A Simple Little Guide to World Building
One of the most important parts of every story is the world for the characters to operate within. Building a whole world, especially a fantasy world, can be a little daunting- there are so many things to take into account and tie up to avoid plot holes and reader confusion. However, if done properly, a dynamic and fascinating world can make or break a story.
Whether your story is fantasy, realistic, sci-fi, romance, or any other genre of fiction, the world is an essential part of the story. The high school, the town, the alien planet- each of those background components influence the plot and how the characters move through the plot. Without a developed world, things slip through the cracks. If the reader can’t connect with the character’s environment, then the reader has no anchor in time and place to navigate the story.
World building is one of my favorite components of a story- and my favorite part of story development. In fact, I’m pretty sure I have more plot, world, and character building documents than I have pages in my actual novel- but my novel is better because of it. Of course, getting bogged down in the development stage is never a good idea, but if you know a story well enough to be able to answer 95% of the fan questions that will ultimately be thrown your way, it’s more than worth it.
I know, especially for fantasy/epic fantasy, world building can be terrifying. There is a huge long list of things that need to be taken into account: Political structure, social interactions, education, class system, language, communication, technology… The list is practically endless. However, not everything needs to be fully laid out before you start writing- and getting into the story can actually help build the world, even if it means having to go back and change stuff later.
So, I decided to compile a little guide of things that I do when I am world building, that might help all of you if you’re stuck.
- First off, I just want to say do not be discouraged.
- World building takes time. The more in-depth and original you want your world to be, the more time it’s going to take. This is especially true for stories taking place in a world completely different from our own, or a story that takes place in another time. Don’t give up on building your world because it has holes, or things aren’t falling exactly into place, or it’s taking more work than originally thought. The world you come up with in the end will be worth it.
- Keep a notebook or a binder
- So, if you know me, you’re going to laugh at me for this step. If you’ve seen my binder and notebook collection, you know I’m a bit of a binder freak. I have pushed the binder system on basically every person I know. But I’m serious, binders really do help! Keeping all of your documents in the same place makes it so much easier to find stuff- especially if you are like me, and you have a million different files and folders of random story documents. Of course, having an organized folder of story-specific documents on a computer has the same effect as a handwritten notebook or binder, but personally, I always feel better having a hard copy printed out (and a back-up copy on a flash drive). I’ve lost documents before. Never again.
- And, if you do have a set notebook for story-specific plot, character, and world building: carry it around with you as much as possible. You never know when inspiration may strike, and having something to write it down in before you forget the idea is very helpful. And even if you just have your phone to quickly type on, find a way to send it to yourself. Email it, send it over messenger- whatever you can do to get it copied into your story document. Trust me, if you have a bunch of documents and pages with ideas just scattered around, it’s nearly impossible to find the right one when you need it.
- Write a list of world-building things you want to cover
- This is something I always do before I sit down to build a world. I think about what in my world works a little differently, and I write down what those things are. Since I normally write fantasy, those things are normally things like the rules of magic, the social class system, magical beings vs non-magical beings, religious systems, and things like that. However, these things can be anything. If you’re writing a high school slice of life romance novel, this list can be things about the high school’s social order or simply how characters interact (what are the cliques, if there are any? Who runs this campus? How do these students typically interact with each other? What are the trends?). For a sci-fi, it might be focused on the technological advancements, whether the society is utopian or dystopian, whether or not humans have contacted aliens (and what that interaction would look like) and so on. Having a list helps break up the things you need to build into easy to manage categories, and gives a path for you to focus on. Some days, I might be more inspired to write about the religious system used in Insanity’s Wish than the class system for The Forest of Eyes and Shadows. Either way, I get something written, because I have a direction to go.
- Don’t try to cover every single little world detail before you start writing- but don’t do the opposite either!
- Yes, having a solid world to start writing for does make your life a little easy, but if all you ever do is write world, character, and plot documents- your novel never gets written. And if the novel never gets written, that wonderful world you created never has time to shine or be shared with the world. Wanting to fill plot holes and know everything about the world is good, but don’t get so swept up in the glamor in it all and never write your story.
- However- and here is where it gets so wonderfully complicated- you don’t want to do the opposite and start on a shaky world either. The key is to find a good balance of known and unknown to start writing and develop the unknowns as you go on. You might find that things you thought were going to work, don’t, and that changes the world and the story. Have a list of things you definitely need to know about the world before you start writing, and develop the details from there. Sometimes, especially with social structure and character interactions, the things you come up with while writing are far better and feel more real.
- Characters and Plot influence the world
- One mistake I have made while world building is to completely throw away the plot and characters while building a world- but it takes all three to have a dynamic story. Your characters do influence the way that your world operates, and it can damage a character or a plot to just shove them into a world without much forethought. Similarly, a world with no characters or story to tell is no world at all. When building your story, make sure you take into account how people interact with each other, and how your character’s journey will affect the world. If you are writing a dystopia or any other story where the character’s motive is directly attached to changing the way the governing system (whether it be on a small scale, like a high school or a bigoted town, or the political system that governs the entire world) this is especially true. Make sure you take character and plot into account while you build your world.
- Share your world with people!
- Something I have always done while developing is talking about my world with a few of my (close and trusted) writer friends and hearing their input. If I’m stuck, or don’t know if something will make sense, hearing outsiders input really makes a difference. Something might make sense to you, but not to others, and it is always good to hear that feedback. Even if you don’t want to change it, finding a new way to package that information so it is understandable makes all the difference.
- Have fun 🙂
- This is probably the most cliche section of this tips & tricks guide, but it’s still true. Your world is your world. It doesn’t matter whether this is just for fun, or for a serious published novel- you want to love your story. If you care about your world, your reader will too. If you feel like your world is real (or real enough), your reader will too. Get invested in your story. During the development stage, this is key. Development is about building and tinkering until you get it just right. Once you have that, you can go back through and make sure all the beams are in the right place. Of course, don’t let that investment hinder your ability to get otherwise helpful critiques from peers. Part of loving your world is wanting to watch it grow and get stronger- critique is part of that process.
I hope these tips were helpful to all y’all! If you have any questions or want me to elaborate on a specific part of this guide, leave a comment. If you have a suggestion or something you want to see me write on for another Tips & Tricks blog, let me know and I’ll see if I can get to it. For more tips on how to build a dynamic story, look for the other Tips & Tricks guides for character and plot building.
Until Next time!