Worldbuilding on the Cheap

As I mentionned earlier, I want to work on yet another synopsis/outline before starting on my next novel. But while both my novel and my other outlines take place in worlds close enough to the real one, that last outline is for a straight fantasy novel.

That means that before I can even get started on the outline, I need to do some worldbuilding. An idea won’t go far without context, after all.

That said, while I generally enjoy reading those complex prologues and essays on magic system… it’s probably overkill to write one just for an outline. Besides, I’m a big believer in the idea that reference materials should be easy to parse. So I kept to the essentials and produced enough content in an evening to allow me to get started on that outline.

Specifically, my document looks like this:

  1. Basic Tone: here, I described, in a couple of paragraphs, how I want the book to feel. Is it grim and gritty? Is there a central philosophical issue I want to tackle? Would the movie/series inspired by the book be dark and depressing, would it be a comedy, would it be an action fest? What would the sets look like? Ultimately, it’s my elevator pitch for the book as well as my mission statement.
  2. Cosmology: it’s a fantasy book/series. Obviously, I need some sort of weird pantheon of divinities and beings of power. For some series, this would be very important (David Eddings’s Belgariad springs to mind: the conflict between the Gods drives the plot forward.) In my case, however, it’s not the case. My deities are important in the vague metaplot I have in mind, but they’re not going to be the main drivers of the story, at least at first. Consequently, I can get away with a really generic description.
  3. Magic System: that, however, is really relevant to the story I want to write. I don’t need to go into the actual mechanics at this point (beyond the very general) but I do need to know what’s possible and what isn’t. Moreover, the magic system defines what my characters will be able to do: am I working with Aes Sedai throwing fireballs, or with Magisters who know lots about herbs?
  4. History/Backstory: I also need to know the basic political/social makeup of the world, and that means figuring out how things got that way. At this stage, I make a conscious decision not to use dates or timelines, but vague references instead. I don’t want to overcommit to an idea at this point, and besides I don’t need that level of detail yet.
  5. Geography: a.k.a. the World Map. I love world maps in fantasy novel. I like them gorgeous, detailed, and filled with hints and promises of things to come. But I have no artistic talent, and so I settle for a very basic drawing in Paint. Right now I only need to know where the countries are located.

And that’s it. Two pages of text and ten minutes of Paint-ing. Now I have more than enough to get started on an outline for a novel. I’ll probably work on a series outline too, but I suspect I’ll need to do more worldbuilding then. I’ll let you know when I get there.

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