Worldbuilding As You Go: A Case Study

In the board game Eurorails, players build and use a railroad network. In the beginning you don’t have much money to pay for track, and the way you get money is to use your track to deliver goods from place to place. As a result, you end up building your track as you go, balancing short-term needs (I need to go to Berlin) and long-term needs (I need to cross the Alps eventually). Some of your needs might evolve and change over the course of the game, requiring you to adapt your building plans. (I just got a high-value order for oranges to Oslo and I can just barely build that line to Barcelona to get them…) Until the end of the game, your track is constantly under development.

I’ve found that playing Eurorails has a lot in common with building worlds for fiction or role-playing games.

Image credit: Board Game Geek, used with permission

There are lots of approaches to worldbuilding. All of them are right for somebody. This article isn’t about telling you what to do. It’s about showing you what works for me, in hopes that it might work for you too.

I’m going to illustrate using the world for The Sisters’ War, the story I’ve been writing for this blog. (You don’t need to have read the story to follow this article.)

A World Starts With An Idea

Some people can build whole worlds methodically, starting from the formation of the planet and building up from there. I’m not like that. I almost titled this post “From the Inside Out”, because that’s really how I think of it — I have an idea and, from there, I have to work out both the background (how did we get here) and the consequences (where do we go from here). Which parts of worldbuilding get extra attention are driven by the questions that arise as I go.

In the case of The Sisters’ War, I started with a planet with multiple moons and competing moon gods. This suggested a somewhat primitive society to me, with a religion based on celestial objects. A picture flashed into my mind of a tribal warrior standing at the shore of the sea, spear in hand, waves crashing ashore, moons overhead in the night sky. This scene has not been realized in the story. It might never be. But it was a starting point.

That mental image suggested that the religious practice had to be active; people needed to be able to ascribe observed events to the gods. When someone says “moons” the first thing I think of is tides, so my people had to live near water. (And I had to learn how tides work with multiple moons.) As I thought about it more I realized that “near water” wouldn’t be enough on its own; they needed to be surrounded by water — an island people.

To increase the lunar impact — and opportunity for things to go wrong — I opted for an isolated chain of small islands. This told me that my people needed to be proficient with boats, though the boats didn’t need to be able to handle open sea. Small “puddle jumpers” that navigate in the shallower waters of an island chain would do fine. You’d be in trouble if you ended up out in the ocean nowhere near land in one of those, but who’d do that?

World and Story, Intertwined

So at this point I have primitive island-dwelling moon-worshippers. There’s lots more that needs to be developed, and they’re only occupying a small portion of the world (so there’s even more out there that could, and will, be relevant). That’s fine as far as it goes, but to come alive a world needs a story.

Another scene popped into my mind, and this one became the core of the first chapter: a priestess in a high place (a tower) conducting an important ritual for her moon-goddess, the greatest of the three, surrounded by other (assistant?) priestesses, with a daughter who is very much a reluctant heir to her position. Ok, let’s stop there and unpack that.

Without thinking about it I decided that the moon gods were moon goddesses, with priestesses rather than priests. That just happened; I didn’t plan it. Now, we have priestesses, meaning that worship of these gods is at least somewhat centralized. This is not the sort of religion where each individual just finds his own way; there’s structure. There is an heir(ess), suggesting that the position of high priestess is a family entitlement — or chore.

There are other priestesses, raising the question of how one becomes high priestess — is it always through inheritance, or are there other ways? Can the position be taken away? What happens if the high priestess doesn’t produce a daughter? I filed these questions away for later use. I have answers to those questions now, but I didn’t yet have them when I started writing — I didn’t need them yet, and I was keeping my options open.

I had a story I wanted to tell and themes I wanted to explore. I had enough of a world concept to get going. It was time to start writing, knowing that I’d be building the story and the world in parallel for a while.

The high priestess’s daughter does not share her mother’s religious fervor. This makes it easier for her to cross clan boundaries; her best friend is a boy from another goddess’s clan. So: we have clans, one for each moon, which function like castes. Because the goddesses compete with each other, it seems natural that this trickles down to their followers. Because one goddess is dominant over the others, the people of her clan naturally feel entitled to dominate the other clans.

Unless they are actually stronger or larger, this will only work as long as religious force is in play. A priestess is just a priestess; she can’t order people around by herself. But the society has invested the goddesses and their priestesses with power over the people, and people in power tend to want to stay in power. So I’ll need to figure out how cohesive this worldview really is, where the cracks are, and how to threaten it. Clan strife is going to be part of this story.

Sometimes It’s the Little Things

There are aspects of worldbuilding that never occurred to me until I was in the middle of a scene and had to reach for a detail. The first of these came when I needed to show the passage of time. I didn’t want to talk about “weeks”, an Earth-based concept. And while I needed a short period at that moment, I also realized that I should think carefully before talking about months. “Month” comes from “moon”; it makes sense when there’s one, but it might not make as much sense here. If it did, it would be based on the cycle of the dominant moon — but would people from the other clans tend to use a term tied to the competition?

For the shorter interval I settled on a “ten-day”. This makes a reasonable proxy for a week and is immediately clear; I didn’t have to explain anything. I want aspects of my world to be self-evident where possible, limiting exposition to the things that really require it. I didn’t yet need to specify how long the cycles of the three moons are, though the dominant moon’s cycle had to be a multiple of ten, I felt. (Three ten-days, I later decided. I don’t know if “three” is going to become a theme yet.)

Another area where I needed some details was food. We see a family having a meal — what are they eating? The society is agricultural, depending on natural (goddess-sent, they’d say) irrigation; what do they grow? At one point somebody entices a little girl into her home with the promise of special food — what?

An agricultural society can grow grains, so bread works as a staple. (That someone is able to produce fresh-baked bread says something about home cooking technology, by the way.) I could allude to fruit trees without being more specific, though the “sweet-drink” that lures the little girl suggests a special treat, maybe a nectar. An island people surely has ample access to fish, so fishing is a major activity and their main source of protein. Food would sometimes need to be preserved (without cooking) for multi-day trips to other islands; I decided that cheese would work, suggesting at least a little livestock to produce milk. (I’m thinking goats, not cows.)

You can’t ignore the little details in your world; they provide essential color to make your world come alive. But you probably won’t know which details you’ll need until you start telling your story, so I find myself developing them as I go.

Every Public Decision is a Junction

image credit

The thing about trains is that they move forward; they can’t back up. Unless your train has an engine at each end, once you go through a junction, choosing a set of tracks to go down, you’re committed until you reach the next junction.

If you’re writing your entire story before sharing it, you can back your train up as needed — there are no observers to be affected. But if you’re sharing your story as you go, or if you’re building a world for a role-playing game where you just know your players are going to come up with twists you didn’t anticipate, then this is harder. I think I made a mistake in the very first chapter of The Sisters’ War; I don’t think the people I’ve built are at a technology level to build stone towers. I might be wrong about that (more research is needed), but if I’m right, I’ll have to either address it or ignore it. Ignoring it means a flaw in the world, but if it’s not a central part of the story you can sometimes get away with a small amount of hand-waving. Or I can address it somehow — maybe the towers were already there (how?), or maybe there was some extra-ordinary event (what?), or maybe I need to bump up their tech level a bit (in which case I need to make sure other details still work).

This is a risk of writing in installments. Some address the risk by writing everything first before publishing anything, or by building the world more fully before starting to write. Perhaps because I am still a beginner with fiction, I prefer instead to take the risk and gain the benefit of feedback as I go. What’s the worst that could happen?

Ok, what’s the second-worst that could happen?

Keep on Chugging

I’ve reached the end of the first major arc in The Sisters’ War, so this is a good time to stop and reflect. The second arc adds a whole new burst of worldbuilding, and I’m looking forward to sharing my plans with my readers. It’s then the job of the third arc to tie things together and resolve the key conflicts; by that point there shouldn’t be much new worldbuilding and it should be nearly all story until the end.

Somehow, though, I think we’re never completely done building. And that’s ok!