World Building Basics
World-building is an important part of any novel, whether you are writing a sci-fi novel set on a distant planet or a spy novel set in the 1980s, creating a believable world for your characters to inhabit is an essential element of any successful story.
In this article, you'll discover the steps you need to take to create your world, the questions you need to ask yourself to build a world that works for your novel, and how this world should be presented to your readers as the chapters unfold.
The article assumes you are new to the concept of world-building or have limited knowledge of what it involves to create a fictional world. It aims to provide guidelines and best practices that you, the writer, can apply to your own process of creating a believable world.
Considering The World-building Basics
In its simplest terms, world-building is the process of creating the world in which your characters will live. This world might vary from an almost exact replica of current society, all the way to an alien world with strange creatures.
In essence, there are two types of worlds:
1. Same but different
These are worlds that are mostly similar to the world that we inhabit but have the smallest of differences. This might be a near future with a different political system or an alternative reality in which Hitler won the Second World War. However, it might also be a world set in the 80s, where the technology is different, but the world still needs to be consistent.
An example of a same but different world would be J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series.
These are worlds that are fundamentally different from the 'real' world. These are the worlds where the reader starts with very little understanding of how the world operates and discovering the world is part of the reading experience.
An example of a different world is the Star Wars universe.
It is generally regarded that there are two types of writer: pantser and planner.
A pantser is someone that writes by the seat of their pants, with no planning, letting the story unfold with each session. Alternatively, a planner is someone that plans out each detail before writing.
The reality is that most writers fall somewhere between the two, but the distinction is a good way of forcing writers to think more deeply about the writing process.
It is advisable that all writers (whether pantser or planner) take some time to create the framework for their world, whether this is before they start writing, or as the story unfolds. However, this comes with a word of warning.
J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, was an obsessive world-builder. He described the goal of world-building as creating immersion, or "enchantment" as he put it, and felt descriptions of the world could be wholly disconnected from the story and narrative.
The author represents the extreme of world-builders with his life-long project to create Middle-earth. In total, he spent thirty-eight years adapting what started off as Anglo-Saxon mythology into a living breathing world with its own history and languages. In fact, he even created a language from scratch to use in his books.
Creating a believable world will not require thirty-years of work, but it will require a systematic approach.
In the next section, you will find a number of questions that you should be asking when creating your world. Not all of these questions will be relevant to your world, but many will. The questions have been designed to act as a jump-off point for your imagination.
You may find that if your world is similar to the 'real' world, then many of these elements have already been addressed and will be understood by the reader.
This said, for your world to be believable, all of the major themes from these questions must be considered.
One final thing to consider.
The world you are creating is the stage, not the story. Tolkien might have believed that the world was separate from the story, but it is all too easy to become obsessed.
Your world might initially enthral readers, but it is how your characters react to the events that overtake them that will keep them reading.
Never forget that story is king.
Building Your World
When it comes to building your world, it is important to create a believable world for your characters to inhabit.
Below is a list of questions you can use to help to create the details to your world. Not all of these questions will be relevant to your novel, but they have been designed to ensure that you are considering all of the major elements of a living, breathing world.
You should look at each section and the questions they contain and ensure that you have given each element sufficient thought.
Things to consider:
- What are the key past events in your world?
- How has culture changed, and what caused this change?
- Who are the most important people in history and how are they remembered?
- How is history taught?
- What importance do people give to history?
- How are past events memorialized?
- What does the landscape look like, and how does it differ?
- What are the weather systems like?
- What are the key locations?
- What does the political structure look like? Use this as a guide.
- What does the economy look like?
- How do people pay for goods and services?
- Who controls the economy?
- What do trade and commerce look like?
- Is their currency?
- What are the natural resources, and how are these exploited?
- How are regions governed?
- How is the government funded, if by taxes, how are these paid and who collects them?
- Who makes the laws?
- Who enforces the laws?
- How are people punished for breaking laws?
- Is war is part of the culture, if so, what does war look like?
- What does gender look like, and what role does it play in your culture?
- What are the key flags and symbols?
- What races inhabit your world?
- What is the interrelationship between races?
- What are the customs and rituals of each race?
- What are the major holidays and celebrations?
- Is there a caste or class system?
- What does the family unit look like?
- What does marriage look like?
- How are the old and young treated?
- What do art, music, and literature look like?
- What do people wear?
- What do people eat?
- What do people do for work?
- How are people educated?
- How do people spend their spare time?
- What role does religion play in your world?
- What is religion's relationship with the state and everyday people?
- Who runs the religion?
- What does worship look like?
- What creation myths exist?
- What do the gods look and act like?
- What impact does religion have on an average person's day-to-day existence?
- How is the holy word passed and recorded?
- What are the different ecosystems?
- What do the plants and animals look like in your world?
- What does a balanced ecosystem look like?
- What role does disease play?
- How do people communicate?
- How many languages are in your world?
- How do languages differ?
- What are the common phrases and insults?
- What is the level of technology?
- How does technology impact on daily life?
- What role does technology play in religion, culture, and politics?
- What does military technology look like?
- Who has access to military technology?
- How do people travel from place-to-place?
- Where does the power come from?
There has been much written about creating magic systems, and I don't want to add much to this debate. However, I do feel that a world-building guide would be incomplete without some direction on using magic.
Here are ten questions to ask yourself when creating a magic system:
1. Who receives magic in your world?
2. How do these powers manifest themselves?
3. Is magic wild or can it be controlled?
4. Can magic be learned or are people simply born with it?
5. Where does magic come from?
6. Are items such as wands or staffs needed to use magic?
7. Is magic practiced or shunned by religious leaders?
8. Do any of the social classes fear or ban magic?
9. Is there good and evil magic?
10. Can magic be defeated or destroyed?
If you are using magic in your world, I'd strongly suggest you watch this excellent video from Brandon Sanderson.
Writing Your World
Planning and creating your world is one thing; presenting this to the writer is another.
A common mistake made by writers is to feel the need to 'dump' the world they have created on the writer, and this makes sense.
A writer can spend years fine-tuning their world, and they are eager to tell the writer about what they have created. However, you must resist the temptation to overwhelm the reader by force feeding your world onto them in the opening chapters.
Remember, your world is the stage, not the story.
The reader wants to read a story about characters overcoming problems, growing and learning about themselves in the process. The world, and its events, are boring in comparison. It's how characters react to the world and events that's interesting.
No matter how alien your world, the emotions you are writing about are human.
In the rest of this section, we will look at a couple of techniques you can apply to your writing that will ensure that you filter the world to your readers in a way that never leaves them overwhelmed and disengaged.
Start small and build
The temptation for many writers, especially when presenting a world very different from our own, is to dump the 'background' of the world onto the writer as quickly as possible.
This is often done under the mistaken belief that the reader needs to understand the world to 'get' the story.
This will often come is the use of questionable prologues or info-dumping in the opening chapters.
To present your world correctly, you need to follow one simple rule: start small and build.
Take a moment to watch this video below; you only need to watch the first thirty seconds or so.
This is what you want to do in your novel. You want to start small and build outwards.
In the first chapter of your book, focus on something small. Pick a single scene and focus on describing that scene in as much detail as you dare.
Imagine you are looking at the scene through a camera and describe what you can see.
Pay special attention to things that are different.
If the character is firing a gun, but it's a laser gun, then focus on describing the look, feel, sound, and even smell of that gunshot.
If they are in a car, but it's a hovercar, focus on what it would be like to ride in a hovercar.
If they want to make a phone call, but it in 1972 and mobile phones don't exist, how is that call made? Describe them picking up the handset, waiting for a tone, and dialling the number.
Keep the focus tight and layer in as much detail as you dare.
By the end of the chapter, the reader should be aware of some of the small but crucial things that are different in your world.
OK, with that done you can start to build.
With each following chapter, you can layer in more detail. Start to describe the world ad move outwards. You can slowly introduce details of the local world, perhaps the city, then the region, then the country.
As a rule of thumb, you should not really be talking about widespread geopolitical politics until you are at least a couple of chapters into your novel.
Keep reminding yourself that your story is about your character NOT your world, give the reader ONLY what they need for the correct scene and feed the rest over time.
Here's your problem…
You have spent a number of months or weeks creating your world. You have developed a detailed system that supports the events and actions of your characters. You are proud of this world and feel that it is an integral part to the story you are trying to tell.
How do you now describe this world to your readers?
One option would be to use the narrator and the narrative summary to describe the world you created. You could have the narrator tell the reader about the world history, about its diverse ecology, and about its unique religion that you have created.
You could create pages, even chapters, of this backstory. In these, you would detail every major and minor point of your world, ensuring that your reader was fully up to speed before the characters were finally introduced, and the story was allowed to unfold.
The problem is that if you take this approach, you are info-dumping.
Not only are you info-dumping, you are also killing your novel before it has a chance to start.
The reality is that info-dumping is boring!
It pushes the reader onto the backfoot and leaves them in a passive stance as you spoon-feed the world to them in a way that means they have no option but to sit back and let you waffle on for page-after-page.
Info-dumping should be avoided at all costs.
The way you should pass your world to your reader is through the 'eyes' of your characters. It should appear to the reader via character's words and actions.
Instead of using the narrator to tell the reader the backstory, you use the characters' words and actions, linked with descriptions of locations from the narrator, to paint a picture of the world .
Let's say that you want the reader to know that you have characters who can fly. Don't have the narrator tell the reader this through a section of info-dumping that details every aspect of flight and its role in society; instead, write a scene where a character flies. This way, you are showing, not telling.
What if you want to let the reader know that it's OK for boys to fly, but not girls?
Again, don't do this with the narrator; write a scene in which a girl flies and describe the consequences when another character reprimands her.
If you let the world's actions, events, and locations unfold in a natural manner, the world will be drip-fed to the reader in a way that leaves them fully engaged with your writing.
This means that instead of the reader being pushed into a passive stance through info-dumping, they are less left active as they are told the story and feel part of the events as they unfold.
World-building is an essential part of almost all novels. It is true that some novels and some genres require more world-building than others, but a believable and realistic world is essential for any story.
Realistic and believable worlds take time to create. It requires a thoughtful and systematic approach from the writer. The world needs to be fleshed out and developed in a way that makes it feel real.
Yet no matter how developed the world, no matter how real it feels, it can never be more than a stage for the Storey. The world you build should never be more important than the events and the characters that are placed within this world.