Worldbuilding lies at the core of good fiction writing, particularly for those of us writing in genres like Science Fiction and Fantasy. We’re fortunate to live at an age where the Internet makes research much easier and faster. There are plenty of resources. Of course, verifying their reliability with more than on source (i.e. offline ones as well) is a really good idea. The Internet is great for quick tidbits and such, but what about when you’re inventing an entire world from scratch? What resources are available to help you, to stimulate ideas, to guide you?
I ran into this when creating the Borali System for my Davi Rhii novels (The Worker Prince, The Returning) and it was kind of the Functional Nerds guys to invite me to share some of what I’ve learned. I’m going to specifically address it in two sections, the first dealing with names, the second dealing with the larger world and culture.
Don’t just make up names without looking them up. The human mind is a tricky thing, and one of its tricks is plagiarizing names its heard but you can’t remember where. You can wind up with names from mixed mythology, and other sources which those in the know will immediately point out don’t fit well together. One place you can find ready resources for this is online. For example, character name generators abound: The Fantasy Name Generator, Dwarf Name Generator, Character Name Generator, Elven Name Generator are all good resources as well.
Here are some books:
There are others which are out of print but can be easily tracked down used online or at libraries.
For naming towns, cities, mountains and more, it’s a bit more challenging. You can use maps of classic places or cultures and borrow from them, modifying spelling, etc. I borrow geographic names a lot from my travels, and have named both planets and cities after places in Ghana and Brazil, for example. It’s a kick for my friends from those places when they later read my work, and most Americans won’t catch on, especially if you use smaller suburbs or neighborhood names like I did.
As far as online:
- http://www.rdinn.com/armoury.php has a Town Name Generator, a Tavern Name Generator and a Gem Name Generator.
- http://www.seventhsanctum.com has several name generators and a quick search of Google can find others.
If you can’t find maps online, check encyclopedias or visit your library. Don’t forget libraries as a source for any of this research. In fact, many have research librarians on staff whose job it is to help people find the research sources they need.
Second, Societal Structure.
Government, religion, races, customs, magic, trade, travel, you name it, falls into this category. I employed real religions in my story because:
- It was easier
- It provided a connection for contemporary readers they could immediately tie into
- And because my humans were imagined as ancestors who colonized the stars from Earth, and took some cultures and customs with them.
Some people just take the elements of Christianity or Islam, slap on new names or terminology, and pretend they made it up. To me, that’s pretty transparent, but there’s nothing wrong with pulling disparate elements from various sources and fitting them together to make something unique, as long as it makes sense. The same is true with cultures, customs, governments and more. I know authors who use real animals and cultures, such as Mike Resnick in his planet series (Paradise, Purgatory, Inferno), and Africa short stories. Others prefer to piece together something new and original from bits.
Again, Google is your friend. You’ll want to check accuracy as mentioned for anything readers will expect to be real, but if you’re pulling disparate parts, the Internet makes finding those pretty easy. There are some really good books in this area which I’ve found particularly essential:
- The Guide to Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy by Phil Athans is a tremendous resource which not only discusses major aspects one should consider, but posits the questions to ask, and gives examples of how to go about it. Written by an editor and author who spent years developing the Forgotten Realms D&D tie-in line, not to mention said games, it’s really invaluable.
- How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card. Whatever you think of his religion and politics, Card has written some classics of the genres, and this book tells you a lot about how he does it and how you can, too. Covers not just world creation, but genre boundaries, craft, writing, and the writing life.
- The Writer’s Complete Fantasy Reference by Writer’s Digest Books has articles from Terry Brooks, Sherrilyn Kenyon and more on all kinds of topics. For example, it has a dictionary of parts of a castle with diagrams. It examines magic systems in various forms, religions, including paganism, creatures of myth and legend, commerce, trade and law…and so much more.
- World-Building by Stephen L. Gillett is something I referred to a lot in creating the Borali system. Written by a Doctor of Geology, it gets into some complex scientific formulas but also covers why you should worldbuild, and examines geology both past and present to help you think through the past and present of your world. For example, when creating my Borali system, I wanted two suns, so I used this book to help me look at conflicting gravitational pulls, and how that would affect planetary rotations, seasons and occurrences of natural disasters and more.
- Aliens and Alien Societies by Dr. Stanley Schmidt (yes, THAT Stanley Schmidt of Analog) is part of the same series as Gillett’s book, and both are edited by Ben Bova. Schmidt is known for his science knowledge, has taught Physics, and has a Ph.D. in Physics. He covers things like What Is Plausible, Astronomical Basics, Biochemical Basics, Alien Societies, Interacting With Humans, Engineering Organisms, and even offers case studies.
- Writer’s Guide To Creating A Science Fiction Universe by George Ochoa & Jeffrey Osier is a how-to guide with a lot of cool information on everything from aliens to starships, nanotechnology to remodeling humans. Very helpful stuff.
I’m sure there are many more but these are the ones I keep handy on my shelf while writing. Even if research isn’t your favorite, the stimulation it provides for creativity and the extra life the details can bring to your work makes it well worth your time. Many writers even come to regard it as the funnest part of writing. Robert J. Sawyer, for one, said as much. The beauty of research is that you’re finding not just what you need now, but stuff you’ll wind up using down the line at unknown times. Already having it at your fingertips helps you build better and more believable worlds, stories, characters, histories, etc.
What are some tools you use for worldbuilding when you write? Do you create just what you need to get started, like I do, or do you put a bunch in place like Robin Wayne Bailey, among others, before ever writing a word or prose? We’d love to have you share your thoughts as well so we can all learn from each other.
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, and The Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories featured in anthologies and magazines. He edited the new anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. His children’s book 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids from Delabarre Publishing. As a freelance editor, he’s edited novels and nonfiction. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, a frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.