Regardless of whether your story uses a world full of fantasy-filled adventures or one as mundane as our own, there’s an art to world-building.
And it’s an art that can be overwhelming for writers who’ve never created a world before, or ones attempting their biggest yet—such as a foray into a book series.
But world-building will benefit any story, no matter the genre, so it’s not something to shy away from. You can make it as big or as small as your creativity allows. Just start with these basics…
Real World Vs Made Up
The first rule of world-building is deciding where it’s set.
Are you going to root your book in the real world or make it up? Once you’ve decided, carry it throughout your planning and story.
With real world rules, some of the work is done for you. The reader knows how that world works because they live in it, too.
With a fantasy world, you can be more creative and establish the rules. You can also combine the two and have a real-life setting mixed with fantasy elements.
In these cases, the rules of the world should be on the page so the reader knows exactly how it works.
After establishing the kind of world you want, it’s time to question everything.
Make a list like the one below and add your answers. You may not use every detail, but the list is a good starting point to get your ideas flowing and your subconscious thinking about your world on a deeper level. That will hopefully then reflect in your world as you write.
- What does the world look like? What’s the landscape? Is it a desert, underwater, a jungle? What are the special rules of those places?
- What’s the language that’s spoken? Is there more than one?
- What’s the technology like? Do robots rule? Is there no technology? Is there advanced technology?
- Is there a magic system? Is it used by everyone, only a select few, as currency, to grant wishes? Is it illegal or very rare?
- What are the rules of society? Is it a peaceful world? Are there different tiers of people?
- Who is in charge of society? Is there a government?
- What are the systems of law?
- Is the world set on earth, in space, or on another planet?
Give The World A Backstory
Just as your characters become deeper with the help of a backstory, so can your story world.
For example, what would the world be like if there has never been a war? What differences would that make to the story and the characters? Would it be a peaceful society? Or an arrogant, nothing-will-ever-go-wrong society?
The backstory included in your world-building can enrich your book, spark ideas, and influence your character traits, so put some research into it and reap the benefits.
Sharpen The Details
If you’re worried the world-building will overtake things, there’s no rule that says you need to know or explain every little thing.
Select details done well are enough to create a memorable or unique world.
The world is yours to create and only needs to be as in-depth as you need it to do your book justice. Don’t feel pressured to create a world as expansive as Tolkien because you’ve written a fantasy series. Your own unique ideas on a few fantasy elements might be all you need, so get the details right, but don’t get dragged down by them.
Add Your Own Spin
This is where that tried and true ‘write what you know’ advice comes in handy. When setting up your world, set it up like yours.
Describe the MC’s house like the one you grew up in, or the dream house you want to build one day with all your future writing royalties (we can dream, right?)
Do you work at a fun place or know the hell of being stuck in a job that sucks the life out of you?
Cramped office spaces full of florescent lighting and workers divided into little cubicles might be an office cliché, but if you’ve worked for a faceless corporation pushing papers, you know that it’s pretty accurate, and so will readers.
Infuse your story world with your world. Write about the places you’ve lived and worked to add a realistic spin to your world-building.
Cue Up Some Contrasts
Contrasts in a fictional world not only help establish the settings and rules but also give your characters something to fight for or against.
Let’s use The Hunger Games as an example. Katniss lives in a desolate district where she once stole bread to survive. In contrast, when she goes to the Capitol as part of the games, there’s so much food it’s wasted by the rich who live there. The contrast between these two levels of society helps fuel her fire to fight and gives the reader a clear contrast between the societies in The Hunger Games world.
By adding contrasts into your world-building, you can also clue the reader in on how things work, motivate characters and add elements of depth and tension.
Set The Rules And Break Them
Just as the 90s horror classic Scream established the rules to live by if you wanted to survive a scary movie, your world should have its own set of rules.
They can relate to how characters live, interact, and die. Or how magic systems, law, or the environment works.
Like all things, rules can be broken. If you’re going to break the rules you’ve set out, however, there must be a reason. It should also be foreshadowed. Why? Because if you don’t let the reader know the rules can be changed before changing them, they’ll get frustrated. No writer wants frustrated readers.
Create your rules, establish them on the page, break them for a good reason, and always with a hint before the change.
Don’t Get Trapped
Our final world-building basic works for standalone books, but is an essential must-do for those crafting a book series!
World-building really shines as part of a series. Across multiple books, you have the time to establish the world and bring in all the rules without overwhelming the reader.
In an ideal reality, the world will be established and you’ll know how everything fits across the whole series. In a realistic reality, you’ll be writing the series across years and releasing one book at a time.
It’s a system that’s ripe for getting trapped by the rules you’ve created. What worked in book one might cause issues in book four when you’ve realized you’ve written yourself into a corner.
To work around it, either don’t release until you’ve written everything, which has its own advantages and disadvantages, or learn to keep track of every single detail.
A series bible helps with this. Don’t rely on your own memory. Your writer-brain remembers everything, including ideas you noted but never added, and the things you cut out!
If books from your series have already been published and you’re working on the latest installment, re-read the released books!
Write down the actual rules, not the ones from draft 9 that were scrapped and only live on in your head. Follow the published world-building so you can keep everything cohesive.
If it’s too late, use your series bible to help you add a plot twist so brilliant it looks like you knew what you were doing all along. Keep track of the details to avoid being trapped.
What is the most fun element of world-building for you? I love bringing the setting to life with vivid descriptions and making up magic (or magick as it’s known in my Urban Fantasy series, Blackbirch). Let me know what you love in the comments!
— K.M. Allan