Posted by: kshayes513 | September 10, 2009

Which comes first: the story or the world?

Do you start with a situation and some characters, and build a world in which those characters could live and that situation could occur?

Or do you start with an idea for a world that has some unique qualities, and find your stories and characters in the process of exploring the world?

In a blog post on Omnivoracious earlier this year, China Mieville brought up this question in his discussion of  Tolkien’s worldbuilding. Here’s the relevant section of the post:



“Middle Earth was not the first invented world, of course. But in the way the world is envisaged and managed, it represents a revolution. Previously, in works such as Eddison’s, Leiber’s, Ashton Smith’s and many others’, the worlds of magic, vibrant, brilliant, hilarious and much-loved as they may be, were secondary to the plot. This is not a criticism: that’s a perfectly legitimate way to proceed. But the paradigm shift of which there may be other examples, but of which Tolkien was by a vast margin the outstanding herald, represents an extraordinary inversion, which brings its own unique tools and capabilities to narrative. The order is reverse: the world comes first, and then, and only then, things happen–stories occur–within it.

Mieville's latest

Mieville's latest

So dominant is this mode now (as millions of women and men draw millions of maps, and write millions of histories, inventing worlds in which, perhaps, eventually, a few will set stories) that it’s difficult to see what a conceptual shift it represented.”

There’s no right or wrong approach,  as Mieville says; and many of us probably do a little of both at one time or another, within the same world.

The question here is, how much difference does each approach make, in the kind of world you end up with and the kinds of stories that might come out of it?

Does starting with a character or plot make your world stronger in some ways but weaker in others? Does developing a specific world, by definition, limit you in the kinds of stories you might produce or the themes you can explore?

Can anyone give me examples of how either approach has affected their world and their stories, made them better or different,  or limited their choices more?

For myself, I have certainly used both approaches. In creating Khasran, I started with a story and characters in a familiar literary setting, the Arabian fantasy. The story itself drove me away from mythical Baghdad, or anywhere that resembled the Middle East of Scheherezade and Haroun al Rashid. I had to create a world to accommodate the story I wanted to tell.

Yet the deeper I go in the worldbuilding, the more Khasran sprawls in time and space, the more it develops cultures and landscapes and folkways unique to itself – the more I have shifted to “the world comes first, then stories happen in it.”  The two newest story ideas I’m developing came entirely out of the world. One is the holiday story I started developing at Christmas when I wondered what kind of holidays these people observe. The other idea, newer still,  sprang from that article about the City of Poets, when I discovered where in Khasran that city lies, and started wondering about its history.

Are these going to be different from stories like The Master Patterns, that came from my original character and plot ideas? I don’t know yet. Maybe I’ll know better when I’m finished with them.


  1. Actually, for Tolkien it was language that came first and foremost. He’d been working/playing on inventing languages since he was a child, and eventually decided he wanted to know more about who might be speaking those languages. And so discovered the Elves, and Middle-earth. From there, the world unfolded in story, the first story being “The Fall of Gondolin”, written when Tolkien was lying in a military hospital bed recovering from trench fever. At his death some 60 years later, the story was still unfinished!

  2. Not many of us know enough about languages to invent real, working ones! And of course, this nice little tidbit just reinforces Mieville’s point about Tolkien’s reversal of the usual approach. He started with a very specific piece of the world, then realized that language can’t exist in a vacuum, it needs context and culture. From culture, I guess, you get history, and from history come stories–at least in his case.

    I wonder how many other fantasy worlds have started this way, with the creator’s fascination with one specific subject leading to invention and to a new world?

    Anyone know of any similar examples?

  3. I wonder if Le Guin founded Earthsea in part on things she knew about Pacific cultures…. I’m thinking in particular of the raft people in _The Farthest Shore_. And, of course, you could say that her knowledge of the Tao was central to Earthsea’s philosophy of magic: don’t disturb the equilibrium, or know that if you do, you’ll have to balance it somehow.

    I’ve always loved the (very Taoist!) stanza she begins with:

    Only in silence the word
    only in dark the light
    only in dying life:
    bright the hawk’s flight. on the empty sky

    — The Creation of Éa

  4. I always wanted to know more about the raft people, though I suspect she didn’t discover them until she had her heroes stranded in a boat in the middle of nowhere. So if they are influenced by Asian Pacific cultures, it was a later arrival.

    I have always wondered whether she knew the history of the Dry Lands when she wrote The Farthest Shore. I remember thinking when I first read it, “this is the bleakest version of the afterlife I’ve ever encountered. I’d hate to die in Earthsea!”

    Or did she finally learn the truth when she came back to Earthsea 30 years later?

  5. Hi, Karen! I came across your blog from your discussion about author blogs on LinkedIn Writers and Editors. Great post here; as a fellow (fantasy) writer and worldbuilder, I’m always curious to hear about others’ processes in creating settings for their stories. My worlds have always sprung from a need for settings, based on characters that have already developed — it’s a way for me to ask and answer questions about those characters. But every now and then, I’ll get an idea about a fun premise, or start thinking about culture or politics, and get the urge to base a world off of it.

    Nice to (virtually) meet you!

  6. Welcome, Raia, and thanks for your comment.

    What kind of character questions have you asked and answered with worldbuilding? I know the kinds of character questions that come up for me, but I’m sure yours are different.

  7. I recently discovered an interesting definition about world building from Terry Goodkind. In a USA Today from August, Goodkind claimed that, “Most fantasy is one dimensional — about magic or world building. I don’t do either.”

    I was researching past info on him because I wanted to set up a phone interview for my blog. I wanted to see how he translated his world from print to the TV series.

    However, that comment gave me pause. How can a writer who develops groups like the Confessors, Mord Siths or Mud people think that world building is not part of the process? A background with an old world, Mid-Lands and underworld, or sentient birds and factions of allies that shift in support to each other is a canvass that does not include world building? I don’t understand that.

  8. Tom, the only thing I can think of is that Goodkind must think of worldbuilding as something different from what we mean here. It sounds like he’s saying that in his opinion, most fantasy writers either develop the magic only, or the secondary world only (and perhaps leave out stuff that he seems to think important, like the struggle for good and evil, etc.) I suppose we’d have to ask him to get a clarification!

    It also makes me wonder what fantasy he’s reading, or not reading, to make him say so! I certainly haven’t had any trouble lately finding multi-dimensional fantasy to read, as a look at my Reading tag will prove!

    As for translating his books into a TV series, I’d be surprised if he has anything to do with the TV treatment, unless he has specifically said so. The only on screen credit he seems to have is “based on the novel by,” there’s no producer or creative consultant type credit that would suggest regular creative input. And what I’ve seen of Seeker was so overly and unnecessarily dumbed down, that I can’t believe he had a role in it.

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