Tips on World Building for Writers — How to Make Your Imaginary World Real

There isn’t a certified qualification or course on world-building (well, not in my neighborhood), but every story requires it. Whether your tale is set in a real place or an imagined one, you need to establish your characters’ world so that the reader can suspend disbelief and fully engage with their story.

Of course, the more differences to our own world you introduce, the more you need to focus on getting those details absolutely right – but you need to do it in such a way that they almost fade into the background so the reader is instead focusing on the characters and the story. You don’t need to explicitly create and explain all aspects of your world in the first couple of chapters. Without some story developing in these chapters your reader may not persevere further into the book.

GIVEAWAY: David is excited to give away a free copy of his latest novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. (Otherwise you will receive an e-book.) You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: Y.I. Washington won.)

 

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Column by David Hair, a New Zealand-based author of three fantasy series.
The Aotearoa Series is a YA series published by HarperCollins in New Zealand.
The first novel, THE BONE TIKI, won Best First Book at the 2010 NZ Post
Children’s Book Awards. The series is built around the concept of two parallel
New Zealands — the modern world, and another magical world peopled by
legends, historical personages, and the ghosts of ordinary New Zealanders.
Hair has also written a four book YA series, The Return of Ravana, set in India
and published by Penguin India. Book One, PYRE OF QUEENS, won the
LIANZA award for Best YA Novel in 2012. The series is set to be re-released
in the UK in 2015 through Jo Fletcher Books. SCARLET TIDES, published
in October 2014 by Jo Fletcher Books (an imprint of Quercus), will be the
second book in his fantasy series The Moontide Quartet. Four books are
planned for the series. David currently lives in Auckland, New Zealand with
his wife Kerry. See more info about all his books here.

 

Personally, as a fantasy writer, I’m primarily interested in worlds where there are different rules to our own, changes which require the reader to go on a journey: to take on board a bunch of unlikely and/or impossible things. That could be an urban fantasy or horror story, where we’re dealing with our world plus, for example, adding some magic or supernatural elements) or it could be fantasy set in a completely imagined world (where everything from physical appearance to personal values, from languages to landscapes, are different).

So these are the things I think about:

1. What’s important in this place?

At its heart, a story is about conflict. Without that, there’s really little to tell. This could be two people or two nations, or even one person or group of people against society or the environment or nature. It might even be one person in conflict with themselves: that’s up to you: but once you’ve worked out what it is, you need a world for that conflict to inhabit:

  • What sort of place best showcases this conflict?
  • Who are the protagonists in the conflict and where do they reside in respect of each other?
  • How do they differ from the everyday people we all know, or do they differ at all?
  • What role can the environment play in that conflict, both directly and symbolically?

For example, in the Moontide Quartet, I wanted to tell a story of intercontinental conflict in a fantasy world. The idea of a bridge linking the two continents sprang to mind, and thereafter the world-building for the Moontide world became about creating and justifying that bridge. Of course, the bridge has nice symbolic connotations about uniting and joining. To justify the intermittent nature of that bridge required tidal factors, and that had impacts upon the nature of the landscapes, and from there, the world began to take shape.

Once you’ve done this, you’re ready to think about the protagonists in the conflict, and how the landscape might impact on them. Drawing a picture showing these groups, and even a proto-map, is often useful now, as we populate our story (I love maps!).

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2. Put the pieces on the board

If you think about what you’ve just done as setting up the game board, the next step is to lay out the pieces. Societies are not amorphous blobs: they are made up of people who are all trying to do their best to survive and perpetuate themselves and those they care about. Start with the basics:

  • How do people live here? Where does the food come? What about cloth, timber, metal? What flora and fauna are present and integrated into the society? How technologically advanced are the people here?
  • What is their history and how might this have shaped them as a people, their beliefs, attitudes and identity?
  • What races are present? How much migration is there from other places? How integrated are the migrants? How do the locals regard the migrants and vice versa? What languages are spoken, and by whom?
  • What social classes are present, and how do they interact? What creates and sustains their division (e.g. if there are a few very wealthy and many poor, how do the wealthy preserve that wealth and prevent insurrection)? How do the leaders gain, preserve and relinquish power? How do other potential leaders view the current leaders?

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This is where you have the opportunity to impart your own worldview: the things you hold to be true in the nature of the society you are creating. How is the society organized, what do they emphasize, what is their relationship with the environment and each other. Yours might be completely different, but the principles I apply to this are:

  1. Wealth is never distributed equally: there are always a few rich and lots of poor;
  2. Men are usually advantaged over women;
  3. Power corrupts, so the people in charge are more likely to be unscrupulous;
  4. Majorities are silent, minorities aren’t: much conflict revolves around the treatment of minorities by elites (with the majority either complicit or unaware);
  5. Superstition is powerful and pervasively influential;
  6. How minorities are treated is a measure of the collective tolerance of the society;
  7. Ideals are constantly being compromised;
  8. Good people can do bad things and (vice versa);
  9. Complex solutions are hard to sell, but simple solutions rarely work
  10. Even absolute rulers require some form of consent from those who control the tools by which they hold power. So they must constantly seek to influence the military, the politicians, the economy and the intellectual debate;
  11. Advancement is related to: drive, skill, connections, wealth and philosophy. People are always completing for advancement;
  12. Human needs MUST be met and will find a way. Food and shelter. Security. Procreation. Happiness. A society that fails to deliver on these to all people will become unstable until the will to restore delivery of these needs across the society (though seldom equally) is regained;
  13. There are tipping points to human tolerance of what they are prepared to put up with before acting. These vary between individuals and groups within society. So an injustice can persist for a long time, then be washed away in moments;

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You have to think about how the society you are creating actually functions. What are the lines of disagreement between groups? I like to think of society as being divided up into groups whose primary (but not exclusive) concerns are:

  • Economic: production of the means to live
  • Security: protection of society and its members
  • Political: the organization of the society, it’s governance and laws
  • Philosophical: the ideas and concepts that influence behaviors. (Note that these groups will each have their own economic, security, political and philosophical “wings”, and their own factions.)

3. The Past

You don’t want to give the impression that your story world winked into existence just before Chapter One. How long has it been here? How did it get here? What are the big events that shape people’s behavior today? What are people’s beliefs about their creation, their purpose, their past and their futures? What divergent interpretations of these real or imagined events are present in society?

The more credible these things are, the more real your world will feel. But you have to build rationally, even in a fantasy setting. ‘Fantasy’ is not a synonym for illogical behavior!

4. Do the detail

Having created the big stuff, now you’ve got to think about the small stuff. It’s often the little details that make the world you’ve created real: tiny customs of dress or behavior that make a group of people come alive. I found inspiration in my observations of our world, partly because I wanted Urte to resemble Earth, but also because we have so much variety, so many fascinating people and places that it I think they’re worth celebrating.

So do some research into other cultures and think about how you might use variants of what you learn in your creation – always taking care to fit it all together seamlessly so that it feels right. Create cultures with their own speech patterns, dress codes and belief systems. How do the people relax? How do they express themselves creatively? To what do they aspire?

The thing to remember is that all of this needs to serve the story, not the other way round. Don’t lose sight of your central premise. If something looks like it is taking over, you need to pare back its importance, but still have it make sense.

5. The People Factor

Now, having set up the board and laid out the pieces, you need to personalize it. Each grouping will have opinion leaders and powerful people with needs and desires. They need to be fully rounded people, with positive points as well as flaws – people are always flawed, even someone who’s apparently perfect. And even if they’re almost ideal, you can bet their family or friends won’t be. Use them to move the conflicts along. And you need to keep in mind that if they’ve achieved a degree of success, despite their flaws, they must also have strengths: they must be worthy of the role (or at least capable of gaining it and holding it,) and they must fulfil it to the satisfaction of a powerful portion of those they lead (or have intimidated those they lead into letting them keep the role), or their time at the top will be short-lived. Give them a back-story, and think about their goals, in particular, what they think about the big issues, especially the conflict that is the heart of your story. In the Moontide Quartet the big conflict is the proposed crusade, and every important figure and group has a view.

As the events of your story unfold, you will find that the reactions of these opinion leaders to the latest events in your story will help to drive it forward, so stay on top of what they are thinking and doing, even if it is off-screen.

Next, having built your house of cards, prepare the wrecking ball . . .

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6. The Chaos Factor

So far, our goal has been to create a dynamic but mostly stable society. The important factor in that last sentence is ‘stable’. Society is always changing as it adapts to new things, but most of the time it does so in an incremental way.

But conflicts are inherently destabilizing, and that new factor could throw everything into chaos. This ‘chaos factor’ might be ultimately beneficial for most (like a revolt against a tyrant), or not (like a plague virus), but that’s up to you. The important thing for the story is that your world and the people in it react in a credible way to the disruption. Work toward a resolution:

— either the change leaves the world altered, or
— the change is averted and your society continues (relatively) unchanged.

As you can see, you can slice and dice your imaginary society in lots of ways, and what you get is COMPLEXITY. This is good: a complex world is believable, while a simplistic one isn’t. As a storyteller, you need think about how much complexity you want to show; never forget that all of this is to support the story, not be the story. You need to know all this stuff, but you don’t need to show it all. Often just making reference to your world-building (local jargon and customs, oblique references to past events, etc.) can be enough in the early chapters to let the action hook the reader; you can let the back-story seep out bit by bit as the plot develops.

Never forget the world-building is the backdrop and the props; the story close-ups should always be on your characters.

Finally, a couple of books I’ve found useful:
•    Jared Diamond: Gun, Germs and Steel, for its brilliant explanation of how and why our world has evolved anthropologically the way it has; and
•    Robert Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography, for its clear explanation of how the shape and nature of land shapes politics in our world.

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29 thoughts on “Tips on World Building for Writers — How to Make Your Imaginary World Real

  1. Marie Rogers

    This is a lot to think about. Few of the details we create for our world will actually be seen in the story, but they are important to give the world the depth needed to make it real. Thank you for your post.

  2. kwbunyap@gmail.com

    Loved this article. I would also recommend the book “How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy” by Orson Scott Card as another excellent reference. One commenter asked about keeping all the details of your world straight. I have found an excellent way to do that is with the free software program YWriter5, yw5, which you can find at http://www.spacejock.com. I use the software to put in all my people (names, races, details, etc.) places, things, and it helps me to have the lists I need, right down to the unique spelling of my characters places and things. I have spent many hours building my fantasy world, and agree that it has been as much fun as developing my plot and story. I fully realize that only the tiniest tip of this iceberg will actually show up in my story, it was important to me to have a fully developed world and a history so that the fabric of my story rests upon a base that makes it seem real, not “sprung from the ether…”

  3. Wombat_

    Great article. “‘Fantasy’ is not a synonym for illogical behavior!” is the best advice here. For all the fantastical travels Meg goes through in A Wrinkle in Time, that it is rooted in family gives a foundation so the reader never gets lost.

  4. dragonhawk

    Awesome details in this great advice article. I really liked the note about including flora and fauna integrated into the society, and the note about knowing every leader’s strength and power structure. Also the idea of having recent conflicts present in common cultures references and speech is fantastic.

    I found your worldview list interesting. “Complex solutions are hard to sell, but simple solutions rarely work” is a good commonality, but I like to use the tendency of humans to over complicate solutions. That is just one universe building option, 🙂

  5. ladylovely26

    I really appreciate that you emphasize how in the end, the creative choices authors makes for their world must suit the story. As a long-time reader of fantasy I am always disappointed when the piece I’m reading loses track of its purpose and defaults to overindulgent (maybe even self-indulgent) world-building. That’s when I close the book and move on.

    Thanks for a great article!

  6. Diogeneia

    Thanks for writing this! I’ve shared it with my speculative fiction writing group. Discovering my story world is part of my story planning process and is often just as much fun as interviewing my characters. 🙂

  7. Sneakybea

    This is great! I must admit, though I love fantasy, sometimes the worldbuilding aspect can be overwhelming. Definitely bookmarking this one. Thank you so much!

  8. Roulf

    A short, but concise analysis of the elements that make our society what it is, and how those same elements, with envioronmental or social changes, could produce other and different societies.

    One of the major stuggles I have world-building is how do you track all the details? This species speaks this way, has these habits, believes certain things, another species has grey eyes but can’t see the color blue under a red sun. Festulon flowers burp seeds, Trytoo birds eat “Purple edges of Klootd buds”. But how, weeks later and several chapters down, do you find these details? Index cards? Notebooks? Post-it notes? Would be a great future article.

  9. LV Carlson

    This was great! I found that I could answer most of the questions, but it was so helpful to take a step away from the plot and look at the world in the abstract. And the questions I couldn’t answer provided some real challenge that I think will in turn help the plot. Thank you!

  10. JanelleFila

    Very informational article, thank you so much for sharing. I write YA Contemporary, not fantasy, but still think so much of your advice can apply to my writing as well. I need to know the social, economic, and political motivations of my characters and their neighborhood, their community and the moms in their PTA. Excellent, excellent advice, and perfect timing for NaNoWriMo! Thanks, Janelle http://www.janellefila.com

  11. Katie

    This is definitely going in my “In a writing rut? Everything sounds awful and your novel is about to be sacrificed into the fire? Read some of these!” pile. Thank you!

  12. lmnoneill

    Whoa, this article is timely. I’m working on a screenplay based on a futuristic Earth. Even though I have the real world facts at my disposal I still have to reach into some sort of fantasy world to ‘put the pieces on the board’. Number two was very helpful, thank you.

  13. Sillyhay6

    Love this article! Such a helpful resource. I will continue to read and reread as I build my magical, medieval-y (technical term) world for my main character. Took a couple days off writing, but now I’m excited to get back to it after reading your article! Thank you David!!

    -Hayley Gallagher

  14. Namronde

    This is very helpful advice, and it comes at a crucial time in the writing of my story. I just finished fleshing out my backstory, and this will help to move it forward. Thanks for helping a novice along!

  15. ARCTG

    I was just discussing this in my FB page, and that I need to describe the details of mine better. Most of my Beta readers love the world I created the most, but wanted more description. I didn’t have that in there in the first drafts – because I hadn’t written out the world in a separate doc before (well, I had in a biz plan, but not like a Character bio). This article has made me think – a World/Location Profile/Background would have helped, with the items given here included. Thank you.

  16. bwmudd

    Good stuff. That’s what I like about WD; they provide great, useful info to writers for free. There are no bait & switch tactics that require a paid subscription. They are great stewards of the literary world.

  17. fatstagnation

    Very helpful article!

    Thank you for sharing that you thought of the bridge and then had to work to make sure it made sense in the world and served the story. It is always good to hear from a successful writing how you turn a kinda crazy idea into something that seems normal, at least in the story world. Thanks!

  18. kylegwhite

    I agree that world building helps to not only add color to the writing, but to find the characters who inhabit the world and the conflict that drives them. Excellent advice and thanks for including the names of the reference books.

  19. LaineC

    Great advice all around. The best part, I feel, is the comment about not trying to shove all the details into the first chapter or two. I perform editorial and developmental work for a host of authors, and find that this is a mistake too many authors make. And I have been guilty of it myself in the past!
    Thanks for the reminder, and thank you for the very detailed article.

  20. dabester

    Excellent article! You’ve taken something as complex as creating a completely new world to set your story in and made it sound easy. I appreciate all the detail you’ve provided, and the time it took to do it. Thank you.

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