#WBW – Approaches to World Building

Hey frens,

I know it’s been a bit of a long hiatus, a month since the last post. As I mentioned I was visiting Java, but I’m back on Australian shores now and ready to get back into the world building business once more!

To celebrate a year of talking about the worlds we can build, and how we build them, I decided to reach out to some of my friends in the arts and talk to them about their creations. My guests for this post are the lovely Rachael, who some of you may remember from the podcast and other previous posts. Alongside Rachael, we’re joined by my talented friend Kellen of Super Retro Heart, and my dear friend Stacey who, like me, loves to dabble in the literary arts.

There is something of a theme to all the narrative worlds today as well, each of them shows the world from a different perspective than usual. Creativity, in general, is a realm where shifting your perspective even a fraction can yield great results.

We’ve been focusing for such a long time on the bits and pieces of world building, I wanted this anniversary post to showcase some complete worlds, and I hope you’ll enjoy exploring the different mediums and methods my wonderful friends use to tell a story, and be inspired to keep plugging away at your own works too.


Kellen first started work on his webcomic Terraform a few years ago now, and he’s currently in the process of revamping it with all the skills and knowledge he’s acquired since then. But Kellen is a prolific artist, and Terraform’s unique characters show up frequently in his posts over at Super Retro Heart.

On the surface, the world of Terraform doesn’t seem much different to our own world, but there are plenty of intricate details which set it apart from reality as we know it, and uncovering them is part of the story. What exactly is that story? Well, in Kellen’s words it’s about

The ordinary days of Amanda and Hero, life-long friends living in a quiet college town, turn extraordinary when they’re greeted by a strange dog-like woman who mysteriously appeared in their apartment. This unusual woman who call herself “Nova” quickly becomes the catalyst for a tale about life, love, friendship, pancakes, a major military organization, and what it means to be anything but human.

I read Terraform as Kellen was releasing it the first time around, and I really fell in love with the world he built back then, and the characters who lived in it. So I thought he would be a great person to ask for some insight into the creative process of building the world of your narrative.

Like most people who have created a vivid and relatable world, when asked about his inspirations, Kellen’s first response is “Way too many to think of off the top of my head!”

But there are some influences which stand out. The school system presented in Terraform is a mix of the American and Japanese school systems, and Kellen has some clear reasoning behind this choice.

“This was for a handful of reasons; in part, I liked the idea of higher education and college being a free or non-profit extension of our current scholastic system in America, and in part because I was and still am hopeful for the kind of future where we see outside ideas and culture being integrated instead of shunned. It also made a great excuse to put characters in cute uniforms while still telling a story about adults.”

The iconic character, Nova, is based on the dog, a Samoyed, which Kellen’s parents got shortly after he moved out of the family home, “surely a coincidence,” he says. Nova’s height amongst the cast came directly from the size of Samoyeds, a big, fluffy breed. Along with her long, white hair.

He also notes All Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku as a source of inspiration, noting that Nova’s infectiously cheerful personality, and some of her design choices, came from Nuku Nuku.

He also credits Bryan lee O’Malley and the Scott Pilgim series as an influence in the creation of Terraform.

“Seeing how Bryan Lee O’Malley was able to tell a complete tale using video games as a medium in a black and white format really struck me. I had a lot of ideas for comics that I never really followed-up on, but I think those books reached me at the right time to start thinking about how to create a complete narrative world. It’s also really fun to see how his style changed and solidified from beginning to end. It was around that time that Nova really started to solidify as a character, and I started putting together characters from other ideas I had, resulting in what Terraform is now.”

There are also plenty of small details drawn from real life which help colour the world of Terraform, and make it seem like a real city in our not-too-distant future. The name of the city comes from the name of a park near where Kellen grew up, and countless nods to the pop culture, anime, cartoons and video games that were part of many a 90’s kid’s childhood.

I really love it when someone can blend the fantastic with the urban reality that I find myself living day to day, which is one of the main things I’ve always loved about Terraform.

But, there are other ways to achieve that sort of blending in the world of your narrative, and that brings me to my next guest for this post.

A Cheesy Thing Called Love

Not that long ago I spoke about how food can be used to clever effect when it comes to narratives and world building. When I wrote those words, I immediately thought of my friend Stacey, who once wrote a short story that played with romance tropes, and food.

The story, A Cheesy Thing Called Love, is a humorous little dig at the romance genre, with cleverly crafted puns hidden between the lines.

I am not going to lie to you, mac. I never got her name, that would have made it too easy. But what I do know, that she was my everything. Just by the mere brush of her skin against mine, I knew I was destined to be with her. Naturally, at first, I just wanted to be inside her. I know, I am sick.

Stacey was inspired to write it by an old editor, who had said they felt her writing style might be suited to humour. Taking the advice,

“I decided to go with a serious love story, but alter it slightly so that it was not only believable but every once in awhile the reader is reminded that – oh hey, this is still a silly story.”

Without spoiling too much of the tale, Stacey decided to write a story about cheese because, as she says it, “I knew that everyone loved cheese, plus it seemed like the most outlandish thing at the time.”

You can read Stacey’s short story in its entirety here, and I recommend it before you head on to the next paragraph, because a few spoilers do lie ahead.

I asked Stacey a little about her creative process when writing, A Cheesy Thing Called Love,

“I remember thinking of the different ways that I could make this story become reality. And at first, I simply was just going to write it based on the relationship between the cheese and his lover. However, as I wrote the story the world began to develop.”

As Stacey puts it, the development initially developed with ‘why someone would throw out a block of cheese because it got mouldy’, “Mould is a growth; one would normally see a doctor regarding their mysterious growths.”

This question was the catalyst that began the world building for this narrative with a protagonist of cheese. Stacey re-inforced the realism of her world of cheese by littering dairy related words and cheese names throughout the narrative, to help “create the illusion for the reader that the cheese would shift from being a human, with human sympathies and problems.”

This strategy also heightens much of the comedic elements within the text, as just as the reader is beginning to feel drawn to the protagonist’s plight, a pun will appear “to remind the reader that they are still reading about cheese.”

Stacey’s short story is, to my mind, a very clever example of how you can use the ‘every day’ in different and original ways to create new worlds for your ideas to play out in.

Phone Series

As an illustrator, Rachael works under the name Elam Bonebright. The character of her works are unique and original, suffused with the individual and explorative way that she approaches building her stories and worlds.

“The worlds that I create within my art and illustrations are largely conceptual, and often built around the perspective of its characters. I think that the world to a single person is a very limited scope of experiences, and it shrinks or expands to fit that frame of perspective. While I do write both independently and in collaboration with my illustrations, most of my narratives are told visually through the use of symbols and metaphor.”

While certainly, her presentation is more visceral, the creative process of building a narrative and its structure is still part and parcel of the finished product. I wanted to talk with Rachael about her processes because her end product is something remarkably different from what I myself create, and I believe exploring the many different ways in which worlds can be built, and stories can be told, is an important exercise in sharpening and broadening your own skills.

Rachael and I discussed a work that formed part of his Master’s, Phone Series.

In her own words, Phone Series is;

a reduction of narrative as it is explored in five aspects of structure and progression: object, space, time, action, and experience (after which each piece of the collection is titled).

This series was composed of a working telephone, and four scrolls depicting the same telephone in varied space and environments.

Object depicts the telephone isolated in the bottom left of the paper, with nothing surrounding it, “the telephone is the main character of this story, made evident by its isolation in the first panel.”

As she explains it;

It is also introducing a point of perspective about the world through the character’s placement on the paper. Tucking a character into a corner, particularly a lower corner, is often visual shorthand for introspection. So when the viewer moves on to the next scroll, which shows the object in its environment, they’re viewing that scene from the perspective of the phone.

Space continues to explore the world of the phone, this time introducing a minimalist interior setting, “This space is the character’s world, though the concept of something larger exists faintly through a window that looks onto the outer wall of the neighboring building. While Time shows a progression of age, using subtle changes in the image that hint at the absence of a living presence as the world falls into disrepair. Lastly, Experience, the physical telephone on its pedestal, brings the reader into the story,

“During the exhibition the phone rings at inconsistent, sometimes frantic intervals that are meant to entice the viewer to answer the call, at which point a live person on the other end repeats “Hello?” until either party chooses to hang up. This interaction with the telephone, our main character up to this point, brings the viewer into the story and makes them a part of it.”

As she notes, the physical representation of the telephone “also introduces the fourth wall and leaves the viewer to question whether they are a passive observer in a gallery, or a character within the story of the work.”

Phone Series reduces the concept of narrative to the singular aspect of an object, then expands out from that object, creating a world and story, before reducing it again to the isolated object of the phone, “this time in real, temporal space.”

This is an exhibition I would have loved to see in person, with such a unique premise. The method that Rachael employed in her series, building the world from around the object, is another approach to world building that can provide fresh perspectives and be a valuable tool when creating narratives in any genre, or for any medium. You can check out more of her art over at her Instagram.

I know I’m definitely lucky to have the brains of such talented friends to pick through when I’m looking for ideas and inspiration for my own world building, and I hope this fortnight’s post has given you at least some of those same benefits!

We’ll be back at the same time as usual, next fortnight, no more long hiatuses!

Until then, happy world building!