Terraform writing – making the world for your characters

What in the world is going on?

I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of the biggest problem in the world. Namely, what IS the world? When writing a book from scratch, there are lots of questions that immediately spring to mind about its setting: What does the world look like? What is it like to live in the world? What happens when you walk down the street? Where can I buy some eggs? That sort of thing.

I decided early on (at least a week and a half ago!) that the whole story would be based on an island. I’m not thinking one man and his volleyball desert island story, more an island community living independently, away from the rest of the world. The idea behind this was to give the locals a hard boundary so that their history and development could be kept separate from our real history, while all the physical properties of the island would be familiar to other real places. Eg, the island will be based somewhere off the United Kingdom, so we can assume it’ll be formed in a similar manner to, say, the Isle of Man.

When I first started out on this project, I thought I should be drawing detailed maps of every inch of my new world, making comprehensive notes on every blade of grass, snail trail and pavement slab topped with canine excrement. It seemed to me as if there was no other alternative if I wanted a clear run of writing in my next phase of the project.

A minimalist world

But is this really the case? Does the whole world need to be described in such detail before we begin? I am now thinking differently – how important is this world to the plot? In my case, it’s still the Earth, it’s still set somewhere in the past 50 years, people will speak English. There’s really not a great deal to get wrong with it!

Ok, so there are some major things to think about around the locations where the action will take place. This is fine – I’ve already accounted for most of these in my notes (and a fair bit in my head!), but if the plot calls for a new location as I am writing, how much effort will it be to fit this new place in? In my world, not very much at all!

So the real question here is, what am I missing? Am I way off the mark with this? To me, the characters are the main entities in this story and they will fit into this world as I tell them to. The world will not adapt around them. I know there’s lots of writers creating wonderful worlds for their epic fantasies and I doff my hat to all of you – the work you put in to this is outstanding, I just think it’s outside the scope for the type of book I’m writing.


4 thoughts on “Terraform writing – making the world for your characters

  1. I’ve often thought about the same thing. I’ve sketched out a map once or twice for various writing projects, but it’s only truly been important to one (in which a land war was going on in the background of the story). I don’t think you need every detail of the land drawn out since it is fairly easy to introduce a new location as needed. All you need is a believable relationship between people and the world they live in.

    • I completely agree. I’ll probably sketch out a map before I get going but it’ll have about as much detail as a child’s treasure map – lobster cove, brown forest, noisy hill, dotted line, x marks the spot, done!
      It’s really about visualising where the events are taking place in order to enable the writing, rather than providing the reader will a follow-as-you read Tolkenesque adventure map.
      Thanks for your thoughts on this (btw, the places above are made up – I’m not really planning on writing a story full of wonder, pirates and cliche!)

  2. Personally, when I need a new place, I make it up on the fly. Once I decide it’s useful, I can then add it to my host of maps, et cetera. With something set more or less in the real world, you really do need that kind of background less; if it’s an alternate history, you need to know what’s alternate about it, how the changes have tweaked the world, but you don’t need to go redrawing the map of the U.K. unless you really want to.

    So in this case I think figuring out the ‘feel’ of the setting might be more important than the details. After all, you can cull details from reality — getting a coffee and a cruller at a local donut chain, or bemoaning the lack of such things on remote little islands — but it would be nice to know if it’s a sleepy island, a stormy one, festive, if it’s a marginal agricultural one or has some kind of industry (fishing, mining, bat guano collection, whatever). A watercolor wash of local history, topography and flavor.

    Of course, if it’s a truly isolated island culture, there are some details it might be wise to know, like soil type, traditional views toward conservation, etc, since it’s easy for a small isolated civilization (especially an island one) to collapse… But then, I do research on things like that for fun.

    • I would never have thought about defining things like the soil type of the island!! That’s really food for thought. I first read that in your comment and pretty much wrote it off – I don’t know enough about soil to justify what I’d choose. But then I started thinking about how it might affect the story – can I rely on the structure of the island to achieve what needs to happen? What about raw materials for the things they build – where does that all come from? Do I need mines and miners? Where does their food come from? If the island is truly shut off from the rest of the world, the community must be self sufficient which means there must be a lot of structured farming going on.
      Essentially, this is a peaceful group of people who decide to change their own fortunes – I was originally going to use a good dash of artistic license for the background to this, but now I think I need to define it more in my own head at least. So by simply mentioning soil type you’ve given me a load more work to do… in a good way, of course!
      Thanks for your insights – that’s been really, really helpful.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s