Deborah Teramis Christian is a sf/f novelist published by Tor Books, professional game designer, and founder of the World Building Academy. She is on Facebook, Twitter (@Teramis), G+, and offers free world building tips here. At IndieGoGo, she is crowdfunding a story collection, many with roots in rpg settings, and is offering video tips on the connection between rpg and fiction writing during the campaign (Sept 18 through Oct 18, 2015, at this link).
Short Story-based World Building: Unpacking Fiction into a Complete World
There are many ways to approach world building. A lot of writers start with the story itself: we let creativity carry us along, and simply put whatever makes sense in the moment on the page.
This approach can work really well for short stories in particular, where the implications of tiny details often do not impact the main story itself. But if we move on to book-length works, or create game worlds based on fiction, suddenly our world building needs to change.
In those larger creative works, there are a lot more unknowns, and because we are playing on a larger field, now we have time to see the consequences and impact of details that may only have been mentioned in passing in a work of short fiction.
It is at this point that we need to pause, take a step back, and begin to unpack the nuances and implications of the world building we have put on the page of our narrative.
Note: Many writers also take a different approach: first creating the world, and developing cultures and context, and then filtering that so only what is needed appears in the story. If that is your approach, the principle of unpacking here can still be of use in analyzing and elaborating on your own work, but the techniques mentioned in this post will be most useful to writers who start small, and then want to amplify their details to fill a larger stage.
What Does it Mean to “Unpack Details”?
I will assume our beginning case here is the short story, which we may want to see expanded into a larger fictional world, or even a role-playing game setting.
Unpacking is part art, and part left-brain logic. To do this, review your story and look for all those things that may be the “tip of the iceberg”.
- What have you established that is merely the visible glimpse of something much more deeply seated in the culture or setting?
- What conflicts to you refer to as backdrop, that really have a world-changing life of their own?
- What customs are referenced that might represent something much more complex or even different in meaning, than the original short allusion infers?
These are just a few starter questions, but this is the vein you want to think along to do unpacking of fiction.
Here is an example of this in practice from a short story of my own. I used “Small Benefits” as the basis of my first role-playing game world. The setting it inspired (and the world building that grew out of it) also became integral to my novel The Truthsayer’s Apprentice.
What’s in a Name?
When I created my first rpg campaign setting, I wanted to revisit the world I had so briefly created in “Small Benefits.” That featured the stone-built city of Nimm-on-Witholl, capital of the Duchy of Nimm in a cold northern clime with a nordic culture. It was also home to an important school of magic, with an avaricious trickster gnome preying on students from that college.
That set-up was at the heart of my story (which you may read more about here).
When it came time to create an entire game world, this kernel was sadly lacking in detail. Yet like all good kernels, it held the seeds of a much larger creation, did I only have the eyes to see it.
I did this ‘unpacking’ thing on the story, and here are some things that leapt out at me.
School Name and Cultural Incongruity
The name of the magic school was the Collegium Magisterium. I choose a high-falutin’ name with Latinate roots because of what it invokes to an English-speaker’s imagination: a lofty hall of learning, professors in robes, stone hallways, a valued library, and, no doubt, a sophisticated form of magic taught and learned.
But stepping back, I also knew (from my original vision of the area) that this was a setting with a nordic culture. The kind of magic common here would be rune magic, totem animals and witchcraft, not rigidly prescribed fancy ritual magic, such as the Collegium taught. If I had wizards being produced by this school, and hedge-witches and were-bears being produced by the local culture, how could I account for this discontinuity of magic practices? Why would the Collegium ever have come to exist in this place?
Then I realized my solution lay in the name itself. “Latinate roots” in our world stems from the language of elites: the Roman Empire in our timeline. Translating this to the world I was developing, I figured the magic school took its name from the language of elites in that time and place. I created the Korribee Empire (named for the major waterway that runs through it), and decided that at one time, the Empire had considerable influence in Nimm. No longer, though, for the Korribi sphere of influence has shrunk as the empire has undergone changes. Still, vestiges of imperial culture and learning are scattered across the lands they once controlled.
Nimm, I decided, was at the very farthermost reaches of their geographical influence. When the Empire’s real control faded away, they left behind a school of magic teaching spellcraft in the Korribi (not local) style. It is a practice that is stylized and formal, powerful but complex. For most of the Nimmian natives, however, magic is homegrown and much simpler, and practiced in many small, commonplace ways. It is not, however, (usually) as powerful as what a Collegium graduate can do.
So: name mystery solved. And more importantly, I have uncovered the existence of a continent-spanning empire, now somewhat in decline, that nevertheless has left a cultural imprint quite far afield. The court of the ruler of Nimm will wear some of the Korribi formal wear (robes), a sign of their “worldliness” and sophistication. They have adopted many Korribi terms and concepts in the practice of administration and law, and some imperial concepts have shaped inheritance and governance. (See Video #1 at this link for a discussion of this example with Small Benefits and the Collegium Magisterium.)
Analyzing This Thread Further
Here I have to look at my world building solution critically. “Some imperial concepts have shaped inheritance and governance.” What does this imply?
To me, it suggests that this must be an uneasy fit, because the imperial style is not in harmony with the local, clans-based affiliations that existed before the advent of the Empire, and which continue to dominate after its passing.
Which brings us to this obvious question: What does this suggest about the state of political affairs in Nimm?
Well, that is another excellent unpacking question, and one I will leave to your own imagination to answer. The important thing to note, though, is that this is exactly the train of thought and kinds of questions that fall out of the unpacking process.
* * *
For each thread of implications I tease out of the short story, many more consequences and interactions suggest themselves. I’d say I end up with a big ball of yarn, but at first it can look like a big can of worms, instead. Some things will seem pressing to explore and develop; others inconsequential (until you need them for your setting, anyway). But however you prioritize sorting the threads you are teasing out, this process can take you relatively smoothly from short story with hints of larger world, to full-fledged larger world.
If you like to start small and don’t want to build a whole world before you start writing, try the unpacking approach. You might be happily surprised what kind of world you reveal as you go.