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  • Matt Brown

Something From Nothing

In the stillness of the void, something stirs. Its motion unnoticed in the murky depths of the pervasive nothingness that surrounds it. Its waves, however, are felt.

The subtle shifts are like gravity, pulling everything around it. The force of it is inescapable until finally, as the particles in the void collide, a violent explosion takes place. The void, now illuminated, begins to change.

A voice reverberates across the vast expanse uttering, “Let it begin!”

Soon after a universe is born and a story begins to take shape.

As writers, we are the ‘gods’ of our respective universes. We create something from seemingly nothing. An idea takes shape from the darkest reaches of our subconscious. It stirs within us until finally exploding in a brilliant burst of light. Soon after visions assault our imaginations as people, landscapes and cultures begin taking shape.

We begin to explore the idea, to understand these people that have sprung into being from the micro-universe forming in our minds. Over time we begin to empathize with them as their journey unfolds before us. Sometimes we even shed a tear in their darkest moments.

But what is world-building? What does it mean to be a world-builder? What steps do we take? What details are the most important?

Questions like these are immensely important. The answers for them may not all come at one time. Some stories may take more than a year to craft as the answers come to you.

But being able to answer questions like these is what helps take the world you create, regardless of genre, from the realm of fiction into that tip reality. It put your readers in a position to be reached in powerful ways so the characters (or world) aren’t just something in a book.

When I first started writing, I was simply scribbling ideas for my D&D game and such. I would see something on TV or read something in a book and questions would pop into my mind. Things like that influence everyone, in one way or another. However, it's what we choose to do with that influence that makes our story, or worlds, come to life. So the big question is: Where do you begin?

For me, creating a fantasy world, or even writing in one, has had a great number of challenges. There is a staggering amount of detail to consider. Character design, world-building, research, planning, and the story itself are just a few of the steps. I’ve been through man revisions, but each was worth it.

Most ideas aren’t fully flushed coming out of the gate. They take time to build and grow into something tangible. Because if you can’t believe or make it believable, neither will your readers.

Some things, especially in fantasy, for example, have to have a plausible explanation even if it’s only something known privately to you. The why will still exist and give you an anchor to stand on whenever the question is finally asked of you.

I think the best approach is going with what you know. Elanthar had another name when I first started writing seriously. It was a name I had used throughout my D&D games in high school. Like any kid, I borrowed ideas from the influences around me, games, movies, etc.

I drew maps, created creatures, key villains, and antagonistic groups. As time went on, the world expanded and cultures developed. Everything was rudimentary in the beginning, it was never intended to be more than just a few simple notes. It was a friend who expressed an interest and encouraged me to do more. It changed my perspective and, suddenly, rudimentary was not enough.

I spent a lot of time working on a specific region before expanding. It’s Ironic, considering I remember reading about how C.S. Lewis would often tell Tolkien: Enough with the damn elves!

Things evolve, however, even now. Ideas I had years ago are shifting. I think that’s part of growing as a writer. It’s knowing what areas to improve on for the sake of your readers.

The devil is in the details and I researched them until I found them. When creating a culture you have to be able to give an account to the reader, be confident in who your characters are, and who are their people.

In order to sell the reader on the realism of a race, you have to make them more. Customs, traditions, infrastructure, history, these things have to be considered. Your race must be more than words on a page.

The people you create need to have a scope on the scale of the Roman Empire, with the culture and history behind it. They need that spark of life. As I learned about different cultures, I began seeing snippets that jumped out at me and made me say, “That’s them!”

With each new lesson, other questions surfaced. How do they live? Why do they live that way? What factors influenced their development? What level of technology do they possess? How powerful is their magic?

You see, every world needs rules. It needs a fundamental way in which it functions. Once these rules are established, you CANNOT break them. The temptation to do so is easy. After all, we are the gods of our worlds. However, saying “it is” simply because we want it to be will turn off the reader. If there is a loophole, it needs to exist for an acceptable reason. Readers aren’t dumb. They will know what you’re doing, trust me.

Part of my approach is taking things we know scientifically and seeing how it can be applied to magic or some other effect. I tend to hold the belief that, given the proper information, ‘primitive cultures’ can know surprising things. Mages and alchemists, for example, are much like scientists in their own way. Builders and architects are similar to structural engineers and so forth.

While I’m speaking mostly for fantasy, honestly whatever happens in your universe, you’re making the rules. So if Airships became the modern mode of transportation, for whatever reason, I think it would be interesting to show why.

Did the Wright brothers give up? Did Kitty Hawk end in disaster and discourage them from pursuing flight? Perhaps some tycoon in their era was heavily vested in airships and squashed the possibility of a budding aviation industry to save his own interests.

It’s really all up to you. Like I mentioned earlier, some details may only be for you as a means of providing stable ground to stand on. They might not be worth mentioning in the story, but have value to simply give a proper explanation if asked. Chances are there’s an inquisitive reader who will want to know.

I can give some examples from a fantasy approach. So even if the people in a fantasy world don’t have computers, cell phones, and the internet, it doesn’t make them dumb. Some of our most basic scientific principles were founded by people who have been dead for centuries.

Who’s to say such discoveries haven’t also been made. Take a farmer or educated person who dedicates themselves to study plants for example. They could document their findings, and pass them on to future generations. In some ways, they could be seen as a botanist.

Or an apothecary who has been studying herbs and learning their medicinal properties. His knowledge enables him to understand how to apply them to heal others. People might come to him for remedies in the same way we seek out a pharmacist. Regardless, these just some of the things I consider when doing research as part of developing the world.

I’ll even go a step further.

House Mileka is chiefly responsible for providing food for the Kingdom of Daeshal. Growing food in the Shadow Wood is difficult and dangerous. One reason is that the thick canopy prevents a lot of sunlight from reaching the ground far below it. The primordial redwoods that encompass the kingdom are massive, and the upper boughs very dense.

The age of the trees also makes agriculture difficult. The redwoods have an intricate root system, with some of the roots being as thick as a person is tall. To compensate for this, House Mileka uses the natural caves in their province like giant greenhouses.

These caves are deep underground. However, they have learned how to simulate sunlight through a mixture of magic and alchemy. The caves have been shaped and expanded over time to meet the needs of their people. As farmers and scholars go, they are considered extremely knowledgeable in the areas of agriculture and botany.

So what do we know about them? We can assume they understand, at least fundamentally, photosynthesis. They use both magic and chemistry to simulate sunlight to help their crops grow. To provide for their people they have created a controlled environment to grow without having to attempt to cut down the great redwoods and harm the ecosystem.

They use multiple cave systems and chambers, some of which were expanded. Doing so enables them to grow specific types of food. While I didn’t say this, I did put it in my personal notes, they rotate their crops. I could go on, but you get what I mean. The devil is in the details.

It doesn’t matter if you are establishing metaphysical rules, creating an atmosphere for the paranormal, or something dealing with futuristic tech. Laying it out so you can bring the reader into your reality is crucial.

Maybe I’m odd, well I probably am, but when I think about writing stories, I think about readers. I don’t want to disappoint them. Sure I make mistakes, but that’s why I’m so into the details. Because once the book is in print, that’s it. Theory and concept is now cannon and immutable. My feet are put to the fire and if I change anything, I will be held accountable.

I hope this was helpful. It’s just my thoughts and feelings on the matter. If you enjoyed the post please feel free #subcribe. If you have any questions or thoughts I’d love to hear them in the comments. I’ll respond as quickly as I can. I hope you all have an amazing day!


Matt Brown