Some people create their story bible as they write. Others work on it after they've finished. Some want to have their story bible created and ready for them before they begin writing.
So, how do you turn a novel's concept into facts for your story bible? That's hard. It's one thing to take concrete ideas and events in a story and write down the important world building notes. It's another entirely to build a world from a basic story concept.
This post is designed to walk you through how I handle turning a concept into a world I can write a novel in. I'm also going to cover what pieces of information I feel need written down versus the things I will write down after the book has been completed.
The Culture of My Character
The first thing I focus on is the character and the culture required to produce the type of character I want to write. This is the best starting spot for me because I find that cultural differences often offer ample conflict sources, both internal and external.
So, what do I need to create a culture for my novel? Remember, I work with traditional and epic fantasy, so I can't just list a real culture and get away with it. I can base a culture on a real culture, but it won't be sufficient to work with. Once again, this is what I need to create a world, so your mileage may vary.
Step One: Dominance Type
I establish whether it's a male-dominated community, a female-dominated community, or an equally-dominated community. This impacts how my character may act depending on their gender. For example, The Eye of God takes place in a predominantly male-dominated cultural community. This is an extremist culture type, as well. Storm Without End has many different cultural types, but the realm the main characters are from are from an equally-dominated community with a few caveats. There are gender roles, but each gender group has equal power in the grand scheme of things. At a glance, many may believe it is a male-dominated community, but the women control just as many elements of life within the Rift as the men do.
They're a practical people, however, so the men will do the more dangerous things in order to ensure their people survive. The women take up other roles. Equally-dominated communities are rare in my opinion, and require a certain set of circumstances to actually happen.
Most cultures in the world are either male-dominated (Patriarch) or female-dominated (Matriarch).
Step Two: Religion in your Culture
Religion plays a huge role in culture types. When you're establishing your dominance roles, don't forget to consider your religions as well. Religion often helps form the gender dominance roles.
Just take a look at the Catholic community, or at a Muslim community. Gender roles are well defined, and they are directly tied to the religion of the people within the community.
Religion matters. You may not delve deep into the religious aspects of your world, but you should at least be aware of how the religion of your people impacts their culture.
Step Three: Trade in your Culture
How did your people get to be where they are? Trade and resources is probably the answer to that question. Look at the resources around them, and consider how it would impact their culture. A community of people living on the shores of the ocean likely fish versus raise cattle. A community of people living in the desert may not know what a fish is and believe it a spawn of demons the first time they see one.
Are your people reclusive without reason to mingle with other cultures? Xenophobia is a large risk for them, then, especially if their religion dictates that they should remain as a pure race.
I try to list out the big factors of trade based on their environment and ecology of where they live. This gives me a solid foundation for how characters from this area may behave.
Consider this: In the eastern United States, the Amish people shun many modern contrivances. This cultural group is often looked down at with a certain amount of scorn for being extremely different. It's hard to understand people who have beliefs far outside of your own, and this should show in cultural interactions in your novels, be it a fantasy, a science fiction, or a general literature book.
These three things are the foundation for all of the characters in my novels, so I try to have it clarified in my mind before I start writing — even if I don't necessarily add it to my story bible until later.
The Magic of the World
While this is relevant to me as a fantasy (and sci-fantasy) writer, you can exchange magic for technology for science fiction and modern UF/USF stories. You can even convert this to modern literature, if you're recording the type of tech your characters carry around as a general rule.
For magic, I typically build one system I share across all universes. In a way, I pretend Earth is just a single planet in a universe, and the worlds from my other stories are connected to the same universe, be it through worm holes, on the other side of black holes, or other wibbly-wobbly time magic stuff. In a way, I tend to view each world I create as a spin-off of our own universe, although the magically charged sections are in a galaxy far, far away.
Step One: Define the Level of Magic/Technology
Knowing what sort of world you need to create helps. Define what sort of technology or magic your world and story needs to work. Both The Eye of God and Storm Without End are high in levels of magic, although most of the characters don't actively work in magic. (Though some do!) This lets me build the story accounting for that extra bit of magic.
High magic worlds include things like sorcerers, mages, access to magically-imbued items, and Gods or Goddesses who meddle in the affairs of men.
Medium magic worlds have limited access to these things.
Low magic worlds have very little access to these things.
No magic worlds would be crafted to be like Earth: No magic, but science, when not understood, can look like magic…
Step Two: Identify the Function of Magic in your Story
Adding magic for the sake of adding magic may not be a good idea. Identify how magic should impact your story, and build your magic system with that in mind.
Write down the most important factors of magic in your world. (See Step Three.)
Step Three: Build the Basics
Magic can be built in an infinite number of ways, but here are the things I think about when I'm building a magic system:
This is how magic is created or functions. If you have a divine powering spells, you would list down information on the being who fuels magic powers. If it's the elements, you would define these elements and how they interact with each other. The source is the natural state magic occurs without human intervention.
How the Source is Accessed
Go into some details about how a character would gain access to magic or divine powers in your world. Give them rules, rituals, or anything that would help them use magic without blowing themselves (and others) up.
The Limitations of Magic
Magic is more fun when there are limitations and rules to its use. If you have a character who can do anything just because he or she wants to, it gets boring to read. Limitations make things interesting. Figure out how your characters might be limited. For example, a flame element user might not be able to work any sort of magic during a rainstorm… come up with limitations that serve as challenges for your characters.
Write these things down.
The Price of Power
Power, magic or otherwise, shouldn't come free. Note down what prices your characters might be forced to pay in order to access their magic. It could be insanity. It could be risk of death from exhausting themselves. It could be the loss of their soul. There are lots of things you can do to attach a price to power and magic.
It makes the reading of the book more interesting if the characters actually have to sacrifice something in order to be powerful.
When you're brainstorming all of these things, write down the important bits of information so you can be consistent in your world. Don't be afraid to layer it like an onion. The key to building a strong, viable world lies in depth. Like with cultures, the world isn't just an isolated group of people — usually. Find the connections between people and the world they live in, and it becomes possible to create a world that feels real even though it isn't.
Don't be afraid if you miss anything before you start writing. You can always add depth to your story bible after you have finished drafting and editing, especially if you're working on a series.