Often associated with fantasy, science fiction, and alternate history writers the process of imagining or creating a fictional world is an extremely complex creative activity. There are several forms of world creation employed by writers to help develop story-lines. The three primary forms of creating fictional worlds are inside-out, outside-in, and a blending of the two. All three of these method’s for creating worlds have their advantages and disadvantages dependent on the writer’s chosen outcome or deadline.
One well known example of a created world is that of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Arda (a pre-history version of Earth) as described in “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Tolkien’s Arda is often cited as one of the most complete fictional world’s in fantasy fiction. Tolkien, a professor of language, created new languages and proceeded to associate these languages to fictional races and peoples. By creating the small details first and building upon them with fictional mythologies and even creation myths, Tolkien was able to create his stories with believable characters interacting within a common framework of world history. The shape of the world and the relation of locations as described in the books and maps were derived from the framework of information created in Tolkien’s early stages of development. This approach to creating fictional worlds is often referred to as bottom-up or inside-out world building and is employed by writers, game designers, and television producers alike.
The inside-out world creating process is characterized by the design of minute details for a new world and the further expansion of those details to account for the world or universe at large. The process often has unforeseen ends for the writer and can take quite a while to be fully completed. The finished universal laws are unpredictable at the early stages of writing and are dependent on the choices made throughout the story. Part of the inside-out world building process is write the stories using known minutia to develop further relations from which to shape the full world. The inside-out form of creating worlds is often started when writers begin a new story from scratch. During the writing process the writer will need to explain interactions in order to avoid conflicts and from these new explanations the creation process is expanded. The outcome can often hold inconsistencies, although the story development seems to flow more naturally. The final world will be no-less complete than the other two methods for creating worlds, but the inside-out method may not finish the entire world before the story is completed. This incomplete world is only problematic if future story expansion takes place in the same universe.
Another method for creating worlds is the outside-in process. When using the outside-in process the creator develops a construct in its roughest form and proceeds to work from the top down, creating elements to fill or populate the world. For example in outside-in creation, the general structure of the solar system would be determined before the world was chosen, and dependent on the physical parameters derived from the solar system, planetary land mass could be mapped. This process has more consistent final stories as the world is fully created before the story takes place. One of the more extensive uses of this type of story formation can be found in the science fiction game EVE Online. EVE Online’s outside-in creation method allows the storyline to be fluidly driven by players interacting within a universe of over 7,500 independent star systems – each with their own vastly different properties or worlds. The only difficulty incurred when designing a world using the outside-in approach is the need for a complete existence before any story can be developed. This slow start to story writing with so much real-world work beforehand may be off-putting to writers looking to “just start writing.”
A compromise of the two world creation methods incorporates the positives of both and tries to diminish the negative aspects associated with the two. In this combination, the general outer world (or universe dependent on the writer’s needs) is laid out with the needed minutia of character details developed throughout the storyline. The benefit of this style is using the known rules for the world at large, such as daylight and general terrain, but using the storyline as it is written to develop the minor details along the way. A good example of how to use this approach would be for a writer to determine the climate of his world before deciding on the number of central stars in the solar system. Another example would be writing that a character was to go fishing in a pond before determining the type of fauna and flora contained within the area. As the elements get developed, or as the storyline progresses, the pieces get added to the rulebook of the world and are referenced later for further story development. The benefit of this approach is the immediate creation of the storyline within a known world without too much world preparation time. The negative to this approach is the need for meticulous record keeping and mapping to make certain the world has consistency within its own rules of existence.
The process of creating worlds can be quite extensive, but very beneficial to any writer. Once the final world or universal rulebook has been established, the stories within the world will flow consistently following that framework. Nearly every fictional story employs some level of world creation in the writing process. Knowing the available methods and utilizing them throughout the story development can help solve some of the puzzles that often come up when beginning a new storyline. All three methods – outside-in, inside-out and the combined method – have their merits and should be used according to the creative needs of the writer.