World-building isn’t a one-time thing. That’s why writers love to hate it.
“But when you’re talking about societies and how societies develop, you do have to understand that human societies are not logical. […] You have to understand the dynamics that dictate how we do things are not a simple matter of, hey, those people over there have a great idea, why don’t we borrow that or why don’t we talk to them and get their expertise? You’re dealing with power dynamics. You’re dealing with egos, you’re dealing with psychology and sociology – all the aspects of human nature. […] The world that your readers know best is our world, so you’ve got fantastic research before you, if you want to explore it, on how people in our world have done these exact same things.” ― N.K. Jemisin
Let’s get something straight. Writers are paranoid control freaks. How else would you explain our incessant need to direct the actions and emotions of fictitious characters, and all in environments that we choose or build from the ground up?
It’s this overarching process of world-building that allows us to not only exercise our Type A demons, but to really hook a reader – sometimes more so than any dialogue or action sequence could. The rest is all well and good, but it doesn’t count for much if your reader can’t place any of it in a working environment, or doesn’t understand the societal norms and scientific possibilities that make it all possible and important. All of it has to connect, flow, and make sense by the time your first draft is finished. Otherwise, you’re in for a painful first round of self-edits, never mind what will happen when someone else gets his or her hands on your manuscript for a critical read.
In short, establishing and maintaining this foundation throughout the narrative is enough to frazzle the sharpest, most organized minds. So how do you get started? At the beginning, of course.
Establish ground rules
As with most aspects of writing, world-building requires some forethought, even for those of us who like to let the muses flow whenever we can. This is especially important if you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi, since you’ll be breaking quite a few rules of nature as we know them along the way. The easiest way to keep your facts straight as you populate your new world is to first establish some ground rules.
For example, the plot of my manuscript, Lunule, takes place in modern Boston. So, my physical setting didn’t require a lot of legwork beyond familiarizing myself with the layout of the city and making sure to sprinkle in those details as needed to orient my readers. But if you’re creating a place out of thin air – Narnia, Hogwarts castle, the planet Hoth – then starting from scratch can seem daunting. You’ve probably got an initial idea of what this setting is like based on the idea you had for the general plot, but few specifics. This is where you can start working out those details, the rules that govern both natural processes and society.
Remember: world-building isn’t just about the location on a map – real or imagined. Ask yourself about the climate, the time, the technology, the ruling bodies establishing the ways your characters interact with one another. How it all works is just as important as the physical setting, and one always influences the other and vice versa. When you’ve made enough judgment calls to write your first few chapters so that they make sense for someone just entering in your brain, go ahead and organize these initial rules in a safe place – a Word doc, your trusty notebook, a dry erase board – for easy referencing as you write and edit.
Know your roots
When it comes to building worlds, it’s absolutely fine for you to borrow from established cultural legends and fairy tales. Just be sure to do your research first, and use those roots to then get creative and craft something original.
Again, I can give you an example from my own work. Lunule is about a human that stumbles upon the supernatural community, which is populated by werewolves, witches and vampires. So already, there are tons of stories for me to pull from, right? Before I wrote the first chapter, I conducted about six months of research to mold my versions of these mythical beings into the characters with whom I would be working so closely. I cherrypicked the physical and elemental aspects of these age-old creatures, then tweaked and customized them until I had the closest things to original beasties as I could create from concepts that already existed. Because of that, the rules and even the history in my story’s world changed.
Take vampires. In my world, vampires don’t burst into flame in the sunlight (and they absolutely DO NOT sparkle, but that’s another conversation entirely), though the younger ones are more sensitive to light in general. So, during official proceedings for the Council – the supernatural governing bodies set up in regions all over the globe – the courtroom’s bulbs are usually softer, muted, so as to accommodate everyone involved. See how the rules bleed over into the action, one way or another?
The devil is in the details
As you might have been able to guess from the examples of my work that I’ve provided so far, I’m all about being thorough. And as both a writer and a reader, I have mad respect for the authors who take the time to pay attention to the smaller details of world-building. That’s how good stories turn into great ones worth reading over and over again.
So when you’re building your world up from those ground rules we talked about, be sure give the seemingly small stuff its due. You never know when one tiny detail might make all the difference as the plot thickens. Just like if you wanted to tell a believable lie, employing details can make your world and, by extension, the rest of the story feel more authentic. This helps readers connect and engage with it, keeping them invested in what you’ve worked so hard to express on the page. Because while it might not seem crucial to establish something like one werewolf’s preference for whiskey, this is the kind of detail that one could tie back in later to drive a bigger concept home, or even humanize your less than human characters.
And don’t underestimate the power of a world’s history as it can apply to what’s going on in your story’s present. Just like in our reality, the past’s repercussions are far-reaching, and often in unexpected ways. In Lunule, I made a point to connect supernatural and human histories to show that both of these larger communities have coexisted, and even overlapped, for as long as anyone can remember. As such, there were plenty of old wounds and engrained grudges for me to pull from as I brought in new characters and subplots. In fact, doing this is actually what gave me the ideas for the next two books I’d like to write with these characters. So you never know – digging deeper and exercising your world-building skills might just spur new ideas before you’re even done drafting your current WIP.
Show vs. tell
Explaining the rules of your story’s world can seem tedious, and some writers like to go with the approach of putting it all out there for their readers before diving into the action of the narrative. There’s nothing wrong with this strategy, per se, but it does come with the risk of boring the audience with heavy exposition and turning it off to the rest of the story. One alternative to consider is show vs tell.
Luckily for me and for Lunule, a lot of my characters lend themselves well to expressing something about the world I’ve built because so much of their communication is nonverbal. I use social cues like eye contact and even posture to establish not just their personal views, but also the world’s hierarchy both within and between species. The same can be said for describing the way one character affects another, and clarifying whether this is a rule of the general population, or a personal attribute that will continue to dictate this particular being’s interactions with others.
But this strategy doesn’t just apply to character motives – you can use it to strengthen the physical setting as well. You don’t have to tell us it’s cold outside. Describing the biting gust of wind, or how heavily the snow fell, or the absentminded way a character pulls the collar of her coat up around her chin can do the trick, too. You don’t have to say the sun rose. Paint us a picture of soft pink and yellow light creeping across the floorboards, tinting the the living room with the promise of a new day, a fresh start – maybe one that your narrator desperately needs or wants.
Ready to play god? If you’re a true writer, the answer to that question is always yes. But if you find yourself staring at the last page of your manuscript and wondering what you’ve done, don’t hesitate to get in touch and tell me a little about your project. With any luck, the two of us can apply our combined world-building skills to strengthen your narrative and bring the story to life.