I am not a professional writer. I haven’t published anything yet, though I do plan to in the near future, but I have written three novels so far. I’ve learned a few things over the course of doing so and I will strive to guide you in the novel-writing process through this series. While I’m writing these with novels in mind, there isn’t any reason you can’t use these guides for any other work.
Part 1 – The Planning
You have an idea for a novel, your upcoming bestseller that’ll take you out of your day job and into signing tours and writing for a living. It’s the dream and much like every other writer you live part-time in it.
But before you jump down and write the novel’s title or even Chapter I or 1 or “A painful start,” there are a few things you need to take care of and this week we’ll go over the first of them all: planning.
You may have a brilliant concept, an idea of who your characters are, where they live and what will eventually happen to them, but that’s not enough. Sadly, it isn’t. You need to take your time to develop each part of your fictional world, from countries and laws to the different organizations and cultures your characters might encounter. You should do this even for parts of your world that won’t be in your novel. More than just consistency, this will help you understand some of the failings in your craft and might offer new storytelling venues.
Characters: Open a new word document (or use a typewriter or scribble on a page, I like using digital mediums because I can back ’em up more easily) and list every major and minor character in your novel. At this point, you might just have your protagonist, an antagonist and maybe a couple of allies. Write them down even if you don’t have names for them yet.
Once you’ve done this, you need to go through each and define them. Who are they? What is their story? Where do they come from, what are their ideals, flaws, hopes and dreams? Why is the antagonist against everyone? Is he evil, misguided or has a completely different set of beliefs? Is he relatable or a complete monster? What do the characters look like? Broad descriptions are fine, not every author likes to describe characters head to toe. For example, I like to leave plenty to people’s imaginations.
Once you’re done with the ‘central’ characters, start thinking about your world. Are there cities, kingdoms, gangs or other such organizations? If yes, then list them. Take the time to come up with most of them, or at least a handful. In doing so, you’ll build the power structure of your world, the status quo and you’ll figure out where your characters fit in. As you do this, you’ll also start developing new characters. Important figures contemporary to your plot and even historical and you should list them all and define them as well.
- Praetor Marius: Marius is the favoured son of his clan, raised for Praetorhood, one of the King’s personal guards. He is also Almerk’s confidant, his closest friend.
But while appearing fanatically loyal to his king, Marius harbours great concerns over his behaviour. He’s convinced something or someone has had an influence over him, turning the benevolent youth he knew into the Merciless King.
Marius, like all Praetors is an athletic man trained in every form of Past combat art. He takes after his mother on the storm-sky coloured hair and the source crystal purple eyes. From his father he takes the rest of his features, the striking nose and high cheekbones. He’s the youngest praetor in service, only 18 and there are many that don’t consider him worthy of the title, as he’s the weakest among them.
- King Almerk of Pastral, The Merciless King: As Grandson of the Penitent and son of the Judge, Almerk always had an impossible weight on his shoulders and this seems to have taken a physical toll on him in recent years. He no longer walks upright but constantly hunched. His demeanor grows darker every day. His eyes see shadows everywhere and the man once called the Contemplative has earned a new, whispered name: The Merciless.
In battle, and there have been many skirmishes between Pastral and neighbouring forces in the past few years, his vigor and viciousness is unmatched. No quarters are given, in clear violation of Pastral law and Aldana’s teachings.
He only trusts Marius, his childhood friend, the only person who listens to him and offers sage advice, though Almerk is starting to suspect his friend hasn’t been completely honest with him. But he doesn’t dare move against him. For one he’s a Praetor and he knows better than anyone does just how capable Marius is. Second, he’s Almerk’s last remaining friend and if there’s one thing he fears above anything else, even betrayal, it’s being alone.
World: You’ve taken care of identifying the power structures of the world and the characters that run them. Now you need to define those structures, what their cultures are, their ideals, laws, traditions, etc.
Example: In the previous step, you defined King Almerk of Pastral, the Merciless King. You know now there’s a country/kingdom/empire of Pastral. Now you need to define it.
The Blessed Domain of Pastral
Religious belief: Worship of Aldana, the All-seer, the goddess of Law and Wisdom.
Culture: Pasts live under a harsh system of law, with defined and severe sentences for every crime, from the simplest to the most heinous. Anyone found guilty may appeal to the Wise Priesthood of Aldana. The priesthood will study the case and see if there is an alternative to the punishment, one that may benefit all of Pastral. This is the Wise Judgement and is often seen as a mercy compared to the average Past sentence.
The above is just a simple example of where your world building might take you and is in no way a template to follow. But it does give you an idea of the type of things you should do. There is, however, a rule of thumb: if it will be part of your plot, then you need to be as specific as possible, defining even the smallest village or hamlet in the country. If it’s not, you could leave it as a general description, though I would recommend building up every territory, as it will undoubtedly spark your imagination and help you come up with future plots.
Do note that none of what you write down in this step need be final. Details can and will probably change as you iterate through your work while moving through the next steps.
Nature: In the previous step, you built up the different ways your world is run, the civilizations and organizations. In this one, you’ll define the natural world. Is nature something bent to the will of man or are predators a constant threat? Is man (or whatever you call your people) the only sentient species on the planet? Are there other races, from the traditional fantasy ones to some of your own concoction? These decisions will change how your world works and will probably force you to revisit the previous steps.
Is your world mundane or magical, high-tech or Medieval? You need to take care of it too. If you decide some countries are Steampunk and others are highly magical, then you need to include this in your world building.
Example: Cranefal is the Realm of Merchants. Located in the center of the continent it’s the only neutral kingdom. Cranefallen diplomats often act as mediators between the other lands and no one dares attack the country. This is partly due to their control over most of the continent’s commerce. “Cranefall sees everything” is a common saying and refers to how every product in the world passes through the Realm of Merchants. Everything is up for sale and purchase in their cities and villages, and it’s all but impossible to haggle with the Cranefallen.
But there is a second reason the country is able to remain neutral and keep their hold on the known world’s economy: The Blademeisters, the kingdom’s elite mystical warrior order. Powered by the impossible Source Crystal technology of Crestfall and imbued with the elemental magic of the Crestfallen ancestral spirits, just one of these warriors can obliterate an army and they are bound to the Realm by powerful seals, ensuring their almost fanatical loyalty.
Source Crystals exist all over the world and each kingdom has their own method of extracting and using them. It has mundane and wartime applications but only the Cranefallen know how to use world’s blood to its full potential. Yet they have never attempted to conquer other lands. Rumours say there is something sinister living underneath the capital, Heartsfall, something the Blademeisters struggle to keep at bay, but no one knows for sure.
In the previous example, you see a new power in the world, one that is both technological and magically advanced. You can also have a glimpse at the world’s status quo in regards to this land. Finally you know more about the source of their technology and the magic, and even in rumours, you know what kind of creatures live in the deep parts of the world.
You need to define how advanced the technology is, the lower and upper limits and the same with magic. As magic is often the fantasy tool of choice for pretty much everything, it helps to define laws for it, if only vague ones that determine the most powerful ‘spells’. The better you define these points, the more consistent they’ll be in your storytelling. If you define only one type of magic, based on human sacrifices, then you have a framework for all spells cast during your plot, or it can even help make your protagonist unique, someone who can cast spells without killing anyone, a freak and fluke of the world.
Source Crystal Technology:
- At its lowest: 20th century technology powered by crystal generators. Example: lifts, electrical appliances.
- Highest (Cranefall only): Star Wars-level technology: powered armours, repulsors, beam weaponry.
Ancestral Cranefall Magic:
- Centered on the worship of ancestors and guardian spirits.
- Guardian Spirits are born from important objects. Every new ancestor spirit creates guardians based on the items and locations important to them. The closer the connection, the more powerful the guardian is.
- Guardians obey only their ancestors. Practitioners must curry favour with the spirit to make use of their guardians.
- Guardians may inhabit other objects or locations to strengthen them.
- Ancestors have deep ties to the land they lived in and may affect the landscape at will. Thus keeping them content is of the upmost importance for the Cranefallen.
History: This is where it gets complicated. You might have defined the Kingdoms and the magic and technology, but depending on what approach you took, you may have just general overviews. Now you need to dig deep and define the entire history of the elements you’ve written down so far. For kingdoms, it’s not necessary to write down the personal bios of every person of importance, but it does help to have a timeline, especially in regards to the contact between the different nations and how the societies and species developed.
For Nature, you’ll work on current and extinct species, on forests and mystical and ritual glades long forgotten. For magic, you’ll determine when the study of it began, what kinds of magic existed and how they evolved or devolved into the current fashion. For technology, take it from the Stone Age to the current technological level, with the great discoveries and pioneers and geniuses of their times.
Again, it’s not necessary to write down everything from the beginning to the current time. A few generations are enough, especially when it comes to your characters. Again, as you develop the history, you’ll come up with more plot ideas and new venues for storytelling.
- World Eras:
- Current era – Stone Kings. Current year: 700.
- Previous Eras:
- Bronze Kings: Lasted 300 years
- Silver Kings: Lasted 700 years.
- Golden Kings: Oldest known time-period and civilisations and lasted approximately 5000 years.
- Source Crystals discovered in GK (Golden Kings) 2200 during the Cracking event.
- During the Cracking, miners from the ancient Kingdom of Alumein tapped into a volatile vein of Source Crystals. The resulting explosion destroyed the entire kingdom and left a bottomless crater in the world known as the Gushing Wound. To this day people avoid the wound, as the miasma released from it is lethal to even the Cranefallen Blademeisters.
- The worship of Aldana is only a century old, as is the current Pastral. The religion rose with its new Kings, starting with Marcus the Penitent, King Almerk’s grandfather and high priest of Aldana. He came to Pastral in a holy crusade from lands in the far north, rallied the nomadic tribes under his banner, defeated the barbarian warlords and created what is now the Kingdom of Pastral, named after his mother, the last known vessel of Aldana.
I’ve used a high-fantasy steampunk-ish setting for my examples this time around, but that doesn’t mean the previous points don’t apply to any genre. From urban fantasy to historical romance, you will benefit from planning everything from the start, so you know how your world works, even if it’s a fictionalised version of our world.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this small guide and if it’s helped you, then that’s fantastic news, drop it a like and/or a comment if that was the case.
Do come back next time for when we’ll be moving on to the next stage: The Outline.