Even if you’re not a fan of the massive-multiplayer-online game World of Warcraft, you have to admit that there’s something to it. With 5 core games, over 20 novels, and even a movie franchise, it’s clear that people really connect with the content. Some online sources have even reported that as many as 3 million people globally log on every day. The question remains: how do you hook that many people?
You tell them a really good story. And then you keep telling it.
World of Warcraft was first launched in 2004, but even before the launch, there was a world-building foundation so expansive that the story and lore developers are still finding new and interesting ways to surprise players. Shadowlands is the name of the game’s newest expansion, but it’s also the name of a physical place within the World of Warcraft universe—to put it most simply, it’s the afterlife. It was a shock to most players when it was revealed this was where the story was going; we’d never been allowed to explore there before! But players accepted the curveball because it had been laid out in the lore since its inception. The fact that people are willing to follow the story wherever it goes is proof of excellent world-building.
So, what can we, as storytellers and world builders, learn from World of Warcraft? Here are five key lessons.
1. World of Warcraft was built with a specific intention
This might seem a bit obvious—the intention is for people to play the game, right? Well, yes and no. Of course they want people to play, but they especially want people to be engaged with the story. World of Warcraft has longstanding heroes, villains, and people in between that the players know and care about. Your readers will want to experience that same engagement. Why keep reading if you’re not hooked?
To dazzle your readership, you’ll want to make sure that you build enough of your world to keep your characters active within it. They’ll not only need places to go, but things to do once they get to those places, and (perhaps most importantly) sources of internal and external tension to keep the characters challenged and the plot moving.
The easiest way to do this is to determine outright what themes you want to explore in your world. Are you interested in exploring morality? Just and fair leadership? Found family? How can your world help your characters explore those themes—do they need magic or political power, for example? Sketching out all of these preliminary ideas will help you to build the rest of your world with a laser-focus so you can avoid spending time on aspects that won’t help you achieve these goals.
2. World of Warcraft pays homage to the known while putting its spin on fantasy
Stanley Kubrick once said, “Everything has already been done, every story has been told, every scene has been shot. It’s our job to do it one better.” World of Warcraft seeks to do this by couching the unfamiliar in the familiar. It uses races and species from traditional fantasy and science fiction lore (like trolls, elves, and even Lovecraft’s Old Gods) but stitches them together in new and exciting ways (like the fact that orcs are refugees from another planet or that vampires control a section of the afterlife in Shadowlands).
The best way to familiarize yourself with the common elements of your genre is to read. A lot. There are a lot of universes to explore, from Middle Earth (Lord of the Rings) and Westeros (Game of Thrones) to the universes of Star Wars and Star Trek. It might even be a great idea to take notes on what you like and don’t like about those worlds and identify things you’d like to try out in your universe.
A word of caution: the line between inspiration and plagiarism is thin. If you find that line blurring during your writing, ask yourself, “What is it about my story that only I can tell?” Once you have the answer, make sure to use that as your guiding light.
3. The world—and its people—are connected
Even if your story sticks to one specific setting (like a town or an island), it needs to feel in tandem with the rest of the world. In World of Warcraft, they utilize the concept of political factions to pit players against each other, so no matter where you are in the universe, you need to be aware of who controls the area and how you fit into that context. Each player’s character is caught up in a larger political story just by existing. In Shadowlands, these factions might need to come together to explore an afterlife that does not care what their political leanings are.
When focusing on your world, politics are, of course, only a single aspect of connection. A natural disaster across the continent might affect trade in the region your characters live, for example. Or maybe the anima that feeds your world’s magic has seasons where it grows and shrinks. You’ll want to keep these ideas in mind as you begin to flesh out your plot. Ensuring that your setting doesn’t feel isolated from the rest of the world will help your characters feel more realistic and allow your reader to dive head-first into the story.
4. The world has a personal impact
Everything that happens in World of Warcraft affects the players; that’s how they continue to keep the community engaged. However, this is done carefully and with real character impact. When the Shadowlands open to the players, it will release many undead into the world of Azeroth. It will be up to the players to help defend the towns and the townspeople and it will change the landscape the same way war does.
You have an even bigger advantage; you decide how your reader experiences the world. Beyond what your character can see, you can show their world through smell, taste, and touch. Don’t be afraid to give your world texture! Your readers should be able to sink into your story so that their world falls away from them. An immersive experience stems from how your characters interact with the world they live in.
As a writer and editor, I can tell you with absolute certainty that this is something your first draft will most likely be missing. When we first start exploring these stories, we tend to be more focused on getting the plot on the page than we are about enriching the reader’s experience. If you find that’s true for you, don’t sweat it! That’s what revision is for.
5. The universe has context – the cosmology
On the first page of World of Warcraft: Chronicle, the multi-volume guide to their lore, there is a visual guide to the cosmology of the universe. This cosmology shows players the basic forces that the universe is based on. At its very foundation, the world of Azeroth is set within six basic forces that balance each other: light and shadow, life and death, and order and disorder. Each of those breaks down further into elemental forces, like nature and necromancy. Each of these shapes the way the world is structured. For example, the gods of the light are called Naru and are worshipped by certain races. The light is what feeds holy magic, so paladins regularly channel and use this force. It goes on and on and on.
While writers naturally rely on the reader’s suspension of disbelief, we must take care to root our stories in something tangible. At the end of the day, your reader will be asking questions. Why do some characters wield magic and others don’t? Why do people follow certain leaders? What drives your villain to be villainous? As important as it is to keep the reader interested, we still need to ensure that their curiosity is sated enough that the world feels solid. An unstable world can create unrealistic plots that drive the reader away instead of into the story.
Regardless of where you are in your world-building venture, it’s good to stop and double-check that your foundation follows these guidelines. Even if you need to make a note about where you think your manuscript isn’t quite there for later revisions, keeping these goals in mind will help your universe feel more real, connected, and solid enough for the reader to engage with.