QOTW: World-building

2 Jul

This week, the question comes from Christina, who asks:

How do you go about creating a whole new world for your books? And how do you come up with the names of the places of your world?


I definitely don’t have a definitive method for world-building. The more I daydream about a world, the more details spring up and eventually form a vivid picture. Once I have a solid idea about the world, then I’ll start thinking about histories and geography and all that good stuff, and sometimes that requires a lot of research. Usually, though, the real depth of my world-building occurs as I write the novel.

As for names…Sometimes I’ll just throw a bunch of letters together, or I’ll name them after people and places (lots of inside jokes), or I’ll take them from mythology, etc.. I try not to sweat over the names too much–it’s just got to sound right–and believable. You shouldn’t let the names get in the way of your writing. Just pick a name and move on–you can always change it later.

-The Writer With Her First Book Deal


World building is incredibly difficult for me… I’m very direction-oriented so the direction everything faces is very important. Therefore I’m not really good with worlds not based on our geography, lol.

As for names, my family used to tease me about the weird names I’d come up with for pets, and I’m sure that this weirdness transferred to my characters. Therefore I’m SUPER careful about coming up with names. It’s a careful balance between unique and weird. Online name dictionaries are very useful, but so is just keeping an eye out for unusual names that aren’t too ‘out there’ and then stealing them 😉

The Writer Waiting on Submissions


I look at a lot of artwork to get a feel for a world I’m building. I find landscapes and images of people and modes of transportation that help me flesh out my ideas. But the way I come up with the names is very specific. With my most recent novel, I had decided that my fantastical world was linked to our real world through the UK country of Wales. So in researching place names and character names, I read up on the most common names for Welsh girls and boys, and I looked for significant locations in Wales. If I was looking to name a city, I might look at the names of Welsh mountain ranges or rivers. Another major territory of my world was heavily influenced by the tiny county of Andorra, which attracted me because it reflects both Spanish and French culture. I merged these “real” cultures and created names with the ideas that grew out of that exercise.

I love world-building, but like the American colonies, I think it’s most likely that a world would reflect the cultures that came before it and inspired its cultural ways.

-The Other Writer Out on Submissions


I absolutely adore world building. For my fantasy world I started out with one kingdom and thought about what climate and geography I wanted it to have. I expanded from there, thinking about the coast lines, the neighboring countries, where to put mountains and how that would affect the climate and rainfall. I’ve done some background research on basic geography and I did a lot of looking at globes and maps of the real world to see how everything works. I’ve drawn maps (and put south on top), made up a bestiary and decided what creatures live where, decided where the resources are, and thought about how that would affect trade patterns. Then I made continents shaped like animals. Because I could. So, now that I have a whole world set up I plan to use it a lot, setting different stories in different times and places.

I love naming things and at the same time it can really stress me out. I’m trying to loosen up more and have more fun, but I still spend ages trying to make sure a character has the right name. I also like to look up names by the meaning and then find ones that fit, behindthename.com is my favorite site for that. If I see a cool last name I’ll usually try to write it down. With Priscilla I played around with the place names a lot. Some of the town names are Whut, Zatso, Izzit and Yinz; if you don’t get it try saying them out loud.

-The Writer Revising Between Queries


I’m not the kind of writer who drafts up tons of backstory before getting to the real book. I just dive right in. So often, I don’t have a very clear idea of my world until about halfway through my first draft. In fact, one of my favorite parts about revising is going back and adding in all the little cultural details and suchlike.

When I do world craft, I tend to ask myself questions like: What is the economy based upon? Where is the food coming from? Who is in charge? What gives them that power? What do they place great importance on? What are their prejudices? Their superstitions? What amount of body contact is considered appropriate? What is taboo?

Of course, not all these questions apply to all worlds. The world of HYBRID, for instance, is almost exactly like our own except for the whole two souls in one body thing. On the other hand, THE POTTING SOIL CHILD is more traditional fantasy, so I needed to do a lot more world-building there–especially since culture and different societies are important aspects of the plot.

As far as naming goes, I never worry much about it. I tend to just stick in a placeholder name until I’ve stumbled across one that fits or have time to actively look for one. I don’t tend to pull names directly from mythology or anything (for fantasy–for contemporary fics, I just use normal names, of course…). I look at them for inspiration, then twist them a little so they’re my own. I’ve noticed though, that I have a thing for naming guys with names that end in the letter N. It’s…rather troublesome, haha.

The Writer Querying


The worlds that I write often come to me while I daydream, or when I lay in bed at night trying to fall asleep; that is when I often get my ideas. It may sound silly, but looking at maps of various fantasy novels (like Lord of the Rings) always comes to mind when I imagine the worlds my characters live in. I draw, in my mind, where the mountains are; where the rivers and lakes and oceans lie; and what countries or kingdoms exist. They don’t come all at once; I piece them together as I let it simmer in my head. Looking at artwork also helps me greatly; I find art to be so incredibly inspiring. With world-building, I often think of the various cultures that populate the worlds I create; how where they live affects certain things, such as physical characteristics and their clothing and their mannerisms. It’s one of my favourite things to do; I could spend hours just imagining and fleshing out the world my characters are immersed in.

Names are a bit harder, but I try to vary them if there are different cultures involved. I tend to just write down the names of places I find interesting or exotic, be it from our own world map, or from a novel, or a video game, or whatnot; and from there, I experiment with mashing words up. When something sticks out at me, I know it’s the right one. If not, I just keep mashing up syllables and names until I get something I like. I keep a notebook and write them down by hand. I find that when it comes to figuring out names of places (much like with names of characters), I write them out onto paper. I have pages and pages of names I’ve come up with, sometimes just from the top of my head as well. It’s all a matter of breaking up the syllables and putting them together in a way that sounds and feels right.

The Writer Working in Publishing


Do you have any world-building tips?


8 Responses to “QOTW: World-building”

  1. Olga July 2, 2010 at 8:40 AM #

    My trick is to make it something you’re not completely comfortable with – that way you approach it with the eyes of a tourist. Think about what you’d be offended with/confused by/curious about.

    For example, if you’re visiting another country and a wonderfully attractive man gropes your breast in greeting, you would probably hit him, scream, or pass out, depending on your temper. Me? I want to know WHY he would do that. Perhaps in his world that’s the epitome of politeness, like the American handshake or the French air-kisses.

    No one thinks anything of it, but YOU have to. Because you’re the one visiting. They already live there. They understand their culture. Think of it like writing tour guide. You have to know the area yourself, first, by asking a ton of not-quite-normal questions and getting some often confusing answers.

    In my current story, my MC is walking around topless. I didn’t even know until she used the balcony railing for support because they were heavy, and she’d been sweating, so the cold stone felt REALLY good on them. My first reaction was to tell her to put a shirt on. Can’t do that – it’s her world. If she gets frostbite of the nipples, it’s not my fault.

    Names are sometimes easy. PHONE BOOKS. Those things are my secret weapons. And friends of friends of friends of friends lists on facebook. But don’t tell on that one. 😉

    • Kat Zhang July 2, 2010 at 4:41 PM #

      That’s a really interesting way of doing it! I like the idea of thinking like a tourist. 🙂

    • Vanessa July 3, 2010 at 11:26 AM #

      I love the idea of using facebook and phonebooks!!!

  2. Joan July 2, 2010 at 5:05 PM #

    Basically, I daydream about it a lot, acting as if I’m seeing a video about the world — explaining the basics.
    I liked this post because it made me see how differently we all build our worlds. For example, I never thought of expanding out on what people eat and where they get it from. The food has always sort of… just been there. Or doesn’t play a major role in my writing.
    The most important thing to me when world-building is the people’s behaviour, the way they live (magic, no magic), who is in charge, the neighboring countries and their history.
    Ooh, history is one of my favourite things to work on! I love creating twists and battles and tragedy for a country.
    I suppose I do add a bit of prejudice in my world-building, like what one country thinks of another and if they treat them with suspicion or loathing. And why that is… for example, did their kind bring about a terrible war? Or is it because common folk can’t handle magic? Is it jealous?
    Hm.. I really like this post. It’s making me think things through at a deeper lever. If that makes sense.
    Thank you!
    And it’s really interesting to see how others go about this diverse arena.

    p.s. when thinking up names for my places, I basically just mix words. I hold my pen over a piece of paper and choose random letters, hoping a somewhat unique and believable name pops up. It usually does the trick.
    Also, I try to see patterns in names… I mean, in fairy tales, you see kindgoms end in -elle. Um, I think x)

    • Kat Zhang July 2, 2010 at 11:27 PM #

      Glad you liked the post 😀 History is something I focus on a lot, too. I never noticed the whole “kingdom names ending in -elle” trend in fairytales…hmm…what are some examples?

    • Vanessa July 3, 2010 at 11:29 AM #

      YES! I love thinking up the history of a world I’m building! History is what forms the present. Sometimes I go so in-depth with the history, and then half of it never gets mentioned in my story! It just helps me world-build in so many ways.

  3. Samantha K. Walker July 3, 2010 at 12:59 AM #

    Jenn: It’s funny that you’ve put South on top! The world in my current books is similar. The hot deserts are north, and the icy cold regions are south. 🙂

  4. Victoria Dixon July 5, 2010 at 10:21 AM #

    This is so fascinating to me. In my first novel, I world-built for the sake of doing it. I loved it. My book sucked – mostly because I didn’t know how to write yet. This one, I did no world building prior to writing, but I did TONS (years) of research on China. When I needed something for the story, the idea to fill the hole was in my head, fully realized. Of course, now I have to go back and make a novel bible. LOL

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