I recently finished the first issue of a comic I’m working on. It is a fantasycomic
set in a world that I had been working for close to three years. As I sit down
awaiting the release of the comic I wanted to share a few things that I have learned and experienced during the time writing and worldbuilding. I hope it will people attempting similar endeavors.
1. EVERY STORY NEEDS WORLDBUILDING.
A story has three elements: plot, character and setting. A setting can be as simple as the officepace of a paper-company and as complex as a universe at war. It doesn’t matter whether your story is fiction or non-fiction, fantasy and scifi or drama and comedy. Any good story has a setting that is interesting and contributes to both the plot and the characters.
A great example is my favorite television show of the past few years, Breaking Bad.
A show set in the New Mexican city Albuquerque. It is not a public secret that the city was chosen for its support of television productions. In short picking Albuquerque was financially a sane choice and was not the setting that Vince Gilligan imagined the show to be set in.
However from the first opening scene of the pilot we pan down to a pair of pants drifting in the wind amidst the desert. From that moment on, the show embraced its setting. Landmarks all across the city were used for iconic scenes and its proximity to the mexican border became a major plotpoint before the second season was over.
The setting was as much a character in Breaking Bad as the colorful Saul Goodman and it gave the entire show this Western feeling with treinheists and shoot-outs.
While the worldbuilding on shows and stories like these aren’t as featured as promintently as the ones in fantasy, it is always present. A great scene is when Hank meets with one of his colleagues from El Paso and he notices the statuette of the Patron Saint of Drugdealers on one desk. It is a small detail that adds quite a bit to the world and to the characters inhabiting it.
2. A WORLD SHOULD MAKE YOU HUNGRY FOR MORE.
JK Rowling from time to time drops a small detail on the Wizarding World on her site Pottermore. There is no narrative tied to it, yet the Harry Potter fans consume this content like her books. Some would say it like has to do with the lack of any other Harry Potter content and it is absolutely a contributing factor. Even in the heyday of Harry Potter’s success, fans would consistently ask Rowling more about Hogwarts, and the Ministry and other Wizarding Schools. The reason for this great desire to know more is that Rowling never reveals it all.
In fact how could she? She’s telling a story not writing an encyclopedia. So you have these tantalizing elements that speak to the imagination. History literally drifts through Hogwart’s halls in the form of ghosts. Just like our own history people have a facination for the history of fictional worlds.
One of the best-selling fantasybooks of all time isn’t a story with a well-defined narrative. It is the Simarillion, a tale where the only consistent character is Middle Earth. I like to believe that the same curiousity that draws people to museums on Roman art is at work here.
3. GOOD WORLDBUILDING DOES NOT EQUAL A GOOD STORY.
George Lucas created the world of Star Wars in immense detail. More than three or six movies could ever explore. Different people than Lucas still contribute to it. In the form of novels, games, and new movies. The success of Star Wars isn’t just its characters. Rogue One promises a new story with new characters. Here it is the strength of the world at work.
So what went wrong during the 90’s? I have to admit not being a Star Wars at the time and not being one at the time of writing either. I am aware of Star Wars and enjoy most of the content the world provides. However I couldn’t talk along with the true fans who can name every character and tell me their biography.
However it does prove a point tha having an interesting setting won’t be enough. In the end a story is the combination of many elements of which worldbuilding is just one contribution.
I learned during the writing of Death’s End that the world shouldn’t be the star of the comic. I had to resist the urge to have a character go “Oh these guys are the Order of Ash and their purpose is to…” . I want to show off my world, but people don’t care about the world yet.
I once caught myself trying to come up with the names of all the Kings that had ruled over one of the kingdoms I had created. I had their names, the reasoning behind their names, the reason they are remembered and what happened to them.
I would now say that may have been a little bit of a waste of time. Of course I enjoyed it and so nothing that is enjoyed is truly wasted effort, but I never really came down to pose the question why I was creating these Kings.
I may mention 2 or 3 of them in the story. Use of their histories as a parrallel. In the end though, there are far more Kings then would ever fit into a story that isn’t about Kings.
George RR Martin has drawn up elaborate familytrees in which you can follow the blood of Old Valyria all the way to the Mother of Dragons. He didn’t waste his time on that. In a story about thrones and titles, claims and succession… All those elements are relevant.
The Dance of the Dragons both foreshadows and contextualizes many of the events that happen in the plot.
So the worldbuilding you do, or at least the kind you put in your story, should be relevant to the story you are going to tell. It is fun to create and expand and build.
On reddit there is a subforum called /r/worldbuilding. It is an immensly popular subreddit where people simply talk about the worlds they have created. Stories and narratives are playing second fiddle in this place. It is about maps and legends and the saga of a Kingdom fallen into despair. It’s about drawings of shields and weapons.
That’s fine, it’s a good hobby and it certainly is mine. There’s just a danger that the world you create will overtake the story you will write. A lot of people that make themselves guilty to telling and not showing, are people who want give some kind of information and struggle to incorperate naturally into the story. In my opinion the best solution then is to not put into the story. Many great writers remind you to kill your darlings. It’s harsh advice, but definitely true.
4. GOD IS IN THE DETAILS
If you ever have a day to spare look up the apendices for the Lord of the Rings trilogy films. Like the books provide backstory in its apendices, so do the apendices reveal the background to the movies.
They go through the castingprocess with you. They show you the locationscouting. One of the most memorable elements of these is the part of these videos about the propdepartment.
The thing about Middle Earth was that everything had to be made from scratch. They didn’t have the luxury to go into second-hand-stores and bring back half a dozen pipes. It had to fit in the world.
Peter Jackson during one of his first days of production told the members of the team to forget that they are making a movie about fiction. These things really happened. This is actual history and they are going to develop it as if everything that is going on was real.
So they inscribed elvish into armor and paid great attention to which fabrics they used for which characters. The wizard Saruman described in the books as wearing a white coat (or a coat of many colors) has a coat withered by time in the movie. It has stains and is off in its coloring. Saruman the White is an ancient figure who has lived a long time and so his wardrobe shows that.
It goes further than props and wardrobe and even setdesign. During Bilbo’s opening narration Hobbits are seen playing boardgames. There is an entire culture of tradition hinted at in the scenes set in Rohan, but never does a character sit down and say “Well we do this because of that”.
These details are what makes the world feel real. Realer than the words Tolkien put on paper. If you begin to drop the ball on contuity, on details, on the ridiculous things that you believe no one will notice, then the world falls apart.
Every reader knows that what you are doing is fake. So try and put as much effort into making them forget. Remind yourself how a certain character from a different culture would act or react.
In The Wheel of Time Robert Jordan explores a culture of characters for whom water is very important. So they make Water oaths. It is a small detail that reminds you the world is bigger than what you can see.