In honor of Star Wars: The Force Awakens I wanted to explore world building in fiction. I’m going to talk about how mapping your world can can guide you out of writer’s block. This map not an outline of your story, nor is it a bible filled with character details. It’s a cultural guide for your community, an anthology of your universe’s mythology, and an atlas of your setting.
Don’t think of this writing exercise as a satellite image, fixed and defined, think of it as dots on a treasure map with space for further details. Your world map isn’t meant to chart your story’s space. It’s meant to give you options worth exploring. Not only is it a great way to get ideas off the ground, when you don’t have a premise, it’s a great way to help you come up with the next story in the series.
Look at the seeds George Lucas planted in Star Wars: A New Hope. There’s an evil empire lead by a masked figure. There’s a rebellion with ties to a princess. There’s a pair of droids smuggling classified information. There’s Luke Skywalker, a plucky hero with mysterious parentage. He meets Obi Wan Kenobi, a mentor figure whose history is shrouded in mystery. Obi Wan introduces the force, a magical power that can be manipulated by those sensitive to it, and he gives Luke the weapon of the galaxy’s long forgotten peacekeepers. The pair venture to a lawless spaceport where they meet a smuggler who’s on the run from gangsters.
That’s just the first act and already this universe is filled with possibilities. There’s so much more going on than an uprising against an evil empire. There are wizard warriors, cosmic crime syndicates, and bounty hunters, and by the end of the film none of these elements are explained down to their Midi-Chlorians. They’re left open for further exploration.
Now the Star Wars universe is so vast you can find new adventures in its darkest corners. You could tell a story of a fledgling bounty hunter pitting himself against the crime lords that rule the subterranean slums of Coruscant. You could tell the story of a Jedi outcast forced to come out of hiding to stop the Tusken Raiders from attacking settlers. You could tell the story of a merry band of rebels, on the planet Lothal, who steal from the empire and give to the poor.
Wether you’re navigating the asteroid fields of the Hoth system, charting a trail through the forest moon of Endor, or surveying the wreckage of Jakku, a world map will guide you on your adventures. Here are some questions that should help you build your own galaxy far far away.
What’s the Law of your Land?
Star Wars never tells us what draconian laws sparked the rebellion into motion. The empire dissolves the Galactic Senate. Perhaps the rebels despise taxation without representation, or perhaps it wasn’t the empire’s laws but it’s methodology the rebellion is fighting. After all the empire builds a battle station capable of incinerating planets.
This is one of the many instances where under-explaining benefits the storytelling by leaving room for the audience’s imagination.
When defining the laws that govern your universe think about which laws will be enforced within the context of your story.
If you’re developing a dystopian world research historical injustices like witch trials, McCarthyism, apartheid, slavery, Jim Crow laws, and ethnic cleansing. Imagine how powerless people felt in those situations. Imagine how future dictators could recreate those injustices by ignoring history.
Perhaps positivity police rove your story’s streets punishing anyone who uses negative language. Perhaps the surveillance state is so total that you’re characters are timed in the bathroom and publicly shamed for pleasuring themselves. Perhaps rampant commercialism has created a world where pop-up adds show up in everyone’s ocular implants unless they pay a premium to reclaim their vision.
Just remember these details make for fun window dressing, but they’re much better when they’re essential to what’s going on.
Is there a Cultural Divide?
Is your civilization segregated like in A Game of Thrones, where characters can get killed for walking into a town square in the wrong armor, or is it integrated like the city planet of Coruscant, in Star Wars, where humans mingle with droids, amphibian, and aquatic species alike.
Note how human history has displaced, eradicated, and subjugated entire groups of people. Note how classism, regionalism, and prejudice separate us today.
- What prejudices exist in your story’s world? Try to invent a prejudice that doesn’t yet exist.
- How are these prejudices reinforced by your world’s history? Were there feuding families, rival companies, or warring galaxies?
- How are these prejudices systemic? Do the cantinas in your universe serve droids or not?
- Which prejudices are subtle? Which are blatant?
- Which groups benefit from the enslavement of another? Does your republic bread clones to die in foreign wars?
- In young adult novels the old are always getting fat on the backs of the young. Does you story have a generational conflict?
- Do the different cultures have customs that are frowned upon by their neighbors? Are these customs unique to their beliefs, diet, sexuality, or even their physiology?
- Do the people in your world worship different Gods?
- Are these Gods real? Do they intervene in the affairs of your characters?
- Do these Gods have counterparts here on Earth?
- Do the people in your world worship the same God differently?
Remember conflict is the heart of drama so the greater the divide between your cultures the better.
Is there a Mythology?
Star Wars contains a universe within a universe.
On the surface the story is about an intergalactic civil war fought with lasers, storm troopers, and space cruisers. Although each of these things are fantastical they’re governed by the rules of the known universe.
Beneath the surface of this conflict is a micro universe where sorceries wage a spiritual war over the balance of the force. The Jedi and Seth fight over a moral philosophy as much as they fight for territories.
When you’re mapping your world ask yourself if you have a mythology bubbling beneath the surface.
- What are the limitations of your magical elements?
- What risks do your characters face bending the laws of the known world? There’s always a cost. Energy requires energy.
- Is your magic inspired by ancient magics like alchemy, faith healing, and astral projection or is it’s own thing?
- Is it associated with an established religion or is it cosmic in origin?
- Does your magic have parallels in science? Is it an extension of the known world? Do your characters call gunpowder “Boom dust.”
- Does the spirituality in your story have different denominations like black and white magic or the Jedi and the Sith?
- How is your magic performed? Does it require a wand, Latin incantations, and animal sacrifices, or does it swell up from within your characters like telekinesis?
- How was your magical element discovered? Was it invented or is it even older than those who discovered it?
- How has it been misused in the past? What could it do in the wrong hands?
- Is it widely known in your universe or is it still a mystery to most?
You’ll Never Use All of Your Map
If you’re writing a story with a lot unique social, political, and religious groups. It’s best to reveal them as they enter the story. You don’t want to pull the reader out of a scene by giving them an information dump. Launder your world’s rules into scenes. If a backstory is essential come up with an Obi Wan figure to tell it. Still, it’s better to hint at events than to reveal who is who’s father outright.
Leave room for your audience to define your universe. It’s okay to leave alien cultures alien.
When we first saw Boba Fett in his Mandalorian armor in The Empire Strikes back, the film didn’t grind to a halt to explain his upbringing as a clone, or the warrior culture on his progenitor’s native Mandolore. All we needed to know was that he was the badass that was going to hunt Han Solo down.
A world map is a great place to get all of those exotic details out of your system. You can define your unique groups outside of the narrative knowing that you’re not going to have room to cram all of that information into your story. Think of these info-dumps as palettes you can draw from when it comes time to paint.
Recycle Your Abandoned Maps
Many of my stories take place in the fictitious town of Pilgrim Valley. You don’t need to read any of the previous entries to understand my work in progress. Every citizen of my small town Twilight Zone is a protagonist on their own. They may hear about one another’s adventures. They may stumble into one another’s backyards, but only when it serves to further their journey.
The benefit of having set so many stories in the same city is that the landscape comes easily to me. If a character gets lost in the woods I can set a landmark and know exactly where they’re going. If I get stuck coming up with a new urban legend I can always default to my established canon. If I don’t feel like coming up with a cast member from scratch I can take one of my main players off the bench. I’ve already got a fully formed sheriff, public defender, and doctor. Why not put them to use?
This is the value of world building. You get to recycle your abandon maps. Let’s say you started writing a story that just wasn’t strong enough to finish, then you get an idea that you feel has the strength to make it to the end. Why not reuse some of the elements you’ve already worked so hard on?
This is my first collection of musical spoken word recordings. Each recording puts a satirical slant on self improvement, self medicating heartbreak with humor, and dropping the mic on depression. The recordings are scored with synth melodies, backing beats, and radio drama sound FX.