Writers Block #4: World Building Part 1

Hey, I’m back! After what can only be accurately described as months, I have returned, and hopefully now that I have more free time, I will be putting stuff up at least once a day. So where were we? Yes, comics, and more specifically writing them. We’ve gone over a few of the beginning steps from coming up with an idea, doing some research to add depth, and coming up with characters. Now it’s time to get into what might be the meatiest, if not grueling part next to the actual plot of your story, and that would be world building.

                It can be hard to know where to begin and where to end with world building. You can go way overboard and fill your comic with a whole bunch of unnecessary details that bog down your story and confuse your reader. On the other hand if you don’t include enough, you can end up with a comic that’s frustratingly light on detail and leaves little impression after you put it down. In short, there’s a fine line between too much or too little detail and it can be hard to know which side you’re on sometimes.

                With that being said I tend to stick to the philosophy of one Kurt Vonnegut, which is simply, keep it simple. People often confuse simplicity with something being dumbed down or stripped of any real meaning, which is false. Simple just means stripping away all the unnecessary parts and leaving only what’s essential. Tolkien is an amazing writer and his writing on world building is something everyone should read. He also spent more time coming up with the world and inhabitants of Middle Earth than he did actually writing the story, and missed countless deadlines in the process. Tolkien being Tolkien, this was a luxury he could afford. If you’re reading this I’m guessing you (and I) don’t have the same luxury.

                So in the interest of simplicity, I’ve devised a method of world building which I find strikes the right balance of detail and necessary story elements. As always, this works for me, but it might not work for you. There’s only one way to find out, and at the very least, you might find something to build your own method on. For me, I’ve broken down world building into two separate parts, which are the tangible and intangible worlds. The tangible meaning everything physical that makes up your world, from geography, to buildings, technology, and people. The intangible is all the things you can’t see that have just as big a role like society, politics, history, and the rules of science/magic. So for part one, we’ll just focus on the tangible world.

                Even breaking it down like this, there’s still a lot to cover when it comes to building up a tangible world. There are so many different places you can start, but what I always try to keep in mind is, does this have anything to do with the story? Will the reader need to know or care about this or am I just doing it because it looks cool. There’s no rule against having cool stuff, but it’s important to be aware of when you’re just doing something because you like the idea of it versus something that’s actually important to the comic overall. If something just doesn’t fit, you don’t have to get rid of it entirely, just store it away until you have a place to put it.

                The way I tend to go about it is going off of the story and characters I have so far, what are the things I need to bring it all to life. For one, where is the central setting of the story? I’d wager that a majority of Superman stories take place in Metropolis. If your story is going to have a central setting like that, then focus on building the details of that place. Are there any buildings in your story? Probably not if it’s set in a desert or a snowy wasteland, but if it’s a city or a suburb or a forest village than I’d imagine there are. Do a search online (or go down to your local library and crack open a book) for images of different cities, towns, etc. If your story is set in a real place, research that place to get an idea of the architecture and general aesthetic. If it’s a made up place you can still look to real world photos for inspiration,  as well as things like storyboards and concept art for movies, and my favorite, models from the 40’s and 50’s for what future cities would look like.

                Once you have a general idea of what your central location is going to look like, the next step is to make your location easy to identify as well as see if you can find a way to relate it to you story/characters. Metropolis is home to Superman, the man of tomorrow and a symbol of hope. Often times when you see Metropolis, it’s bright and shiny, and very modern looking. Gotham on the other hand is very dark, with gothic architecture, and often depicted as corrupt. The world of 1984 is sterile and controlled, Fawcett City is bright and cheery. Whatever tone or feeling that’s at the heart of your story, you want to try and find a way to reflect that in your physical world.

                Another thing that helps give your world some shape and form is creating landmarks. If I see the Golden Gate Bridge I’m going to assume we’re in the Bay Area somewhere. Statue of Liberty means New York City, and the Eiffel Tower tells me we’re in Paris. If your story doesn’t take place in the real world, than it won’t hurt to come up with some landmarks for your world to help you and the reader create some kind short hand. When you see the Daily Planet globe, you know that the story is taking place in Metropolis. Things like statues, buildings, fountains, anything with a distinct shape, will help make your locale immediately recognizable to the reader. So when your story changes locations, all you have to do is show that landmark and everyone will know where the story is taking place.

                A few other things that will help you cultivate your physical world. Transportation is a key part of everyday life. Characters have to get around somehow, so how does it happen your world? A horse and carriage not only clues readers into a possible time period for your story, but how advanced your world is. Same thing with flying cars or teleportation. Cars are almost their own characters in the world of Mad Max, while The Starship Enterprise and The Tardis are at times the entire world characters inhabit. Even if you have a character who can fly, how everyday people get around still helps give some more depth to your world.

                Technology is also key in shaping your world. In 1984, the view screens are everywhere, ever vigilant. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, technology grows more and more dangerous to its human counterpart. Even in worlds without smartphones and lasers, technology still plays a part. In westerns, trains and six shooters are the newest technology and play a large role in a lot of stories. Technology is making it possible for you to read this right now. So from weapons to communication to entertainment, think about what role technology will play in your story and in your world.

                The final and maybe most important part of your tangible world is the physical people that inhabit it. Again a story like I Am Legend is about the lack of people, while stories like Star Wars feature an abundant amount of races and characters. Once you’ve decided how many people your story will have, it’s time to populate your world accordingly. Again keep in mind some things about your story. If the point is a certain group of people are in power or more prominent, than its fine if that’s mostly all we see. Otherwise be sure to try and come up with a large assortment of persons and creatures to fill your world. From races, to ethnicities, to gender or lack thereof. Star Trek does an amazing job of throwing all kinds of aliens at you so that you’re never just seeing the same ones over and over again. That goes the same for fashion. If it’s a period story than of course try and match the fashion of the times, otherwise try and vary it as much as possible. It makes your world more fun and interesting to look at when you aren’t seeing the same people and clothes over and over again.

                                Now you might be thinking, well what if my story is taking place in a couple of different places at once? Or maybe it’s an adventure story that sees your characters going on a quest though different worlds. Well, then you’ll just have to go through the process several times. Again just keep in mind how important each place is to the story. If your characters are only going to stop there for a moment, you probably don’t have to put as much work into it as a place you’re going to spend a lot time in. That about wraps it up for the tangible part of things, next time I’ll go through the intangible world and some of the more abstract concepts that go with it. Thanks for reading, and go make some comics!