I’ve written already about some of the world building books I’ve worked with in the past. Stant Litore‘s Write Worlds Your Readers Won’t Forget is relatively new — published late 2017. It’s not a game writing book specifically, but is meant for anyone in the speculative fiction space. It’s also quite compact, about a hundred and fifty pages, and meant to be used, with a sequence of exercises for the reader. More than that, even though it’s a book about world-building, it’s focused on the plot and character implications of what you’re doing:
This book treats worldbuilding as a process for conflict and exerting pressures on your characters. Unforgettable characters live unforgettable stories that are made necessary and possible by unforgettable worlds they are trying to survive and thrive in.
So though this is a book for writers and not for interactivity, it’s bringing in some of the same worldbuilding motives as a tabletop game like Downfall.
In addition, Litore immediately identifies two approaches to worldbuilding: the Tolkien approach, where you start at the ground level in some particular area. And he correctly points out that this is even more difficult than most people give credit for:
It is theoretically possible for you to create an unforgettable imaginary world in the same way that JRR Tolkien did if you have an advanced education or deep training in one particular field relevant to worldbuilding, plus an inquisitive mind that is always asking questions about how your area of expertise informs and is informed by others. For example, if you are a gifted economist, you might begin building a world from the ground up if you start by designing a unique and detailed, though fictional economy… This kind of deep dive is rare because it requires more than just a “research phase” to inform a novel or screenplay. It relies on committed, dedicated expertise and conversation with other experts in that area of knowledge.
I found that pretty interesting because of my own interest in the idea of research art — but also a strong argument for why not all worldbuilding on all projects needs to go the Tolkien route. And certainly most of mine doesn’t.
Instead, Litore recommends the approach of inserting an importantly different detail in each of three areas: the physical conditions of a world and the requirements of surviving there; the biology and the creatures who live there; and the culture that persists there. He then devotes several chapters to unpacking each of these techniques.
While this isn’t particularly written with games in mind, it’s not a bad set of directions even so. I think, for game purposes, I would probably put a bit less emphasis on the biology of the game world (unless one really wants a creature-based gameplay) and instead focus in on the action space available. Litore is thinking primarily of written speculative fiction here. There are exceptions, but most of his examples are from science fiction or fantasy novels, ranging from classic Asimov and Tolkien pieces on up through LeGuin and Cherryh to Max Gladstone et al.
Litore includes some samples of his own works to illustrate what he’s talking about, and I occasionally found the examples of his fictional prose style a bit too obvious or too cliched for my own tastes (yours may vary). But this is more about how he renders his ideas than how he comes up with them in the first place, and much of his conceptual advice feels solid.
For the rest, like a lot of worldbuilding books, this becomes more than anything a series of questions to ask about the place you’re imagining. Litore’s questions address some familiar territory — religion, rites of passage, technology — but also topics such as accessibility and privilege, encouraging the would-be writer to think about who in their imagined society occupies a marginal position, what accommodations are made (or not made) for individuals with different abilities, and so on.
I very much liked — and agreed with — his focus on developing worlds that would provide interesting pressures for the characters to cope with. That in turn often requires thinking about resource availability, power, safety and access — things I tend to think about in my own worldbuilding strategies. And sometimes, when he’s suggesting taking a storyline and thinking about how to add obstacles to your characters’ lives, I was reminded of 90s writing on IF puzzle design.
A final chapter addresses how to communicate your designed world to the reader, and calls out situations and types of viewpoint character that might help usher the reader (or player, in this case) into your new story.
Overall, a compact read that focuses the worldbuilding process on the types of thinking likely to yield the fastest results, and covers a few topics that don’t appear in the previously-reviewed books.
Stant Litore has also written a book on characterization, Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget. Before I’d finished reading this book, I’d ordered that one for review as well.