that interested me. So I created my own world.

I will begin this discussion with a look at a Top-Down design.

I started my fantasy world, Palamar, with a friend when I was about ten years old. I drew a map for the solar system to explain how the planets and moons were set up. Then I created the world map, drawing each continent in turn, marking cities and forests as I got to them. What I was doing was creating an entire fantasy universe from a million-mile view down to the people living in it. Once I had a good idea of the layout of the land and the people who lived in it, then I was able to create my characters and the stories and adventures they would live through.

This method has some benefits. You never have to wonder what's over the next horizon. You've already created the map and defined the boundaries of the civilizations that live there. Once you have boundaries and cultures, it's pretty easy to see where tensions between them could erupt. Place a big open field between two civilizations and you've just created a place for a battlefield (ancient, future, or modern, take your pick). The history often ends up being obvious once you've created the landscape.

There are drawbacks to this method. Every time I have an interesting idea for something I want to add to my world, I have to make changes to the world map to accommodate those ideas. Before I started using computers on a daily basis, that meant re-drawing the world map by hand. This method is also finite - it's really not practical for designing more than a single world. But for a fantasy realm, this method works nicely.

But this is only one method for creating a world...
I will discuss a Bottom-Up method in part 2.