World Building (Planning vs. Actual)
Four and a half years ago, August 2012 to be precise, I wrote my first post for WriteOnCon entitled: World Building: Let Your Characters Be Your Guide. In preparation for this post, I went back and reread it. For the most part, I still stand behind the advice I gave in that article, and I still go through a similar process in my world building these days.
I think the most useful part in that article is my suggestion that we accomplish world building in three primary ways in our stories:
- Description: sensory details about the environment, what the characters see, hear, smell, and so on.
- Straight exposition: “this is how the world works” kind of statements, primarily useful for giving the big picture view of the world and especially important for stories that are speculative fiction.
- Character interactions: the way characters interact both with the environment and with other characters, including dialogue (how they speak, what they say) and motivations (what they do and want).
These are the way we convey the world to the reader. Or to put it in reverse, these are the specific ways readers will process a story world. While that’s all well and good, looking back, I’m not sure how helpful this is to a new writer trying to figure out how to actually create a world effectively. We’re all readers, after all, and so we already know, more or less, that this is what makes a world come alive for us while reading. But how to make it come alive while writing?
This short answer is: I don’t really know. Writing isn’t something you learn through study and analysis. You learn only by doing, and half the time we writers don’t fully understand what it is we’re doing, let alone how to explain it to anyone else. That said, though, sometimes hearing about other writers’ processes can be useful in helping us figuring out our own process. Given that, I’ve attempted to put down all my biggest, most important tips and strategies for effective world building. These are the things I’ve learned as part of my own journey, and it’s the closest I can get right now to describing my world building process to you:
1. Get an idea of the big picture as early as possible.
When prewriting or in the early stages of drafting, I spend a lot of time figuring out the overall shape of my new world. I want to understand these key components:
a) Distribution of Power.
Who has the power, who doesn’t, and why? This is important because power distribution is a source of conflict, and I want my world to be rife with it. Oftentimes this will require me to decide on the system of government, whether my world takes place in a monarchy, a republic, and so on. I don’t try and reinvent the wheel in this regard, at least not at the beginning of the story. I’m interested in identifying a frame I can work in, knowing that I might bend or twist the particulars of that frame at a later date.
Beyond government, I also want a basic understanding of the economics in my world. How money is acquired and who has it, is a key part of the distribution of power. Just because you have a monarchy doesn’t necessarily mean that these people hold the wealth, too. Game of Thrones does an excellent job of exploring this reality, what with how the ruling family of Westeros (Cersei and her ilk) owes a huge debt to the Iron Bank of Braavos. It’s going to come due sooner or later and power will shift as a result. But money concerns aren’t just for the rich and political. The flow of money affects the little guy, too. The need to make it pushes people out of bed in the morning. It keeps people oppressed or helps them stay oppressors. It makes regimes fall and tyrants rise. It’s important to everyone in my story, in other words, whether they know it or not.
b) Magic System (in fantasy) or Driving Technology (in sci-fi).
In a lot of ways, I could’ve filed this under distribution of power. Much of the time the magic or technology in a story is about power. Regardless though, I want to have a good grasp on how the magic or tech works as early as possible. I will not only lay down the rules of magic but also its restrictions, what it can and can’t do. I’m not always able to figure all of this out ahead of time, but the more I can, the easier it is to write the story. For a more detailed and extremely helpful discussion on developing your magic system, I recommend Brandon Sanderson’s laws of magic systems.
c) Religion and Beliefs.
In order to understand my characters, I need to understand the underlying belief systems of their society. If there’s a religion, I want to understand the basics of how it works. I want to know how this society handles their dead, how they treat their young, elderly, and disabled. Again, I don’t always know everything upfront, but the more I know the easier it is later on. Also, while I’m writing, I will be making further decisions about this part of the world building. Beliefs, especially ones that differ from the known and expected, can be a fun aspect to explore in a new world.
d) Races and Ethnicities.
I try to decide these early, if I can, and I try to include diverse characters and groups as much as the story will allow. But I’m careful about how I’m representing ethnicities. I try to avoid stereotyping at all costs, and if I’m building a fantasy race based on a real world set of people or if I’m exploring what a particular ethnic group might look like in the future, then I will make sure to get sensitivity readers to let me know whether or not I’m handling the subject appropriately. It’s also worth noting that this section is directly connected to the religion and beliefs section. There will be overlap.
e) Level of technology.
When I’m writing a sci-fi this is a no brainer, of course, and probably something I’ve already determined as part of the magic system section. But even in a fantasy, I want to have an idea of the level of technology in my world. Do they have steam power? Clocks? Printing Press? These decisions will help give my world the particular flavor I’m looking for and will have an impact on my characters and on story events.
2. Make Active Decisions While Drafting.
The importance of making active decisions is a topic I’ve recently explored in more depth for an upcoming post at Live, Love, Read due out Feb 9 To summarize, it’s very easy when drafting a book to get in the habit of making passive decisions. By this I mean, just deciding on details and events without thinking them through or having a specific reason for choosing them. Instead, it’s crucial I take the time to think through every decision I make about the world of my story. Every decision. Including why it is my main character has blue eyes or purple hair or four arms or even why proper names have to have an apostrophe in them (seriously, why is this???). Oftentimes I’ll want to make decisions based on what looks cool or what would be fun. There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as I take the time to make sure those cool elements fit into my world and actually make sense. If I don’t do this, I usually get in trouble later with plot holes or inconsistencies.
The way to make active decisions, as I said, is to question every choice made. It’s a rigorous thinking process, a self-challenge full of a series of “yeah, but why?” types of questions that often leave me exhausted afterward. But it’s always worth it. This is the key to making my world feel both unique and fully realized. When I take the time to verify the details of my world, I’m often be able to recognize elements that are cliché or bland, and I’ll usually come up with something way better than what I initially picked.
3. Remember that God is the Details.
I know, I know, normally people say that the “devil is in the details,” but that phrase actually originated from the one above, and I prefer it when I’m talking about writing. Basically, this phrase means that attention paid to small things has big rewards. In other words, details matter. I would argue, that details are where real storytelling magic happens. This is how both worlds and characters become real to readers. But it’s not so simple as describing the way the palace on the hill looks or the space station or whatever. Instead, using the right details at the right time is what really makes the story come to life. Here’s how I try to handle details in my story:
a) Make Them Little:
This is definitely personal preference, but I avoid describing the physical characters of anything in my story at length. No more than a couple of sentences. I personally don’t care to read stories where the descriptions go on for several paragraphs or even pages. If that happens, I skim. Of course, too few details will make the world feel vague and abstract. So maybe I should’ve called this the Goldilocks approach: make them “just right.”
But by little, I mean more than just length and amount. Level of importance matters, too. When writing a fantasy or sci-fi it’s easy for me to get caught up in the super-awesome, ultra-important details about my world and forget about the little stuff. But little stuff is what makes a world relatable, and it’s important to take time for it. For example, there’s a scene in the Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater where main character Kate Connolly is listening to her little brother Finn explain how to make hot chocolate. Considering this is a book about an island plagued by flesh-eating water horses, hot chocolate making definitely qualifies as not very important in the grander scheme of both the plot and the magical system of the world. And yet this scene is one that makes the world seem real to the reader. Thisby starts to feel like the kind of place you could hop into a boat and visit if you wanted to. Of course this scene is also important for establishing character, but more on that later. The point here is that I want to take the time to add small, seemingly unimportant details about my world throughout, but which work to make the place feel lived in.
b) Make Them Specific:
This is a no brainer, and it’s directly tied into the active decision making I discussed earlier. Details should be concrete and as specific as possible. I try to avoid the vague and generic. However, I want to be careful not to overwhelm my readers with too many world-specific details all at once. By that, I mean things that exist in my fictional world but which don’t in the real one. If I’ve had to make up a name for it, then I want to give my readers time to familiarize themselves with this new object before introducing a second one. It’s all about balance here.
c) Rule of Three:
Speaking about balance, I will also try to repeat a detail three times in various ways throughout a novel. This has to do with the idea expounded by Algis Budrys how “that which you tell your audience three times, they will believe.” I happen to subscribe to this idea, and I think it’s effective to employ it with all world building details and beyond.
d) Scatter details about everywhere:
Again, this is a no brainer. Details are like salt. Too much concentrated in one place will overwhelm and too little with make things bland and tasteless. Instead they should be scattered evenly about.
e) Make them do double duty:
As much as possible, I will try to make my world building details not only express aspects of the world but also aspects of the characters or some crucial information about the story events. So much of world building is how the characters interact with the world and vice versa. This is what’s happening in the hot chocolate making scene from the Scorpio Races. Not only is Stiefvater making the world real and tangible here but she’s also showing us important things about her characters. When I’m telling a story, I know I’ve only got so many words to get it done. It’s important I make all my details pack a punch and do more than just describe.
And my final, most important tip is:
More than anything else, I want my world building details and process to be fun—for me. Firstly, there’s always a chance that I might be the only person whoever gets to experience this world I’m building. And secondly, if I’m not having fun with it, then I know my readers won’t either.
And there you have it. I really hope you find this helpful, and I want to wish you the best of luck with your writing journey. Now go out there and get those words down on the page!