My name is Annie, and I… have a world building problem.
I first got hooked on worldbuilding by reading Papa Tolkien, My Queen JK, and also Weird Uncle Eddings. Goiter Uncle Lucas played a role as well, and so did Mama Tammy Pierce. But let’s put the blame where it belongs: squarely upon the shoulders of Papa Tolkien.
I don’t claim to be good at worldbuilding, but I do it a lot, and in honor of Worldbuilding June, I’m doing a blog post on it. These are the 4 Things I Love Most About Building Worlds.
Now I’m not a huge conlanger but–
*opens a drawer and dozens of langmaking notebooks fall out*
*made up alphabets flood from my pockets*
thESE AREN’T MINE OKAY.
*drowns in sheer nerdiness*
But in more seriousness: I like languages. I like grammar. I like alphabets, and most of all, I like the way words sound, and how languages crash into each other. Language is full of meaning for characters. In one of the worlds I am building, there’s a whole race where the polite/formal pronouns are genderless — they come off as perpetually prickly because human language doesn’t understand that nuance, so humans always come off as overly chummy and rude. And in my current manuscript, the main character is a shapeshifter, who can talk to animals. Which led me to reading up on how animals communicate with one another — because languages are more than sounds and words, they can include gestures, postures, smells and pretty much anything else your weird brain can imagine.
A lot of people start with world maps, and I can see why. It’s important, when worldbuilding, to have a map. I’m not going to talk to you about why geography is important, or why you can’t have rivers running up hills and suggest to you a different idea:
How do people in your world draw their maps? Who gets to decide where the center of the world is and why. Look at a tube map of London — no wait, Neil Gaiman’s already done a fantasy based on that. Um. Read Neverwhere, I guess. Look at this map of the Roman Empire according to Romans*:
Looks frickin weird right? See how Rome is in the middle and everything else is just roads, virtually regardless of actual geography or distances? It says a lot about the Empire and the importance of roads, doesn’t it.
*technically it’s a medieval copy of a Roman map but THAT IS NOT THE POINT.
#3: Political History!
This partially ties in with the maps, because how people draw their maps says a lot about how they view the world. So does language — like how all the Fancy Words in English are actually French, and all the Smart People Words in English are actually Latin or Greek, but the Strongest and Deepest words (like strength and depth for example) are all Anglo Saxon.
Politics and history are going to be what give your world Layers. It’s going to affect your characters’ world views, color their interactions, inform their decisions. It’s important to know this stuff — Remus Lupin isn’t the same Remus Lupin we know and love if he doesn’t have the same background of being the victim of systemic political oppression.
Speaking of systemic oppression!
No, wait — don’t leave! I’m not here to guilt trip you or climb on a soap box, I’m just here to say that I personally love learning about other cultures. I love incorporating different world views into my writing. I try to do this with sensitivity and respect, but I’ll be honest…
I like to include diversity in my worlds and my writing because I enjoy it.
I enjoy writing it, and I enjoy reading it. In my opinion, The Lord of the Rings would have been 100000% better if it had included delegations from the East, Far Harad, and even the Orcs. Dammit, I want a sequel where we learn that the Easterlings are actually a rich melting pot of trade and sophisticated science! I want to see the Nations of Harad rise up and start trading with those poor, war-torn Gondorians, bringing gold to their markets and flavor to their food. I want orc-societies taking hold in Mordor, learning how to define themselves without some foreigner enslaving them and making them fight. These are probably proud cultures, rich in history and flush with new ideas, and WE NEVER SEE THEMMM.
This blog post has gotten a bit Out of Hand — I could literally talk for an entire month about World Building. If that sounds like something you too would enjoy, go ahead and check out #WorldBuildingJune on Tumblr here. I’m trying it out for the first time this month, but it looks like a heck of a lot of fun!