Fantasy. Historical fiction. Sci-fi. Space opera. Time travel.
All of these genres have one major thing in common: they require some kind of world building.
So let’s start this week’s topic off by defining what exactly world building is. This element of storytelling is used by writers to develop a unique place where a particular story occurs. It can be simple, like a modern fantasy with unique animals, or extremely detailed, developing an entire ecology, drafting maps, constructing religions, or creating a history for that world’s people.
Creating a world is a huge undertaking. There’s many, many things to consider when doing so, and I’m going to tell you all some things you should definitely consider when developing in your world, and then some do’s and don’ts of world building.
First off, let me state that this is not a process post. I’m a firm believer that it is impossible for every writer to use the same process to build a world. Each world is inspired by one unique idea, so it makes sense that this process would be very different from person to person. If the animals of your world were what inspired you to create that world, then your process might start more with ecology. If the politics were your inspiration, you might start with the government.
To allow you to be completely thorough with your world-building, I’ve constructed an extensive world-building guide.
To be honest, it’s too extensive. Most people won’t use all of these points and that’s okay. If you need extra room, there’s a blank sheet at the end you can print and customize!
Just like character profile sheets, you might know how officers are elected in your world, but you don’t need to write it down. If it’s something that you’ll remember 5 years from now, then don’t write it down.
If it’s something that might be used in later novels, after you’ve worked on other series, then you should probably jot it down for your own sake.
Let’s go over the big items nearly everyone should consider:
The people. What are they like in each region of your world? Do they all have similar physical traits? If you’re writing an urban fantasy, they might all look different and be from all over the world. Is there a signature style of clothing everyone wears? Are there specific words or jargon they use from region to region?
If your world is an actual world, then you’d have to consider the climate that each race is from. Those from hot, tropical climates might be more tanned while those from the thick forest region might be thinner and limber so they can scale trees. You’re already starting to see how quickly this branches out!
Language. Yes, this should fall under the previous category, but it’s such a fun topic and an excellent way of adding a unique flare to your novel.
We can all agree that the king of this is the wonderful J.R.R. Tolkien, whose apparent inspiration for Middle earth stemmed from developing a unique elvish language.
Making up your own language can be a huge undertaking, but you don’t need a word for word translation into your imaginary language. A region in your world might use harsh letter combinations (think Norse…just because I’m knee-deep in the Vikings show right now) or very fluid like French.
Study these languages and the letter combinations that make them so unique. Use one or two “rules” for each region and keep them consistent.
I know you guys love examples for coming up with languages, so here you go! One of your cultures could use double letters “aa” or “uu” in their words more frequently. Take a favorite word of yours and tweak the letters until you come up with a unique version you can use in your book. I like the word “unique,” so what about Ubiiq for a city name?
More information on this topic is coming up in another video, so let me know if there’s any particular concerns you might have. You can comment down below or contact me here.
This part of your world is all about the ecosystems, animals, plants, geography and the life cycle of your world. Ecology is directly impacted by the environment, so make sure your spiked and fire-retardant creatures became that way from the harsh environment that they lived in.
The same is said for plants – if an environment is particularly harsh, then the plants might not be edible, or might be bitter or difficult to harvest.
Think of how these things could affect your story, and if it’s useful, then definitely include it!
Cities and landmarks. The seven wonders of the world. Those are important landmarks, right? Give your world some! There doesn’t have to be seven, although there’s some interesting importance in various cultures with the number seven (hello inspiration).
Come up with stories for these places and consider why they’re of importance. Did a great battle occur there? Is it a holy site?
And what about the cities? Most major cities develop close to some form of water. What are the buildings made of? Seek inspiration from history on what each city’s purpose is and why it developed.
Societal concerns. What kind of government does your world have? Has it always been the same form of government or have there been quite a few? What social classes are there? What professions are there, and which are considered more respectable?
What about every day social things? Where do people go to have a drink at night? What do people eat from each region?
Religion has played a huge role in the history of people on Earth, so what religious concerns does your world have? Is there a predominant religion(s)?
Sorry for the twenty questions game, but there’s just soooo much to cover!
Magic. This is the last big item I wanted to discuss because it’s muy importante. Nailing the magic element in your novel can make or break its popularity.
Your magic system has to make sense. How did this magic develop in the first place? What are its limits and boundaries? What weaknesses does this magic system have?
Even if you don’t end up spelling it all out in your novel, as a writer, you need to know this information.
Want your magic to be believable? Then don’t spontaneously give a character the ability to shoot laser beams out of their kneecaps so they’ll get out of a sticky situation.
Your reader needs to know those elements before your main character uses them, or at least knows of its possibility.
Magic is fun, but it can also be dangerous (to your story). Tread carefully!
Now that we’ve gone over some broad strokes of world-building, let me give you my single biggest tip!
Do not make your world the focus of the story. Your world should be where the story takes place, but it shouldn’t be your entire story (at least at first…if you have a lot of interest in the world you create, then people might be interested in an encyclopedia of the world – but they certainly won’t at the onslaught!).
In other words, world-building supports the evolution of your story. Please don’t think I’m crazy for this next part: there’s no difference between a historical fiction novel following the rise and fall of a kingdom and Game of Thrones. Oh yeah, except of the world building.
They’re the same story! Someone wants a crown, and has to murder everyone to get it. Someone’s pissed off their family was murdered, and wants revenge. The plot is simple. The world is where GoT makes us binge watch it until our eyes bleed. So take a hint from Mr. Martin!
Next up are some tips for our “do” category:
Have fun! It might seem silly to mention this, but if you don’t enjoy your world, then chances are your readers won’t either. This can be a long process, but it should mostly be a fun one. Don’t stress out too much over getting everything just right. Let your imagination wander. Think of every “what if” that you can!
Does your story have unicorns? What if they also have magic healing properties and there’s a whole health system developed around the safe procurement of this property? What if there’s a police agency that exists to protect the wild unicorns? What if there’s a secret group of scientists researching biological unicorn warfare? What if that goes terribly wrong?
I got carried away there, but you get the idea. Brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm! And don’t forget to have some fun with it J
Leave mystery. You want to give your readers just enough where they’re interested, not too much that they’re bored, and leave out enough so that the readers are intrigued. It’s a balance act – one that I would normally say is a juggling act but I can’t juggle. Literally, I can’t. So balance is a better word!
If you create a map of your territory, don’t map out the entire thing. Especially if your character has to take a journey through that region.
Does the King of your land disappear every fourth night and return with specs of blood on his shoes or the back of his cloak? This could be revealed as an ancient ritual to revive one’s long lost dead wife, which turns into a huge problem for the protagonist when they have to defeat this undead crazy woman. This is related to your world’s magic system, so don’t explain every aspect of it right away! If the writer already divulges everything about the magic to the main character, then there’s no surprise when the King walks in with his dead wife. Opportunity missed!
Weave in the history of your world. When you first set out with the task of creating a world or universe, you’re creating a living, breathing thing. How was it created? How do the people think it was created? This could very well affect their behavior in life. Think of the Vikings. If they died honorably in battle, then they were welcoming into the gates of Valhalla. So they lived like they weren’t afraid to die in battle.
The world that you create (probably) doesn’t start at the beginning of your story. It’s been there for a long time. The technology there now wasn’t there before. Legends used to be passed down from one generation to the next – create those! Weave those into your story, because history brings depth. It takes your story from two dimensional to three dimensional (or rather three dimensional to four dimensional because now we’re talking about time…wait, what?).
You want your world to be rich, and history is a great way to do that.
World-building has it’s own plotters and pantsers. Some writers have great success with creating the world as they go, and others (me) have fun creating the world ahead of time.
No one method is right, but here are some things you shouldn’t do:
Don’t make everyone the same. I’m not talking about goblins or elves here, I’m talking about opinions. So your world is based on serving others. PLOT TWIST: someone isn’t about serving others. They hate it! And guess what? This can create tension, which helps keep readers from getting bored.
Take a common theme out of your world and create a people who are opposed to it.
This could just so happen to already be your “bad” guys, but now there’s something that links the unique world to their story.
Don’t skimp on describing technology. Your world is never the focus of your novel, but readers don’t like when things sound made up. The ultimate goal here to make sure your technology makes sense. It doesn’t matter if it’s science fiction and will likely never occur, it’s your job to make your world realistic.
Does your space novel have its own ecosystem complete with rain? Tell us why this is needed and/or how it’s accomplished. Something as brief as “scientists found that a naturally occurring water cycle produces a better environment for plant growth,” would be sufficient. Except actually research it…because I didn’t. That could be totally false.
This doesn’t mean that you should explain every piece of technology in your novel, just explain the things that a reader wouldn’t be able to figure out on his/her own. A film that acts a lot like a cell phone doesn’t really need to be explained!
Avoid info dumps. Sometimes, these may be necessary. I don’t ever think they’re necessary for world-building purposes.
There’s two types of world-building introductions: when the world is new to the reader and the character, or when the character lives in the world, but it’s new to the reader.
The former story would end up explaining more about the world as the character experiences it, so this description would be unfolded over the length of the novel.
If your character already lives in this world that you created, then it wouldn’t make sense for that character to sit and awe at the tunnels of light used as transportation between worlds. If a character is new to this, someone would have to explain this process to the character and it would happen organically. If the character is used to this, then no explanation would occur. The character would step into the light, you could describe the familiar sensation of traveling this way, and your character would arrive at their destination.
Do not explain the world in paragraphs of exposition. Your reader will either not be able to follow (if it gets too complicated), not care to follow (there’s no connection to what it means to the story), or just be put to sleep. Don’t do it!
Don’t spare the research. Just don’t do it. If I know that a good bow can’t be made out of a pine tree, then don’t make that the signature tree in an archery-driven race. I know that’s very specific, but when in doubt, it’s very important to do your research.
You’ll never know who exactly your readers are going to be, but this is guaranteed: someone will be an expert in something you write about. And if you get it wrong? You’ll be discrediting yourself in one swift move, all because you were too lazy to do a little research.
Yes, this might get out of hand sometimes, and your research history will start to raise some flags, but it’s required. Your readers are intelligent, so watch your step when you’re treading in unknown (to you) territory. They’ll appreciate it so much if you nail it!
It takes a lot to build an entire world, but isn’t this what we’ve been doing our entire lives? We didn’t just stare at our dolls and action figures, we made them move! We gave them names and princesses they had to save and dragons they had to fight.
Channel that inner kid and let yourself have fun with this. As a writer, I already know you have an imagination – now use it!
As always, I hope this week’s post was helpful! Since this actually covered two weeks of posts, it was a wee bit longer than my norm.
If you made it all the way down to this part of the post, don’t forget to go check out my world-building worksheet!
If you print it as “fit” to the page, it should print without added margins, giving you more room to write!
If you like worksheets like this one, let me know if you’d want other writer-related worksheets and I’ll certainly cook some up!
Don’t forget to check out an excerpt of my debut novel The Elysian Prophecy, coming out Winter 2016, by clicking here.
Happy writing lovelies!