“One of my challenges [as a writer] is to make sure that I’m giving the reader details that the character cares about rather than details that I care about. I’d say that’s key to world-building.”
One of the joys of reading, and there are many, is becoming lost in the world the author has created. One moment you can be in your familiar environment and the next, transported to an alien world, a medieval village, or a busy city street in present day. My favorite quote about writing is one by the author of The Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin:
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”
— George R. R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons
A thousand lives. Indeed, we can live a thousand lives within wonderful and unique environments created in a writer’s imagination.
One of the most important aspects of writing a novel is presenting the world in which the story takes place. Often the setting a writer creates provides the framework for a story, but at times can be an integral part of the plot. Providing a detailed world that your character will inhabit enhances your reader’s enjoyment.
There are three basic world building categories, the Imaginary World, the Alternate Reality World, and the Real World.
The Imaginary World:
The most common world building takes place in the fantasy and science fiction genres. Two of the most famous worlds created in these genres are Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. Two different worlds, both complex and memorable and totally alien to the world we live in, yet as we will discuss later in this article, elements of the familiar remains.
Your first step in creating your world is envisioning the society you want to portray. Once you establish that concept, it is time to create your world. The number one rule I try to follow when writing is to keep my story plausible. To do that when you are creating a world you need to establish familiar characteristics.
Let us use a science fiction story as a model and consider some questions to identify your world.
- Where are you in the universe? Are you in a binary sun system or on a moon? Is there a nebula filling your sky?
- What is the climate? Is your planet arid or covered in vast oceans?
- What do the inhabitants look like? What do they eat? What are their values, their customs, their clothing styles?
- Describe their government systems. Are the people agrarians or industrialized?
- Do they value education? Do they love music and art?
- Are they peaceful or warlike?
There are many sites online that provide templates with questions like the ones above to help you define your world. Remember, however, that many of the elements that you choose for your world should not appear in your story unless pivotal to the plot. Focus on the aspects that drive your story and add other pertinent descriptions as warranted.
The fantasy and sci-fi genres can also collide with reality, and one of the most popular examples is J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Set in England, both the modern-day world and a magical realm exist together. The contrast between reality and fantasy allows the reader to relate to the story.
“Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.”
The Alternate Reality World:
Another type of world building is creating alternate realities. Dystopian and Utopian novels, subgenres of science fiction, and alternate history falls into the alternate reality category. These stories occur in recognizable environments where a single event changes the path of history.
The what-if scenario of alternate reality fiction explores the mistakes and the triumphs of mankind’s history, offering insight into what could have happened if reality had taken a different path.
- What would have happened if the outcomes of the World Wars had been different?
- What would the consequences have been if certain evolutionary events had not occurred?
- What if aliens had visited or a climate altering asteroid hit the planet?
What is extremely important in this category of world-building is the establishment of historical references. If you are going write about the outcome of a World War, you must do the research and know the facts about the war to the point where you make that change. Following that event, you should maintain as much reality as you can to add credibility to the story.
Dystopian, utopian, and post- apocalyptic fiction has become very popular with many written in the young-adult genre. These stories take place after a major catastrophe or event has occurred leading to totalitarian or environmentally degraded systems or in the case of a utopian society, idealistic. While most of these stories will reference the catastrophe that befell the society but in the case of some stories, the events are at times never revealed. As the writer, you should decide how much information you give or keep from your reader and how it will affect your story.
The Real World:
All other genres fall into this category. This is the world as we know it. You choose a real location for your stories often for a certain ambiance or familiarity that you want to convey. The more familiar you are with a location, the small town you grew up in, where you went to college, or a place where you lived for many years, the easier it will be to transport your reader into the environment.
You have choices, you can set your story in the town you grew up in or a fictitious town using the knowledge of the community. When using real communities, the use of accurate landmarks offers reference points for your reader to gain a sense of place. It is advisable not to use the names of commercial enterprises or professional services to protect privacy.
If you choose a locale you are not familiar with, say you want to set a story in Colorado at a ski resort, but you have never been skiing, then you must research the area. The optimal way to conduct research is to pack your bags and visit the location, but that is not always practical. Fortunately, we now have at our fingertips the magic of search engines on the Internet. Use them, use YouTube, use Google Earth’s street view. It might not be the same as being there, but these invaluable tools allow you to describe the location to your readers and make them feel they are there.
A note about historical novels, readers of this genre are often very well versed in the era they enjoy reading about. It is imperative that you research such things as clothing, food, transportation, music, mores, weaponry, vocabulary, any nuance of your story. If you cannot verify an item or word, etc. you wish to write about, do not mention it. It will only discredit your work.
World building provides the canvas for your story, but you should remember that your setting is as important as the story and characters that you create. In some novels, you may need only the sense of an urban setting or a small-town ambiance, for another, you may need the power and danger of a mountainous terrain or the vastness of a stormy ocean. Regardless, give your reader what you see, hear, taste and smell when you think about the locale you have chosen and how that makes you feel. Do not tell, show, be descriptive, let them smell the fresh bread from the bakery, feel the cold, icy snow, hear the sirens or the dogs barking.
Balance these three components, story, characters, and setting, and you will capture your reader’s imagination.
“I’m not going to tell you how to start a bug-powered vehicle, I’m just going to put you inside one with somebody who knows how, and send you off on a ride.”