world creation, world building
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Why Lists Do Not Work to Create Worlds

written by Thomas Mühlematter on Tue Jun 09 2020 13:27:40

Virtually every book or tutorial teaching how to create fictional worlds is advising us to create lists. Lists about cities, characters, environments or planets with questions to ask ourselves such as whether a city will be placed next to a mountain or next to a lake. While these questions are valid, it is not helping artists or writers to make decisions about specific elements. Most of the time we do not know which opinion is best because they seem equally valid.

Why it does not work

The problem with using lists to get idea about what to do create in our worlds is that it assumes that things can be seen as separate entities that can be considered separately. This is not possible as every element needs to be considered in the context of the world as a whole. If we take the example whether our main civilization needs to be based out of an arctic or a volcanic planet, it is not possible to take the decision without thinking about what is the goal of what we want the civilization to be about. It makes more sense to have a very clear idea about what are the emotions, values and ideas this civilization has to embody in our world and then to select which environment fits best.

What to do instead

Instead of lists, the best way to approach world creation is about linking ideas together. Making concepts, ideas and emotions fit together harmoniously and fleshing them out afterwards. It is about creating systems of concepts that create the desired result, a little bit like a cooking recipe that blends things together in order to create a dish. Taking ingredients separately and trying to make them fit together would be much worse at creating a pleasant dish than to have an idea about the kind of dish and taste we want and then to pick and adjusts ingredients as we go on. What is obvious in cooking applies in the same way for world creation. This is why emotions and ideas that your audience experiences will always be more important than the actual setting or visuals of your world. For instance, it is much more important to deeply think about the kind of atmosphere a city has than whether it sits next to a lake or a mountain. Once concepts are approached that way, we also then realize how much more free we are to create as for every idea or emotion we want to express, multiple settings can fit. It also makes us more confident in taking decisions that fit well together.

Where lists are actually useful

While lists are not useful to decide what to create, they are specially useful once concepts are firmly established. After the initial phase of deciding what kind of ideas to represent, they can support the process by organizing elements to be created. As an example, if you decided to create a volcanic planet to act as the headquarters of your villain and you decided that you want to create three locations on the planet to display different aspects of your villain, then having a list of different things you want to include into each location is useful and helps you to structure your creation process. One location could be about the religious worship of the villain, one about taking charge of his faction and one would be a hangar where his vehicles and spaceships would be stored.

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