One day in the library, I was talking to a writer friend about world building. Her character had arrived to a set of islands, and needed to get to one in the east, and so she drew the layout for me on a piece of paper. The four islands were connected in a circular fashion by their routes and the position of the islands themselves.
And that got me to thinking. How many times, in my world-building process have I reached for a circle as a city/island/kindgom layout?
Circles are nice.
Don’t get me wrong. I like circles. If you chose a point, draw all the points that are of equal distance to that point, and connect those dots, you’ll have a circle. They’re very pleasant, peaceful shapes.
But that’s the very problem with circles.
Circles are too nice.
Rarely do we see islands or anything natural in a circular formation. Most likely, circular cities or island formations will be manmade, because the architects want to give people an easier time getting from one place to another. So, if you are building a fictional city of the past or the future, circular cities might be more conducive to structures of harmony or balance.
Which is fine, if that’s the impression you want the place you’re building to have.
But if not, consider what shape fits your story best.
Choose shape based on tension and impression.
Great stories are hinged upon what is known as “tension”. This is not the “tension” of the “suspense” kind. When I mean “tension,” I mean the ongoing conflict in your story. Readers don’t read a story about the one day Jeff bought lemonade. Readers read a story about the day Jeff wanted to buy lemonade from the girl at the lemonade stand, but gets bullied out of his money by a kid named Craig, and has to find another way to get money or lemonade while avoiding Craig. It’s the set of obstacles that impede your character from achieving what they want.
If you have four islands, sure. They can be arranged as a circle. But what about a square? A triangle? What if one island was really far away from the rest? Or what if two islands were really close to each other? Now that some places take longer or shorter to get to, how does that affect your world’s economy? Are certain routes open and closed during certain times of the week? Month? Year? Is there less of a government present in those islands/provinces/kindgoms? Does one island consider itself more independent than, or excluded from, the others?
And if you decide that the only shape that fits your story is a circle, but want to include tension in it, consider the inner circle versus the outer circle. Do some people live further from the center than others? What is in the center? Nothing? The government? Do they like this fact? Do they not?
In short, making things more difficult or challenging makes your story more interesting and compelling. Of course, you don’t want to make it too complicated to function. There should be some component driving the world/culture along. But it helps to have it be a roller coaster instead of a merry-go-round.
“But this sounds like so much work…”
If there’s one thing that I’m learning about world-building, it’s that there’s no way around it.
If you want to create believable worlds, you’ve got to buckle down and think about it deeply, as if the world were a character itself. As someone who wants to write fantasy for a living, and do writing for a living, I’m very prone to seek out “tips and tricks” to make the worldbuilding process faster. I watched a video on worldbuilding, and the description was very enticing, promising “tips and tricks” for worldbuilding like they were magic formulas.
But alas, it was all what I had heard before. “Think about what your people eat. Think about what they believe. What clothes they wear,” etc.
In other words, get down to the nitty-gritty. There is no shortcut. There is no way to make this faster, except to think deeply about it.
But don’t get discouraged. You might discover that a certain group of people in your story like to eat frogs on a certain day of the week, or that their week is only five days long instead of seven. Or you might find that because the continent formation is that of a skewed pentagon that travel to the main island is harder for more islands than others. Within the work or worldbuilding, there is bound to be discovery and excitement. So don’t give up.
And before you decide to choose a circle again for a layout, consider some other shapes, too. It might just spice up your story even more. If you find that you’re asking more questions, you’re on the right track to making sure they’re answered in your story.