World Building vs. World Narration

I recently had an interesting world-building discussion with a friend. At one point, as I began to describe what elements of the world would show up in narration, he told me: “Don’t confuse narration with world-building.”

I realize that story telling and world-building are technically two different things, but as we exchanged ideas I discovered we approached the two differently. For me, there’s an organic interrelation between the two.

Every world is a character. (Or, every world has character.)  In the extras DVD of Skyrim, one of the developers made the point that the main character in Skyrim wasn’t the individuals that made up the world, but the world of Skyrim itself. Skyrim has a definite “feel” to the game, as do other games like Bioshock, and Assassin’s Creed.

When you start building a world, even an alt-history Earth, you come up with the hook: what’s different, what’s unique. Then you start fleshing out what might have been different about that world’s history. What impact do the characteristics of the world have with the world’s timeline. But see, as soon as you start talking “well, then what would happen”, you’re now in the realm of narrating the world’s back story.

Let’s look at traditional character building. You can’t build a character without a plot. (No! You can’t!) I know there’s a distinction between plot-driven stories and character driven stories, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. When you start building a character, before you build your plot that you’re going to set down in your story, you usually start with what makes that character unique, special, and interesting.

But here’s the kicker: You can’t separate a person from the experiences they’ve had. Every person’s “personal story/plot” informs who they are. This backstory results in the character who enters the opening scenes of the story being told.  And, the character’s choices (both in backstory and current story) also affect and shape their experiences. It’s a two-way, organic process.

In world-building it is the same. The opening scenes in a book or game reveal a world that will have a particular feel about it (e.g., the art-deco style of Bioshock). This feel is the result of back story, the history of the world.

When world building, I’m always doing both static design and history… why is something a certain way? What shaped the world to be as it is? Why does this kingdom have a lot of wizards, and this other one dominated by the Church? Why are elves withdrawn from human society? Where are all the gnomes gone? When you start answering these ‘why’s, sometimes the answer is politics, and sometime the answer has to do with what makes the world unique.

Once you start answering the why of things, the character of your world starts to reveal itself.

Happy world building, and until next week!

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