Good evening, everyone! Today, I’m going to write about one of my favorite things about writing: world building. I love well-built worlds in other’s work, and I love spending time building worlds in my own work. My favorite stories tend to be the ones that have fully realized worlds and settings. Dune, West World, the Harry Potter series. All of these stories have well-constructed worlds that are the foundations for the novel. Without them, the stories fall apart. World building is about as important, at least in my mind, as the plot of your novel. I’ll discuss how I work on building worlds and offer tips and tricks that I’ve found useful in my own writing.
Now, with my usually terrible transition skills, let’s get started with the meat of the post.
Generally, when I approach world building, I start thinking about the differences between the real world and the world in my story. Is magic real? Has technology advanced in such a way as to dramatically change the way we interact with machines and computers? Are there aliens or fantastical creatures? Once you start then, you can flesh out the specifics. Yes, magic is real. It manifests in these ways and can be controlled under these circumstances and by these people. Technology is dependent on steam instead of internal combustion engines (this is literally what makes steampunk steampunk). Unicorns are real, but they’re actually aliens.
Once the differences are defined and fleshed out, you want to start setting your rules up. Just like the real world is constrained and defined by scientific rules, your
fictional world needs to be constrained and defined. If your magic rules state that fire mages can’t use water spells, then you don’t want to break that rule*. You’re creating an expectation for your audience about how the world you’re introducing them to works. By setting up a solid foundation for them, you allow them to focus on other, more important aspects of the story. The next step is how your differences and the rules that govern them impact the world around your characters. To continue with the magic theme, if someone can use magic to control or generate water, how does that translate into something used in the world? Maybe there are cities in the middle of deserts because there’s no resource limitation now. Maybe there are wizards in perpetual servitude because they power massive water turbines that power the city where your story is based. Again, you’re looking to be as realistic as possible. In the real world, people use things to benefit the human race. Your world should be the same.
Now you need to think about how the world and its differences impact your characters. Is your main character a magic user, or are they unable to use magic? How has magic impacted their day-to-day life? Do they embrace or shun it? All of these things will help create realistic and relatable characters and settings, and once you have those, you have the foundations of your story. Another thing to keep in mind when writing about your newly fleshed out world is that, as far as your characters are concerned, this is all completely normal. Our world is the weird one to them, so whenever they’re interacting with whatever it is that makes your world different, you have to make sure that they treat it completely normally. If there are flying carpets in your world, then your character will be non-plussed by flying carpets. There are ways to get around this so you can info dump on your audience, but you want to avoid this as much as possible. Long stretches of exposition are boring and can pull readers out of your story, so you only want to use it when absolutely necessary. You want to think about how to slip details of your world into your writing, without telling people about them. This goes back to the idea of showing, not telling and can be harder than it looks. Just remember to think about what the world feels, rather than what it looks, like.
I’ll use Burner as a case study for this process. I started with Mediums, the people who can interact with the afterlife and the dead. Obviously, this is going to change how a lot of things are handled. Murder investigations are going to be very different if you can speak to the victim, for example, and there’s going to be a lot less doubt about an afterlife if there’s scientific evidence that it exists. So, how does that change the world? Well, there will be laws that govern how Mediums can use their powers. There’s going to be prejudice against them, since some people are completely unable to interact with the afterlife. There will also be people who fall somewhere between the completely Mundane and Mediums, and they’re going to interact and view the world differently because of it. There’s also the thought of how Mediums behaved historically. Have they always been a known element of the population, or did they live in hiding? Were there any well-known Medium families? Are they treated like celebrities? How many of them are there in the world? Asking questions like this helped me fully flesh out Mediums and how they function in society, which helped me craft Kim Phillips and her personal view of the world. I also worked on defining how Mediums used their powers, and how those powers manifested.
Now, obviously, the amount of world building you need to do is going to depend highly on whether or not there’s an already defined corpus out there relating to what you’re doing. High fantasy settings follow certain rules. So do sci-fi stories. If you’re working in a genre with well-defined rules and regulations, you’ll want to stick to them for the most part. Your audience is going to expect it, for one, and you’ll also get the benefit of not having to explain as much to the reader. However, you should also want to make sure that your work isn’t too reliant on previous author’s work, as you risk being derivative rather than unique in your writing. It’s a careful balance that you’ll need to figure out, unfortunately, as you go. Just remember, if it sounds cliche, you may want to avoid it.
Even after you’ve finished writing about your world, keep asking questions about it. By continually questioning and pushing the boundaries of your world, you gain immeasurably in the long run. Have friends or other writers look over what you have and see if they understand your terminology or rules. If they get confused, figure out why and flesh it out. And always remember to show, don’t tell, or you run the risk of getting boring.
World building is subtle, and you’re probably going to have way more about your world written down outside of your story than ever makes it into the body of your work. That being said, that background and foundation is going to help make your story a reality in its own, and it’ll keep your readers engaged and intrigued.
As always, I will see you guys again on Wednesday. I’m hoping to have an update from my editor by then, too, so I may share how that process is going. I’ll figure out what the topic for the next post will be tomorrow. In the meantime, I’ve got some writing to do and then bed. See you all Wednesday.
*There are ALWAYS exceptions to this rule. Maybe your magician is special and can do things that others can’t because he’s some kind of savior of the world that was prophesied about eons ago. That’s fine. But don’t have the random guy on the corner suddenly switch the type of magic he can do. If you’re purposeful about it, and the rule breaking has a reason behind it, go for it. Otherwise, stick to the script.