In the beginning, there was the protagonist, and the author saw that it was good.
My worldbuilding process starts after the creation of the protagonist, never before. I write novels to tell the story of a person, not the story of a world, and all of my novels have sprung from a first impression of the main character. For The Empress Game trilogy it was an image of Kayla holding a kris dagger in each hand, fighting another woman in a pit while criminals cheered her on.
Once I have that first impression of a character, the worldbuilding begins. Who is she? (The exiled princess from a rival planet) Where is she? (Hidden on the slum side of her hated enemy’s border planet) Why is she there? (Trying to raise credits to buy passage back to her homeworld) And, most importantly, why is she special? Why are we telling her story, and not someone else’s?
My favorite brainstorming tool of all time is still a numbered list in a word document. No lie, I am that old school. I’ll start with a question, “Why is Kayla proficient with knives?” and then list every possible explanation I can think of no matter how ridiculous. This list generates more lists, as each entry raises its own questions that require brainstorming lists. For example, if she’s good with knives because she was trained, then why was she trained? Who would have trained her?
The bulk of my initial worldbuilding is done entirely by lists of possibilities. Working this way, listing any and everything that comes to mind, helps me move beyond my first (and usually overused) story concept and into something more unique. I’m often surprised by what comes up in these “what if” lists and I love that about the worldbuilding process.
As soon as I have the broad strokes of the worldbuilding down, I start writing. I’m too impatient to develop the entire world before I start; I’m anxious to get into the characters’ heads and tell their story. Tolkien, with his amazing maps, languages, folklore and history of Middle Earth, is someone I greatly admire but could never emulate. Once I start writing, worldbuilding and research are done on an as-needed basis. For example, in Cloak of War, Kayla enters the Sovereign Council chamber. In describing the chamber, I realized I needed to know why the room would look that way, who designed it, what the designer’s intent was, the history behind the Sovereign Council, etc. The setting of a single room set off a worldbuilding flurry that encompassed the political history of the entire empire.
It’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of research when worldbuilding. I have saved myself time and time again by remembering one thing: I’m here to tell a story. If my worldbuilding, no matter how fantastic, doesn’t serve to move the story ahead, it has no place in the book. I will ruthlessly cut even my favorite worldbuilding scene if it doesn’t do enough to advance the plot.
I never know what direction my worldbuilding will ultimately take when the brainstorming and research are done, but that is all part of the challenge, excitement and freedom of writing.
Rhonda Mason‘s The Empress Game and Cloak of War are published by Titan Books in the UK. (The latter is published this week.) For more on Mason’s writing and novels, be sure to check out the author’s website, and follow her on Twitter and Goodreads.