Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Writing a New Story: Making Lists for Worldbuilding and Characterization

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She has a podcast/vlog at You can also find Jill on InstagramFacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website. Tagboth (Tag for short) is a goldhorn dragon from Belfaylinn, a hidden fantasy realm on the western end of the Sargasso Sea. Jill is working on the first book of this tale for this year's Grow an Author series.

Last week I talked about where I start when writing a new story, which included how I choose between all of my ideas and trying to narrow down my vague concept to a concrete story idea. In case you missed it, this tear I decided to write Onyx Eyes, a story about a fairy guard who sets out to find and rescue a missing princess, only to fall under the control of a human girl, who is looking for her brother. 

You may have noticed that my story description has changed some since last week, in which I described my story like this: 

I came up with the idea of two nations at war. One kidnaps the other nation's princess, and my hero, her guard, must get her back. As I thought more about my fairies, I wanted them to be the size of humans. I pictured something more like Tolkein's Legolas than Disney's Tinkerbell. This led me to creating two races of fae, which I tentatively called aerials and grounders. (Still not sure I love those terms.) Aerials have wings. Grounders do not. My hero, a grounder, must sneak into the aerial kingdom to rescue the grounder princess. He believes he can only do this by impersonating an aerial, and since he does not have wings, he sets out into the mountains with the intent of wielding a forbidden bonding spell with a dragon (enter Tagboth), which will enable him to grow wings.
That was a long and rambling description. Necessary, since I was in the absolute early stage of planning a story, but not really the kind of thing I would say when someone asks what my story is about. So as this past week has gone by and I've thought more about it, I was able to narrow down my story idea to that one sentence. It's not exactly a logline, but it's tighter and adds some good conflict.

Now that I know what my story will be about, I need to know more about the characters and the world they live in. For me, these two go hand in hand. I mean, sure, I can think up a loose backstory for any character, family tree, childhood memories, lies formed that will shape the character's future, etc. But I can't do that well until I know where they're from. The environment in which a character grows up is significant. It has such a powerful impact on a person's life. So, before I can move on to drawing a map (which is one of my favorite parts!), I need to do some basic worldbuilding. And I start by making a list. 

For me, with worldbuilding, it's best to start with a list because it keeps me on track and away from the danger of thinking I need to worldbuild everything (a.k.a. Storyworld Builder's Disease). I don't need to know everything about a world to write a book or even a series. What I do need depends on the story I am writing. Below is a list I made for things I need to worldbuild, research, figure out, or just plain decide, for the story Onyx Eyes. This is only an initial list. As I work on the story, new things will come up that I will need to figure out. But for now, this list is a place to start. I added in parentheses why I needed those things to help you peer a little deeper into my head.

Onyx Eyes Worldbuilding To Do List

-Where are these magical, hidden islands? (I wanted my story to take place in a fantasy world that exists here, right now, on earth. I liked the idea of an island. I just needed to figure out where to put it.)
-How do the fae people travel? Portals? Research the mythology of "thin places." (Since their world is hidden from ours [kind of like Wonder Woman's Paradise Island], I needed a way that these magical fae people could travel between their world and ours.)
-I wanted their world to be medieval. They have rejected the rest of the world's technological advances. I needed to know why.
-How does their magic work? Research rocks and gemstones, their meanings.
-I will call my magic stonecasting. I need to make a list of stones for stonecasting and what each does.
-List my Fae types. I have grounders, aerials, and I decided to add merrows (mermaids of a sort). Figure out the major differences between the three.
-Research fairy changelings. (I wanted my human girl's brother to be acting weird. He is actually missing and a fae changeling has replaced him/is impersonating him.)
-Research bat wings and the logistics of a human with wings. Can they fly? How does that work? What are the physics and the problems with the physics? (If Drake is going to get wings and fly, I'm going to need to describe that, so I need some research there.)
-Research the tradition of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land once in a lifetime. Research Israeli tradition. (I had an idea brewing that there would be some sort of Mecca for the fae people, so I wanted to learn more about such things.)
-Choose a language for the fae language. (I chose Hebrew again [which I used in my Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles], though this time I will always use real Hebrew since part of my reveal [shhh] is that some of these "fae" are actually angels.)
-Brainstorm lists of places for my map. (I needed to choose some sort of method of naming places and start making lists of place names. Since most fae legends came from European folklore, I chose to start my research with the ancient roots of German, Celtic, Irish, and Scottish languages.)
-Brainstorm lists of fae names.
-Create a list of slang terms. (While I'm searching through old languages, looking for place names and character names, I will also keep my eyes peeled for potential slang words.)
-Research dragons. (Tagboth will be a big part of this story. I want him to be cool.)
-Research armor made from leather and stone and natural materials. (I want my fae people to use what is around them.)
-Research fairy lore and types. Incorporate these into my storyworld.
-Research the morphology of a butterfly for Aerial people. (I loved the idea that aerials are not born with wings, that wings develop in adolescence.)
-Research mermaids/merrows. (I didn't want tails. I wanted webbed fingers and toes.)
-Research the mythology of elves for my grounder people.
-Decide where these people came from. Were they always living in this place? Or did they come here. If so, when? How? Why? And why do the three people types hate each other? What are they fighting about? If they hate each other, why don't they go find some other magical place to live? Why do all three stay put in this place? Could this place be a Mecca of sorts?
-Research the Bermuda Triangle and the Sargasso Sea. (I decided to look into placing my island in this part of the world. It already has lots of myth and legend around it, so it seems like an ideal place. My concern is that it might seem cliche, though I think I might be able to use the cliche in my favor. Though if I'm going for some sort of Mecca-like place, this area seems too far from where the history of fairies and elves developed, so I will need to think on this more.)

That's a pretty good list to start with. That list will be a lot of work. I think I spent at least two weeks on it for years ago, and right now, I'm going to pour over all my notes again to refresh my memory as to what I chose and why. I might stick with what I had, but I might change my mind on a few things. But that list will keep me plenty busy. Once I get through it, I'll be ready to draw a map. (Woot! I can't wait!)

Do you make lists like this in the early stages of a new story? What things do you put on your list? If you don't make lists, how do you tackle worldbuilding? Share in the comments.

Also, I wanted to let you all know that Shannon Dittemore, Paul Regnier, and I are co-teaching a teen track at this year's Mount Hermon Christian Writers' Conference in San Jose, California the weekend of March 23, 2018. We are going to have so much fun. If you're at all interested, visit the Mount Hermon website for more information.


  1. You have no idea how much I love lists like this when I'm coming up with a new idea, or editing my current book, haha xD. I make them all the time. I consider it my "brainstormimg" list, where I just spew out every idea and question I have onto paper, and see what comes out of it - and all of that usually spawns some pretty good ideas. But I can NEVER do it on the computer, my brainstorming/questions lists always have to be written on paper. I have no idea why, but my ideas just flow better that way xD. Thanks for this epic post, Jill! It was lots of fun to read. (also BERMUDA TRIANGLE <3. I've always wanted to read more stories with that thrown in. And GRACIOUS, your story sounds GOOD, I love it already!)

    ~ Savannah | Scattered Scribblings

    1. Thanks, Savannah. You know, I didn't say so, but I make my lists on paper too. Eventually I sometimes put parts of them onto the computer, but I always have at least one notebook per book. :-)

    2. Me too! I just cannot make lists on my computer, I've tried, but the process just won't go right.

  2. I'm highly intrigued in your story! I'm not usually a fantasy person, but I would read this! Thank you for the help!
    -Addy EZ

  3. Thanks so much for sharing this. This is super helpful to do with stories before you write them. I'll have to start doing that early on so I have somewhat of a structure to go from.

  4. Randomly, the first thought I had when you talked about picking a place on Earth for the fae people to live was Thule, the uncertain place in far north Europe where the Greek explorer Pytheas sailed in the 4th (or 5th) century B.C. It's fairly close to the place where legends of fairies and elves originated and has never quite been located properly.

    Anyway, I don't make lists, but I do scribble down notes of extra details or ideas that I have for worldbuilding. This mostly happens during the proces of writing, though. To start, I just come up with a vague idea of a world and iron it out while writing the first draft.

  5. This sounds awesome! We better get a release date for this soon, or I'll probably end up blackmailing publishers to publish it :p

    I love the interesting take on the fae, and when - I'm assuming you plan to publish this ? - you do, I think the bit I'm most excited for, dragons aside, is the idea of stonecasting. The story sounds beautiful, and if I can't gobble this up as soon as I can, I wonder what I'm dojng with my life.

    Good luck!

    - Kathryn Louise

  6. Onyx Eyes is sounding more and more intriguing! I like the idea of stonecasting, the different types of fae, pretty much everything about it so far has only deepened my need to learn more.

    Worldbuilding is one of my favorite things ever, all the freedom to piece things together, the fun of challenging everything with what-ifs. Project H (I still don't have a better name for it) has been a lot of fun for me to brainstorm what sorts of sci-fi technology to include.

    Oh, and out of curiosity, how did you come up with the name Onyx Eyes?

  7. Ooh, I really like this idea! I need to make a list of questions for my story. Once I finish the short fanfic I got sidetracked on (again) I'll get to that!

  8. I don't really do lists. I'll sometimes take random notes. But I like to envision the story, then just write it.

    I'm trying a new approach when I rewrite my novella series this next year, though. I'm going to completely tear the manuscripts apart and make a detailed plot outline of the whole series, chronologically. Then I'll make full character sheets, and pages for how the world and systems work.

    I've never done that, but as this is a genre (sci-fi) I'm unfamiliar with, and I don't usually do series, this feels like it needs a drastic approach.

    Maybe I'll do some lists, too.

    And your novel is sounding intriguing :D

  9. This style of list would probably work better then my usual method;Think up a character, write them into the story, look back on it the next day, realize you got 97% of the information wrong, go back, fix it all because it was causing major problems in the story, and then repeat steps 1-6.
    P. S. You could argue that leather is not a "natural material" since, although it has a natural source, the curing of the leather does not really fit that profile.