Here's what I have so far. I'll be running the panel as a Build-A-World workshop using audience ideas, so we can practice doing all this stuff.
Start with One
Take a single idea and see where it leads you. Say "It's like Earth, but..." (or perhaps, "It's like Middle Earth, but...") and then focus on that "but". Don't start with a bunch of different ideas that don't fit together very well. If you have a story about talking dragons and then a set of time-traveling wolves show up, you've just added a second idea that completely changes the game.
If, in the process of Step Two, you think of more ideas that fit well with your world, go ahead and add more. But for our initial attempt, we're starting with one idea and one idea only.
Follow Ideas to their Logical Conclusion
Every change has consequences. If it's like Earth but snow is acidic, that changes not just the way people act in winter, but the way they build their houses. Acid-resistant materials become highly important, and architecture has to be designed in a way that funnels deadly snow away from sidewalks. Instead of letting snow sit heavily on rooftops and parking garages all year, perhaps the city funds teams of specially trained snowfighters to clear and safely dispose of recently fallen snow. And depending on if this is a recent change or if it's always been true, the effects might even be more far-reaching.
That's a stupid example, but the point is that even a simple change can have far-reaching effects that can completely transform your world. It's essential to think about what those effects are and how they occur.
First, determine if this is recent change or if it's always been the case. Second, try to figure out how it changes things. Ask, how does this idea affect:
- A normal life
- Cities (building and planning and living in them)
- Other stuff I haven't thought of yet
I don't know how to keep this part from getting too nitty-gritty. Maybe I shouldn't worry about that?
Create a Unique and Realistic Culture with Diverse Influences
Going off our acid-snow idea, people would be more likely to live near the equator, where it never snows, then in Canada or Greenland. But that doesn't mean nobody lives there, because people are crazy and adaptable. So now we have at least two cultures that would develop naturally; one in the warm heart of Brazil and one in the frigid depths of Greenland.
(I really hope my retreat group comes up with a better idea than that one.)
- What are the people who live here like?
- What do they look like?
- Just because Hollywood thinks White is Default doesn't mean we have to. I'll talk a bit here about creating a multi-colored world and about avoiding racial stereotypes.
- Where do they live?
- What do they do for a living?
- How do they spend their days?
- How do they feel about the central idea?
- How do they feel about outsiders?
- What kinds of stories do they tell?
- What is the predominant religion? What about splinter factions and competing religions?
Most importantly, remember that a culture isn't a monolith. Inside American culture, you'll find people who fervently disagree on the proper usage of texting, vaccinations, and guns, to pick three topics completely at random. So let's add some more diversity.
- How do people in this culture differ from one another?
- What are some main points of friction for different groups in this culture?
- What are some good reasons they have to disagree?
- What are some principles that almost everyone will agree on?
Display Real People living Real Lives
Sure, there's an elite group of people whose job it is to delve into the snow and retrieve the priceless Ice of Cooling. But you also need a clerk who notes when they leave and what they bring back. For every Evil Organization, you need an Evil Janitor who dumps the ash trays and disposes of the bodies.
And everybody has a mom. Most people even have dads and grandmas and cousins. You don't need to list their entire family tree when you create them, but consider them in the light of having people who care about them.
Choose a person who isn't a main character, but who the main characters will have to interact with.
- What do they look like? Gender? Skin color?
- Ethnic identity? Political and/or religious affiliation?
- Why are they here? Why are they interacting with the characters? What's their goal?
- What do they care about? What do they want? What do they want to avoid?
- What secrets do they have?
When you can do this two or three times for the same character and have totally different characters who still make sense in your world and culture, you've #nailedit.
Now I've gone and written all this stuff and I feel like I'm back to square one, Too Specific, again. Hah.