World Building Basics

World building is a topic to which entire books have been devoted. If you’ve ever played a pen and paper role playing game, the core books are simply presentations of world building results. The game designers have provided you the backbone and elements required to tell a story. I wrote recently about the world building trap and how easy it is to get stuck on this step.

I think world building is the most important part of novel planning. You may be able to pants a plot (that is, go with the flow without having a plan), but it’s much harder to pull a full-fledged world out of thin air. I could probably write individual blog posts on each aspect of world building, from geography to culture, and so on. But there are plenty of lists out there to work with. For the sake of simplicity, I’ve built a basic outline based on four of the six key questions.

My projects almost always start with characters. Usually the main character, but not always. I believe every story is only as good as its characters. If the reader doesn’t connect with or care about your characters, they aren’t going to invest in the story. It isn’t my story, after all, it belongs to my protagonist. And every minor character has a story of their own. You can start anywhere you want, but I always start here.

I like to make a rough bio for each character to get a sense of them. What do they look like? How do they act? What’s going to make them interesting to my readers? How do they fit into the story? What role do they play? Obviously you’ll need a protagonist and an antagonist, but you’ll probably have a host of other characters as well. Are they important people, like queens or dukes? Perhaps a shop keeper or tavern worker will prove pivotal to the plot. Maybe you have a few zany, incidental characters that will be encountered along the way.

If you’re like me, and don’t like thinking up names, now might be a good time to stockpile a few. (I ‘cheat’ and use name generators sometimes.) It’s always handy to have a good name available, in case an interesting minor character pops up later.

Pretty straightforward; where does your story take place? On the widest scope, this could be the name of the planet or dimension in which your story takes place. Is it a fantasy world? If you’re writing science-fiction, what’s the scope of your setting? A galaxy? A solar system? From there, you can zoom in as far as you want; how many planets in the solar system or continents on the planet? How is the land divided? How many countries? Where are the mountains, desserts and rivers?

Conversely, you could start with the city where the story begins and slowly zoom out from there. If your story takes place in one city, you might not need to outline a larger world.

This is, perhaps, the most involved part of the world building process. We aren’t just naming places and sticking them on a map. We also need to know what’s interesting about our cities or countries. What’s the culture of the people who live there? How are they ruled? What are the laws, and how do those laws affect citizens’ everyday lives? Does a tyrant rule with an iron fist? Or is this a utopia in which everyone can live as they please? There’s lots of opportunity to add depth just by building an interesting setting, so really delve into your world.

What time period is your novel set in? How much history is possessed by the city/country/world/spaceship in which your story takes place? Does that history affect your plot? Sometimes this step is less important than others. If the history of how your setting came to this point has no bearing on the story you want to tell, you may not spend too much time here. Then again, everything has a history, even if it’s new (it had to be made somehow, right?), so don’t overlook your setting’s history as a source of interesting information. On the other hand, even if you spend a lot of time developing your setting’s history, be prepared to make use of bite sized chunks. No one enjoys reading massive info dumps.

Tied closely to the question of ‘where’ is ‘how?’ How does your world work? What level of technology do they possess? Is there magic? If so; how does it work? What would a person do if they needed the assistance of doctor? How easy or affordable would health care be in your world? What about the political system? What do people do with their spare time? How are they educated? How do they live, travel or communicate?

You get the gist. The closer to our world your setting is, the less notes this section requires. A fantasy world may simply work like medieval Europe. An urban fantasy novel may be set in our world but with working magic. But if there are complex quirks that make your world spin, now is the time to develop them.

Adding some flavor
Now, let’s have some fun. The little details are often the most memorable, even if they seem insignificant to the story. To add flavor, you can add unique things to your world. Maybe the calendar works differently. Or perhaps, instead of the titles ‘king’ and ‘queen,’ your world has a unique set of titles all its own. Perhaps they have a particular way of referring to things, or a particular naming scheme for their children. A common tactic for adding flavor is to create a set of curses unique to your world. So long as its instantly recognizable or easily explainable, there’s no limit to what you can do. Though you may not want to rename everything, as that could become tedious to the reader.

When it comes to world building, you could write as little as a few sentences to sketch out your idea, or as much as a novel-sized primer. The greatest thing about creativity is that everyone gets to do it their own way. These are just a few questions you can use to start painting the picture of the realms that live in your imagination.

One Response to “World Building Basics”

  1. » Getting Inside a Character’s Head – Part 1: Questions Megan Cutler; Stories from the Soul Says:

    […] you can use to get inside into your character’s head. Much like the basic list I made for world building, here are some questions you can use as a jumping […]

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