The Gearheart – A Free Audiobook

The Gearbox: Worldbuilding with Jess Hartley, Pt.1

by on Aug.26, 2009, under The Gearbox

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing one of pen-and-paper gaming’s great developers and novelists- Jess Hartley. She has some incredible credits to her name from White Wolf Publishing, a game company known for their deep, rich worlds. If you need an idea of her amazing contributions to the gaming community, please visit her website, and hit the About Jess section. You’ll find fleshed out worlds for days in those credits, as I’m sure many gaming groups have.

I’ve called Jess in as a special expert on one of the trickiest parts of story development- worldbuilding. A lot of sci-fi and fantasy authors obsess over it, and why not? Worlds flavor the book in ways that cannot be replicated by any other story element. So if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like when an expert sits down to write a world, read on!

(Jess is so prolific that we only got through two questions. I’ll post one today and one tomorrow.)

Alex: Where do you start when you sit down with a world? What part tends to garner your attention first? Do you like to go for an overall hook like “mystical power is possible,” or are you more into more focused flavor, such as a specific race or item?

Jess: Each project is different, and how I go about world building depends a lot on what pulled me towards that project in the first place. While items, races, or locations can act as an inspiration, I think the real creative force in world building comes from asking “What if?” Sometimes you just get struck with a thought like… “What if the “real world” is just a computer game that we’ve all become so immersed in that we don’t remember it’s a game any more?” or “What if Little Red Riding Hood lived in the current era?” That thought, and how go about exploring it, begins setting the initial perimeters of the world, be it something wholly fantastic, familiar-yet-different, or just a touch away from the real world.

At a recent GameMaster Conference in Tucson, Berin Kinsman gave a panel which really summed up World Building for me. He presented it as a series of questions, each which leads you into more questions, and at each stage, the answers to those questions show you more about the world you’re creating. I agree with what he detailed, and find that I do the same sort of thing when building my worlds. I may start with an idea – a retelling of a classic tale, a character inspired by someone I pass on the street, a conflict situation that I want to see played out in words… But the world building really expands out from there, to whatever degree it needs to for the purposes of that project.

If I have a particular tale I want to tell, and the story (be that short story, novel-length fiction, or interactive adventure ala a roleplaying game) is specifically focused on the characters involved, then the world-building may be very secondary to the characters themselves. That is, the world may exist only so far as it needs to for the characters to have a screen on which to play out their drama, and I may not need to illuminate more than what will be shown in that particular tale. For example, in “Santa Claws,” a short story that I wrote a few years ago, I really wanted to do a “holiday + paranormal” story. It wasn’t necessary, for the purposes of that tale, for me to know or detail out how the supernatural creature involved came to be what he was, or develop the history of paranomals in that story’s world, or even touch on whether there were any but the focus character at all. It just didn’t matter to the story. So I “world built” what was going to show on-screen – the two main characters’ views of the world, the supernatural creature’s involvement with his family, his views on being who and what he was, and left it at that. The world, essentially, was only as deep and broad as it needed to be for the character to be three-dimensional, because the story wasn’t about the world, it was about a single interaction between characters.

If, however, I’m looking more to create a place in which multiple stories will be told (be they various plot threads in the same work as you find in a novel, or a variety of stories all taking place in the same world, such as you might find with an anthology or a game-setting) a narrow canvas may not be sufficient. In that sort of a case, I usually start with a few “givens” – I want there to be magic, for example, but I want it to be natural (or religious, or academic) in nature. I want everyone (or only a certain caste, or almost no one) to have access to it. I want the technology level to be medieval (or modern, or beyond our current conceptions). Those few givens act as the framework between which I can begin weaving the rest of the world. And sometimes I’ll find that, as the tapestry begins to unfold, I need to change one of those “givens”. But for the most part, they stay in place, and they’re the skeleton around which the world is built.

Once again, thanks to Jess Hartley (www.jesshartley.com) for her awesome advice! Look for more tomorrow!

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