The random approach means creating individual items and worrying about how they relate to each other later. We can create a species here, a god there, a city elsewhere, doing each on the spur of the moment. There’s no quota of species, cities, or gods to create, no obligations. We create whatever seems like a good idea at the time. Only later do we decide that cities are part of a nation, or a god is part of an interconnected pantheon. Or that two species live near each other and are enemies or friends, and why. We might decide a species originates from a given forest, but on later reflection, we realize they’d spread throughout the area and add them to those other regions, both in forests and settlements near. Our concept of them evolves continuously whenever we think of something.
This has the advantage of allowing us to create in an improvised style that will lend itself to rapid creation and exploration without worrying about restrictions we’ve imposed on ourselves. We can see if we have what it takes for more serious world building. We’re focused on a single idea and making it work for its own sake. If there are elements that don’t make sense yet, we can fix them later and just try to avoid boxing ourselves into a corner.
The disadvantage is a lack of global cohesion. Maybe we have too many gods, not enough, or they don’t make sense as a group. If we haven’t worked out how species get along and then use them in scenes together, do they interact in understandable ways?
Which to Do?
If none of these approaches sounds ideal, that’s because mixing them is arguably best. To do this, we need a framework, or the “top down” view on the world, establishing some basics about the physical environment, more so than individual gods, species, or other life forms. Then we can fill it in. What follows is a rough order if we’re starting with a new setting; authors who already have a setting can see where they might need to backtrack to fill in some of this before forging ahead. These suggestions are just that, so if you disagree, at least it will get you thinking about how you would do this.
Start with a Continent
It might be called “world building,” but many stories take place on a single continent, which is what we start with. Decide which hemisphere it’s in so we know whether cold is north or south. This also helps determine whether another continent is north or south of the one we’ve created; if the world is Earth-like in size, there’s probably only one in each hemisphere at that latitude. As discussed in Creating Places, this allows us to determine the prevailing winds. This matters because the combination of continent and mountain range placement will determine where vegetation is (and is not). With this done, we can decide where we’d like mountains, which will tell us many of our other land features, including deserts, grasslands, and forests. At a minimum, sketch this on a piece of paper, possibly with arrows pointing off the page to indicate other land masses.
This exercise gives us is an overview of a continent with at least a high-level view of where everything lies. If we’re not planning to use major areas of it, that’s fine. At least we know where they are and have a rough idea of climate there. If we’d like, we can name various regions and land features. For those who want to top-down start, we have a structure we can fill in as we need.
Whether we have a map or not, we can start indicating where cities and towns lie. They’re typically along major rivers or fresh water sources like a lake, and often where those empty into the sea. For choosing kingdom borders, we can use natural land features like mountains and rivers, even forests, which can become contested areas for resources. Before we go much further, we’re going to need names, because it’s time to start creating files about our world. This means settlement ones, at the least, and possibly sovereign power files and another about land features on this continent.
Now that we have our framework, we can create other elements in whatever order we desire. We can fill out basic information for each location in the appropriate file. It’s also recommended to create a spreadsheet that works as an overview of all locations; this allows us to determine the age of everywhere, colors, symbols, major products, and population levels. We sense where people congregate, where the oldest and newest places are, and in what direction life spread. This spreadsheet is our cheat sheet to our world.
With this done, we’ll be able to work on any other element at our leisure and tie it into our setting according to the “Where to Start” suggestions that conclude nearly every chapter of The Art of World Building books. In no particular order, this can mean fleshing out land features, settlements, powers, species and races, plants and animals, gods, magic systems, armed forces, organizations, and ultimately, the cultures. The latter benefits from determining the cultural scope from the top down: power, region, settlement, and social group. Regardless of your decision, be sure to crisscross back and forth between files and periodically update earlier decisions.