Worldbuilding and plot are like the chicken and egg of fantasy: people often want to know which came first. Do authors create a fascinating new world and then figure out a plot to fit inside it? Or do they come up with a plot first and then build a world around it?
For me, at least, the answer is something in between. When I wrote Darkhaven, it started with an initial idea that was really just a vivid scene – the scene that’s still the opening of the book. So there was a vague suggestion of plot, a little bit of setting, but not much of either. After that, I probably came up with the basic elements of the main plot, which in turn suggested a certain kind of setting – and then that setting, in turn, suggested further refinements and additions to the plot. So the worldbuilding and the plot evolved together, each influencing the direction of the other.
Consider the city of Arkannen, which is where the events of Darkhaven take place. I started out with Darkhaven itself, the tower at the heart of the city, because that’s where my character Ayla is fleeing from at the beginning of the book. I knew she was trying to evade the law, and I didn’t want to make it too easy for her. In a modern city her obstacles would be video surveillance, cell phone tracking, use of credit cards; in an industrial revolution era city, where it would be far easier to go undetected, the solution was to make Arkannen very structured. So it has seven ‘rings’ or concentric walled circles, each with a single gate. Each of the city’s rings also has its own purpose and character, allowing me to present Ayla with various different environments to navigate. And in turn, this highly structured setting suggested new plot points, particularly when it came to the final act of the book.
The same was true when it came to the kind of time period in which to set the book. I didn’t want to give it a medieval setting, but I still wanted to have swords and horses alongside the steam trams and factories. So industrial revolution was perfect for me, because it’s always a time in history when new and old coexist. And once I’d made that decision, when I was seeking an unusual weapon to give my female mercenary an advantage over her competitors, the obvious choice was a pistol: a new technology to set against the old ‘technology’ of bladed weapons. In turn, that opened up a whole new strand of the plot, because – not to get all spoilery about it – it turns out that pistols have very specific effects in my world that other weapons don’t. In fact, those effects will play a significant role in Darkhaven’s sequel. So once again, a general bit of worldbuilding led to a new plot point, which fed back into the worldbuilding again.
I don’t know about other authors, but for me, I think it’s pretty much inevitable that worldbuilding and plot should be intertwined like this. In fact, perhaps it’s a mistake to think of them as being separate entities at all. Like the chicken and the egg, neither could exist without the other. Something similar is true of plot and character – it’s impossible to develop the characters of a novel and develop its plot independently of each other, because the plot has to be consistent with how the people in it would behave. After all, you can’t have a plot that exists without characters. And you can’t have a plot that exists without worldbuilding, either. Things happen to people, in places.
One of my favourite parts of writing is how exciting it can be when a previously underdeveloped aspect of the world or strand of the plot comes to life and brings something I hadn’t thought of to the story, or turns out to be connected to another strand I thought was unrelated. I imagine it would be possible to design a fully complete world and populate it with fully developed characters, then set them in motion; the plot would follow from the characteristics of the people and their setting, as inevitable as the laws of physics. Or you could come up with a detailed and clever plot, then build the people and their world around it, retrofitting their characteristics to suit the requirements of the story. But neither of those approaches would hold any surprises for the author. Letting the story and the world grow together, and develop organically, is much more fun – and, in the end, probably more satisfying for the reader too.