I gave my first ever writing-related speech last night, so I thought I’d celebrate by posting a good portion of it for your enjoyment.
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At a casual glance, world-building would appear to belong exclusively to the science fiction and fantasy genres. It doesn’t. Successful writers of every genre are concerned with world-building.
- Historical romance demands not only believable chemistry between the would-be lovers, but also accuracy in the details of world they inhabit.
- How successful would a detective story be if the author bungled the descriptions of police procedure?
- Even contemporary literary fiction depends on the often unconscious world building of its author.
What is world-building? It is the details of setting that an author chooses to include which flavor the narrative and make it possible for the reader to understand the place and time in which the story takes place.
If you’re writing a story in contemporary America, you may not think you are world-building, but you are. You are making conscious and unconscious decisions regarding your setting, choosing which details to reveal and which to ignore, relying instead on your common experience with your assumed reader.
Think about it. How does your reader know your story is set in the Pacific Northwest and not smack in the middle of the Great Plains? What setting details do you write automatically which place your characters in the United States rather than in China, Russia, or even Canada?
World-building is the concern of every writer. It’s just that some of us have a head start because we’re relying on the common understanding of our readers when we write in a contemporary American setting.
Now, when we set that common understanding aside, world-building becomes not only necessary, but exciting…your opportunity to be the god/dess of a new world!
Before I get into the specifics of world-building, I’d like to take a minute to discuss record keeping. Once you decide on elements of your world, how will you keep track of them? And you must keep track in order to maintain consistency, especially if you end up writing more than one book in a given world. Here are a few possibilities:
- Spreadsheets: great if you’re a spreadsheet kind of person, I know many who aren’t.
- Looseleaf notebook: wonderful if you write by hand; I don’t.
- Jeannie Ruesch’s WIP NoteBook
- Liquid Story Binder
- Luminotes Personal Wiki Notebook
All right. Now that you know where you’re going to keep track of your ideas, what are the elements of world-building that need to be addressed when you set out to create a unique and new universe for your characters to inhabit?
SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America) has an excellent article on the subject by Patricia Wrede. She breaks her article down into the following segments:
- The world: basics like laws of nature and physics, whether the planet is earth-like or not
- Physical and historical features:
- Climate & geography (terrain and map)
- Natural resources
- World history
- Specific history of the country
- Peoples and customs:
- Greeting and meeting
- Visits (rules of hospitality and what they entail)
- Ethics and values
- Religion and gods
- Social organization:
- Crime and legal system
- Foreign relations
- Systems of war
- Commerce, Trade, and Public Life:
- Business & industry
- Science & technology
- Arts & entertainment
- Urban factors
- Rural factors
- Daily life:
- Fashion & dress
Finally, if you’re writing fantasy, you have an extra dimension of world-building to explore—magic. Stephanie Cottrell Bryant has posted an excellent article, Magical World Builder’s Guide on her website. I recommend reading it.
As you’re designing your world, you’ll need to consider the source of magic, the system that supports it—does it require an education in spells and potions ala Harry Potter, or is it an inborn gift that each user must learn to control individually? What is the cost of the magic? Are there species of magical creatures? Decide on your rules—they can be anything—and be internally consistent.
Consistency is key with all world-building elements.
Now, when you start thinking about all of these areas, you might have a tendency to throw up your hands and say, “But I’m just writing a love story here! A simple boy-meets-girl tale that happens to take place on a spaceship. Surely I don’t need to explain the technology and political climate that allowed that ship to exist!”
And you’d be right…to a certain extent. You won’t put all your world-building in your story—that would be an info dump of gigantic proportions! But the fact that you’ve taken the time to think about these issues and make some rudimentary decisions will influence the details you do choose to include. Your world-building will inform your word choices and will give your work a solidity that will pull your reader in and allow them to settle in your world.
So, the next question is one that Holly Lisle asks, “How Much of My World Do I Build?” Holly’s answer is, “Build only what you need; imply the rest.” Her summation is a great close to this conversation:
“Do the best you can with it, research when you have to, but remember that the point of worldbuilding is not to build a world — it’s to create interesting, consistent backdrops in front of which your characters can play out their tale. Your aim is primarily to entertain, secondarily (and not always) to instruct, and as long as you can do that without your readers stumbling over gross inconsistencies or errors of fact, you’ll be okay. So have some fun with it, and don’t sweat the small stuff.”
Enjoy your foray into godhood! Create an intriguing, internally consistent world and we’ll all be reading your novels.