Monday, July 25, 2011

Plotter vs Pantser - World Building

My most excellent friend James Tallett asked me to participate in a little blog debate with him on world building. You all know I'm a pantser (writing by the seat of my pants) and dear James is a plotter (one of those people who writes everything out beforehand and spoils all the fun of first drafting). For me, pantsing while writing is about the thrill of discovery. The hard work comes in revision. But first, read about James' plotting process, then head over to his blog to read about my pantsing process. I think you'll find that being a successful writer has little to do with taking the "right" path to completing a novel, but the path that suits you best.

I am, unlike Megg, a plotter. I design the world and all of the rules that exist in it before I ever set pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) with regard to the plot of the main story. I usually start, although not always, with a new idea for magic. All of the fantasy settings I create are based around their magic, and the very shape of the world is created and driven by the magic that inhabits and lives within it. I'll design the new magical system in a couple days, focusing generally on the capabilities, and how common I think it is.

I do it this way because I feel that magic is the most important actor and differentiator in a fantasy setting. It is, in the main, what separates fantasy from alternate history. There are, after all, brilliant retellings of the military campaigns and intrigues of yesteryear, but none of them have magic. Thus I see magic as the root of fantasy, although I know there is much more that goes into creating the whole ethos of a fantastical world.

Once the magic is down and recorded, I set about building the world. Now, most of the time, magic determines this as well. For instance, if I built a setting around my Ferrous Timber magic system (Part 1, Part 2), there would be a fairly high degree of sophistication of metallurgy. Working backwards from that, it means larger cities and towns, and developed trade. Put together with the need for large quantities of fuel for metal smelting, and the setting, in general, would have a lot of wood and mountains, and probably a faint resemblance to central Europe.

So now that I know what kind of civilization would exist in the world, I pick up a pencil and start sketching various maps and continent shapes, until I have one that seems appropriate to the world. This map of the Splintered Lands was created by me doodling until I had a world that looked like it had been broken apart in a cataclysm. Then it becomes a matter of filling in the terrain and the major habitations. Foliage and mountains first, then rivers, then cities and towns. However, I do tend to leave large blank spots on the map, and only fill in the most important overall detail at this point. I am a plotter, and I don't start writing until I have a world firmly in mind, but I know the world that I create over the course of a week or so isn't the entire world of the story, nor will it ever be. Thus the need for blank spaces that can be altered according to the needs of the story.

Although I have my overall view of civilization by this point (it's dictated by magic, remember), what I don't have is the actual characteristics and locations. Generally, I put cities in the most central places, and then a ring of towns around them, and on the trading routes that link the cities. In the areas where there are no trading routes, or little in the way of towns, I dot some villages around, enough to show habitation, but not much more.

The characteristics of the population are driven by the terrain, and are adjusted by the needs of the plot. For instance, those in Bhreac Veryan borrowed a little from the Ottomans/Arabians (desert dwelling), a little from Fascist Italy (politics), a little Roman (partial military), and bits and pieces that I made up and bolted together. The Ottoman and the Roman thefts were because I thought it fight their in-setting location (Ottoman) and history as the overarching empire (Roman). The Fascist Italy is because they are portrayed as villainous in the first books and looking to recover the glory that was once theirs.

After that, I tend to shape the most visible pieces of a kingdom's equipment so that it suits the culture and temperament of the city to which it belongs. In my case, this is usually military equipment. Bhreac Veryan, for instance, harvests the plates off of large insects and sews them together to make lightweight plate armour, while Tri-Hauwcerton, another kingdom in the same setting, fashions theirs from overlapping layers of steel and stone, making it very strong but very heavy.

Now, you'll notice that I still haven't touched on religion. Personally, I tend to leave it out of world building, and leave characters to develop or mention a religion as they go along. Some do, some don't, but they all speak what they believe in.

So, there's a little look into the mind of a plotter when it comes to world building, and the process that he goes through. Now, sometimes, when I'm feeling just like writing, I ditch everything here and just write, but if it's a novel, it's getting the full treatment. I do not want to write myself into a corner because I didn't know the rules of the setting. Better safe than sorry, I think.


  1. Thanks for a great post!

    Unfortunately, I cannot click the links (Part 1, Part 2, This Map)

  2. Thanks so much for stopping by Steve. We fixed the links and it all works now. Enjoy exploring James' worlds. :)

  3. I've recently become a plotter. I find it far more efficient for writing a novel-length story. My plotting is still more freeform though. I find your method fascinating. I can see how helpful it would be to build up such a detailed image of the world beforehand. Thank you for sharing!

  4. I just finished reading both of your posts, and I really like what you're doing by sharing your writing processes with each other. They were both very interesting reads. I like how you start with character, and I like how James starts with the physical rules of a world. They both make sense, depending on what kind of a story you're writing.

  5. I went through the same process that Sonia did, more or less. I wrote the first half of Tarranau without plotting, but it was when I had to throw away ~25k words for completely and utterly failing to set up a villain that I went back and started plotting, in order to make sure that everything actually worked in the story.

    Now, I usually don't adhere exactly to the plots, because once I start writing, characters have ideas of their own. But I find them extremely important for setting up the direction and style of the story before writing.

  6. Hey Sonia & Lee - thanks for popping by both posts! I'm so glad you both enjoyed our little experiment. This was all James' idea and I was thrilled to participate!!!