Consistent and compelling sounds great, but how do you start building a world? The obvious connection between mythology and the real world are the archetypes, legends, or myths we draw from. Vampires and werewolves, gods and demons--those are strong and well-known archetypes. But the point of connection . . . ah, that's easy, too. That’s your protagonist. She is where readers connect to your story. She's also where magic connects with mundane. So--as with everything else about story--when we talk about world-building, we're also talking about characters.
In this essay, however, we’re not looking at character, but at the other elements of world-building: myth meets “what if” at an intersection crowded with questions.
Joseph Campbell believed, like Jung, that certain archetypes are common to humans everywhere. These archetypes show up in the underlying myths, the foundational stories, of people all over the world. To put it another way, even what we call the real world is built upon story.
How do we build a foundational story?
Like my protagonist, Lily Yu, I like to start with questions. When I began my series, I knew I wanted to write about werewolves, but why? What did I have to say about them that others hadn't said? Why were they fascinating to me? I also knew I wanted my protagonist to be a touch sensitive--someone who could feel magic tactilely, but wasn't affected by it. Why?
I didn’t answer those questions then the same way I would now. I don’t expect you to have all the answers when you begin your voyage—but I firmly believe that asking lots of questions helps us open to the story.
The other part of my world's birth was a longtime fascination with the idea of magic returning to the world. That fascination--that point of compulsion, the big "what if"--is where you find your foundational question. For me, it was, “What would happen if the magic came back?”
Everything in my fictional world flowed from the conjunction of my "what if" with my version of werewolves and my choice of protagonist.
Your foundational "what if" may be broad or tightly focused:
- What if a healer has to to kill?
- What if magic had to be paid for blood?
- What if the world’s last demon hunter didn’t know what she was—but the demons did?
- What if the ancient gods came back, and they weren't on our side?
Our brains are funny. They have all these parts that scientists like to study and put names to, but the thing most of us know about them is the right brain/ left brain dichotomy. That is, right brain =creative thinking and left brain = logical thought.
Your big "what if" comes from your right brain. So does your enthusiasm, your passion, so you need to enlist it in this process. That's why I've talked about the big "what if" first. But you also need your left brain, the analytical, rational part. That's where we get the "consistent" in consistent mythology. Once you have your "what if," the point of fascination you need to explore, you can start building . . . with questions.
I’ve sorted the building questions into four categories: mechanics, spirit, history, and politics.
MECHANICS (and limits)
- How does magic work in your world? For example, in my series, werewolves are born, not made; Carrie Vaughn's werewolves are made, not born; and Kelley Armstrong's can be either one.
- What about spells? Are there spell-casters in your world? How do those spells work?
- Which legends belong in your world? Which don’t? For example, if you write a vampire you need to decide if he really crisps in the sunlight, cringes from garlic, and gets a fatal case of hives from silver. Now for the hard part: why?
- How is the magic sourced? Does it come from within the person? Can people gain or lose magical power, or is it a constant? Does your shaman draw on nature? How? Do your coven members ever combine their power?
- Limits. Limits, limits, limits. What are the limits on magic in your world? What can't your characters do? Why? Why doesn't everyone have magic? What spells are impossible to an earth witch, but work for a necromancer or a water witch or whatever? What is magic unable to ever do? And why?
Good and evil is such a nicely vast subject. Think about how it operates in your world:
- Is there a God or gods?
- Are there other spiritual forces that act on the side of good or evil? Are there such forces, but they're largely indifferent to good and evil?
- Is there life after death? Ghosts? Reincarnation?
- If there are ghosts, how do you square that with your world's spiritual cosmology? In other words, if souls are supposed to go either to heaven or hell, why would some linger? Is a ghost a soul?
- Speaking of souls, can they be damaged? Destroyed? How does this fit into your world's spiritual system?
- Is evil punished in this life or the next? How?
- Is anyone in charge?
- Is there anything inherently good or evil about the magic in your world? About some types of magic but not others? Why?
HISTORY . . . and looseness
How much does the history of your world differ from that of the real world? Even if those differences are hidden--like in Carrie Vaughn's series, where her protagonist is currently fascinated by the idea that some historical figures were secretly werewolves--there are differences.
- Has a shadowy vampire council been pulling strings behind the scenes?
- Is there anything like Dresden's White Council keeping an eye out for magical malefactors?
- How do your witches stay hidden? Will this change?
- What disasters really occurred because someone screwed up a summoning spell—the Chicago Fire, maybe? Oh, and that asteroid that hit the Earth and wiped out the dinosaurs . . .
This business of the Purge matters here because it built looseness into my world. I intentionally designed a world where my characters didn't know that much about magic and were sometimes wrong about what they thought they knew. This left room for me to stand things on their heads if I want, to continue developing twists, or simply to not have to answer every question right away. I gave myself room to explore my new world.
- How can you might build looseness into your world? Think about why your protagonist doesn't know some of the important things about her powers, or those of others.
Politics are important in urban fantasy--not necessarily the Democratic/Republican sort, but the kind that emerges because of the ways people organize themselves . . . the hidden negotiations, open arguments, the way power is shared or hoarded in a group. Politics are a fantastic way of bringing the complexity of your characters alive and heightening conflict.
‧ What supernatural groups exist in your world? How are they organized?
‧ Do humans knows about the supes in their midst? If so, how do humans feel about these others? What’s the government’s position about them?
‧ Do your werewolves serve in the military?
‧ Is your half-demon an illegal alien?
‧ Who is withholding information from who, and why?
‧ Who doesn't trust who? Why?
In closing, I want to emphasize two things:
• Limits, limits limits. Set them. In the first book of the series, abide by them--or most of them--and have a really good reason for the one/s you break.
• Looseness. Build it in, too. Books take a long time to write. They can take a long time to sell, too. If your series sells, you're probably looking at a period of years between your first book and your fifth. You won't be the same person a few years from now. Do that future-you a favor, and build in room for your series to grow and change . . . because you’ll be growing and changing, too.
Eileen Wilks is the NYT bestselling author of the World of the Lupi series. The eighth book in the series, DEATH MAGIC, is out Nov. 1. Also out the same day: a novella set in that world that's part of the TIED WITH A BOW anthology.
DEATH MAGIC opens with Special Agent Lily Yu in Washington, D.C. with her fiancé--lupi prince Rule Turner—to testify before a Senate subcommittee about her role in the magical collapse of a mountain last month. She is not there to tell them about the strange legacy she carries from that event—or about the arcane bond between her and Rule--or what her boss in Unit Twleve of the FBI’s Magical Crimes Division is really up to. She sure won’t tell them that the lupi are at war with an Old One who wants to remake humanity in her own image.
Lily is managing the conflict between her duty as an officer of the law and the need for secrecy pretty well . . . until the rabidly anti-magic senator who chairs that committee is murdered. The line between right and wrong, always so clear to her, becomes hopelessly blurred as events catapult them all towards disaster, and prophecies of a cataclysmic end to the country she loves and serves--and to the entire race of lupi--seem well on their way to being fulfilled.
*Edited by Teresa Crumpton*