Place as Character: Using Worldbuilding to Develop Story


In her Part 1 post for the Shadow of the Sun Read-Along, Amy of Just Book Reading asked me a question about how I imagine the world I’m writing:

I ‘see’ this world very clearly in my head. In fact, I tend to read in pictures, active imagination and all that, when reading fantasy. When you’re writing, what do you picture and how do you keep the world so vivid? There is a map at the beginning of the book as well. Do you use maps to picture the world?


Warning: Geek Content

If you’re not into serious worldbuilding geekery, this might be good time to look elsewhere. Here is a picture of my cats.


The Map is Not the Territory.

But it is part of the story.

Maps are one of my most important tools for imagining a story world. I use a mapping program called Campaign Cartographer, which was originally designed for role-playing games. The maps I create become essential not only to the development of the world but also the development of the story.

Campaign Cartographer doesn’t build pretty maps, at least not for people who aren’t equipped to really tweak the program (read: amateurs like me). But what it does, brilliantly, is provide “real” data about the map’s territory. Once the map is built, the distances and potential routes between story locations are set—which keeps me honest, and requires the characters to deal with real obstacles. In order to facilitate the plot I’m planning, frex, I may want to have it take two days for a character to get someplace—but the truth of the world as constructed may be different. This tension helps to drive the development of the story, because it takes me out of what comes easily into stuff that makes me engage my “A-game”. It also helps to keep things feeling “real”.

Maps as Story

I’m also having a lot of fun with maps as a storytelling tool. I have the rare privilege of working with the artist Ari Warner on the maps for my books. He takes my amateurish, just-the-facts maps and develop them into maps that help tell the story of the world. Each of his maps is an exercise in worldbuilding: the glorious maps that grace The Shadow of the Sun are designed with the conceit that they have been developed by professional cartographers. Within the context of the story, each of the maps the reader sees comes from a particular collection: a couple of different royal libraries, and the collection of the Harpist Gorsedd in Ilnemedon. The inaccuracies in the maps represent misconceptions, misunderstandings, and confusions on the parts of the people who assembled the data–and those errors feed back into the story in the form of misunderstandings with which the characters who rely on them are walking around.

In the forthcoming The Heart of Darkness, the sequel to The Shadow of the Sun, Ari has outdone himself: we’re creating a new series of maps that originate with the kharr, the rebels in the war that encompasses both these volumes. He’s using a completely different style for these maps, one that reflects their less exalted and more practical origins. And the ways the kharr maps contradict the loyalist maps developed for the first volume carry part of the story as well.

Another tool I use in developing worlds is theft.

That seems to be a theme around here lately.

I stole elements of a lot of places in developing my story world. The geography of the Danaan sacred isle of Ilunmore came out of the legendary geography of Atlantis. The Ruillin Basin has its origins in the Bay of Fundy and surrounding waterways, right down to the shameless theft of the reversing falls on the St. John River, which became “Bormo’s Well” in The Shadow of the Sun. I used Mt. St. Michel in France twice: the island of Aballo is one part Mt. St. Michel, one part Bru na Boinne in Ireland, situated on Half Moon Bay in California. And the tidal accessibility of Mt. St. Michel became part of daily life for the island of Bealingas.

Theft committed in the name of worldbuilding can’t stop at window-dressing and yield a world that feels real. If stealing these places brought a wealth of details to the world that help to create the experience of a real place, that real feeling can only be maintained by following the facts of the places borrowed wherever they may lead. The tides on the Ruillin Basin with which the characters in my world must contend arose from the interaction of the true facts of the Bay of Fundy with the influence of my world’s extra moon. It created bizarre obstacles to travel in that region which in turn drove the development of an arcane “technology”, windcallers: wizards specially trained to harness winds and weather for the purpose of making it possible to sail in otherwise unnavigable waters. And those obstacles to travel fed back into the action of the novel.

But I am getting ahead of myself, for a post intended to accompany the first seven chapters of the novel. And the extra moon and all the baggage it brings to the party are a topic for another day.


Explore posts in the same categories: The Heart of Darkness, The Shadow of the Sun, worldbuilding

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3 Comments on “Place as Character: Using Worldbuilding to Develop Story”

  1. […] Place as Character: Using Worldbuilding to Develop Story Barbara’s response to Amy’s question on her Just Book Reading post […]

  2. Amy Says:

    Windcallers! OK, where’s my book. Must know more. 🙂

    Thanks for the longer talk on worldbuilding. Admittedly, it’s my absolute favorite aspect of writing and reading. Also, I never get enough in hearing writers talk about the process. Thanks for indulging me.

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