This line is quite arguably one of the most famous clichés in all of literature. It’s become so cliché, in fact, that I would venture that most people can quote it and that few people know of its origins. Of course, when Bulwer-Lytton first wrote it, it wasn’t a cliché. The opening to Paul Clifford — a tale about a highway robbery set during the French Revolution — has an obvious purpose: to set the mood for the book.
Writing tools is a term often applied to the intangibles of our craft; our knowledge, skills, and techniques which are applied in the process of developing outlines, hammering out plots, and spinning prose to amaze our readers. I want to talk today about the more tangible writing tools at our disposal: Pens, notebooks, laptops, and software. Most notably, I want to discuss one particular piece of online software that has revolutionized how I approach an important part of writing science fiction and fantasy: Worldbuilding. Today, I want to talk about World Anvil.
A quick disclaimer: Although my publishing company (Kyanite Publishing, LLC) interacts with World Anvil on occasion, I am in no way being reimbursed by World Anvil, its owners, or its associates in return for writing this article. I am doing so of my own accord in hopes of sharing useful information with the writing community.
What is World Anvil?
World Anvil is a website (www.worldanvil.com) founded in October of 2017 by Janet Forbes and Dimitris Havlidis. It is a place where authors, table-top RPG (role playing game) dungeonmasters, and hobbyists can develop, maintain, and display fictional worlds in a wiki-style system. Work produced on the website remains the sole property and copyright of the author, and it may be publicly displayed or kept private depending upon that author’s preferences. The end-results can vary greatly depending upon how many of the myriad of features each individual chooses to employ, ranging from simple text documents to fully customized and formatted articles with images, links, and interactive maps.
The Kingdom of Brisland, from my own World Anvil project: Istaria.
From the Notebook to the Forge
I started my own journey down the rabbit hole of worldbuilding some time in the early 1990s, in what some may consider through the lens of nostalgia the heyday of Dungeons & Dragons. The second edition AD&D rule set had just been released in 1989, and new settings such as Dragonlance and Dark Sun were inspiring many of us young would-be authors to craft our own unique settings to explore within the game.
Worldbuilding is the process of constructing an imaginary world, sometimes associated with a whole fictional universe. The resulting world may be called a constructed world. … Constructed worlds can be created for personal amusement and mental exercise, or for specific creative endeavors such as novels, video games, or role-playing games. — Definitions.net
And thus did the spiral notebooks, three-ring binders, and hand-scrawled maps on graph paper begin to pile up. What began as a hobby became an obsession, and soon there were boxes of notes detailing everything from geopolitical turmoil to the mating habits of certain local waterfowl. As time passed and I adapted to our new digital age, I was certain that there would soon be a better way to accomplish these tasks. Thirty years passed, and despite options such as meticulously organized directories of documents, programs like OneNote, and even Scriviner (and anybody who knows me knows that I swear by Scriviner for writing my manuscripts!); I had yet to find a system that surpassed the utility of the good old spiral notebook and three-ring binder. Then I discovered this website called World Anvil, created by worldbuilders for worldbuilders with one thing in mind: Worldbuilding.
Stoking the Fires of Creativity
I was intrigued, to say the least. I had recently taken the deep dive into serious professional writing of fiction and I had several settings that I was maintaining simultaneously. Moreso than these, I had an epic fantasy project outlined that I knew would require a massive amount of worldbuilding, and I was prepared to fill another cardboard box with notebooks to achieve this goal. That was right about when I discovered World Anvil in October of 2018.
The site was a year old, and it was growing. I found it through a YouTube channel called Tale Foundry that had partnered with them for a writing competition.
The competition was to develop a world and set up the basics behind a story, and then Tale Foundry would write the story and read it on their channel. I was hooked!
“Badges, we don’t need no stinkin’ badges!” Yes…yes, we do.
No, I didn’t win. I did get a shiny participation badge though; the first of many. I realized at this point that this site was much more than a tool for worldbuilding: It was a home for it. There was interaction, scheduled events, rewards, and a growing community of like-minded individuals all rallying around the World Anvil website and team. And as I explored other authors’ works on the site, I discovered that they were producing some amazing content! I was inspired to do the same, and I was pushed to do so with more quality than I had ever considered putting into my worldbuilding before.
“That’s all great,” you say, “but what about the website itself? Is it a useful tool?”
It is indeed! In addition to everything mentioned above, the actual layout and system of the World Anvil website is not only a useful way to produce, organize, and display information; but the templates built into it offer built-in prompts that made me think of things about my worlds that I had never considered before!
Would I have thought of this if I was detailing it in a notebook? Probably not, but World Anvil reminded me to do it!
Breathing Life Into Your Setting
“But, B.K.,” you say. “I don’t do a lot of worldbuilding for my books. My stories are all character-driven, so I don’t have to keep extensive notes or detail minutiae that I will later need to reference and use in my writing. This sounds great, but it’s not something every writer can use. Why should I be interested in what World Anvil has to offer if I’m not a worldbuilder?”
What was the name of that gas station Jodie stopped by on the way to the lakeside cabin, where he had that conversation with whatshisname about that party down at whosiswhat’s house?
So, every writer has had that moment where they’ve had to scroll back three chapters in a manuscript to remember the name of some minor character or detail of a location. At the very least, World Anvil can be a place to keep notes like this. Admittedly, there are other options, but it’s worth a look.
If you’re not a worldbuilder or considering writing epic fantasy or hard science fiction, and you’re still reading this: Thank you for hanging in there! Don’t worry, this next part is for you!
Okay, so you don’t write science fiction or fantasy. Or, maybe you do, but you don’t develop sweeping and expansive settings for your books. Honestly, I’ve written several pieces that have bare-bones worldbuilding and focus more on character and plot, so I totally admit there’s some projects that simply do not need something like this. But, just because you don’t create entire civilizations down to what color is socially acceptable to wear after the annual harvest festival doesn’t mean that you won’t potentially get some use out of this.
And this is where I’m going to veer off the superhighway of worldbuilding and get down to what any fiction writer can relate to regardless of genre: Characters.
It has been said time and time again that there are three main facets of any story: setting, plot, and character. And, it is well known that character is the most important part of this equation. One need only do a cursory search online for writing tools (the tangible sort), and they will find a plethora of character sketch worksheets, questionnaires, and guides for developing rich and believable characters.
I argue that World Anvil has built into its framework everything you need.
The character template on the website has spaces for the usual questions, from physical characteristics to personal history. But it delves deeper and has fields that beg to be filled in; asking about personal taboos, mental quirks, physical mannerisms, life goals, and pretty much everything else you will find on the best character sketch worksheet, and then some.
In addition to this, World Anvil just launched a new aspect of the website called “Heroes“. I’ve played around with the new features briefly, but I’ve found so far that this is the most involved character creation utility I’ve ever seen. Moreso than this, it’s also a social network for characters! While you need not interact with others, or even make what you develop visible to the public, the potential of being put on the spot by other author’s characters talking to your own might make you dive deeper into the mind of that oh so important aspect of your story.
Brego, protagonist of Blood of the Desert, now has his own social media profile? And he’s emo?
The number of fields to fill in on the advanced profile in Heroes outweighs even those in the character template in the main World Anvil structure. It’s definitely geared more towards short-form profiles rather than long biographies, but for many that’s as far as we ever get anyway. In addition, you can post thoughts from your character’s point of view, out of character posts such as the quote from Blood of the Desert shown above, and even journal entries. Want to have your character keep a journal of everything that happens while writing the book — either for later release, promotional purposes, or just to keep track? Here you go…thank me later.
World Anvil membership is free, and one can access the majority of the features offered without any monetary commitment. There are also several levels of “Guild Membership” that unlock different tiers of features, such as removing ads from the site or enabling a larger number of worlds that you can develop. I have been a guild member since November of 2018, and I plan to continue to be a member indefinitely. I am nothing but overjoyed by the services offered, the community, and the staff of World Anvil. Speaking of community, I should not neglect to mention that there is a very active Discord server with thousands of active users, weekly Twitch streams, a YouTube channel, monthly contests, and two large annual events all hosted by World Anvil. I digress to my point above: More than being a writing tool, World Anvil is a community.
I hope you have found this interesting, enlightening, and perhaps even a bit entertaining. I invite you to check out World Anvil and Light Up the Forge!