Learn about the endless expanse that is world building your book from the ground up… the from-scratch guide to world building.
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World building is the process of constructing a world, typically imaginary through that isn’t always the case; and while this topic often instigates controversy because there isn’t one way around it, we’re tackling this topic on the most basic principles to help writers at every level construct the best world for their novels.
Why is World Building Necessary?
At every story’s core is a world where people live, so no matter how fantastical or realistic your world, there’s a fair amount of world building required to expertly execute your story; though if you’re writing a contemporary, there’s probably less work to do than if you’re writing high fantasy.
When building out your world, there are three critical parts: the actual world, the people and history, and any magic systems or foreign technology (in the case of sci-fi). Having these basics locked down when you start writing will not only streamline the process but allow you to focus on the actual writing – not the constant idea generating that comes with the world building process.
In the following sections, I’ll give you the style and string of questions I ask myself during the world building process:
GEOGRAPHY & CLIMATE
- What type of world is your world based on? Is it oxygen-heavy like Earth, or another element? Do your civilizations breath air or is there another compound that fuels them?
- How are the different regions in your world differentiated?
- What type of geography, typography, and climate does your world offer? Is it mountainous? Is it cold or is it blistering? Does it resemble Earth or not even in the slightest?
- How is the universe/galaxy structured in your world?
- What natural resources are present in your world? Are they familiar or are they completely new and imaginary? Are they used by civilizations? How are they used, if at all?
HISTORY, PEOPLE & CULTURE
- Is your world based with humans? Or another creature? Or machines?
- What makes your civilizations unique? Why can’t they all live as one under one ruling crown?
- What does your political system look like? It is matriarchal, democratic, or…? Are there rebellion parties? If so, how do they coexist?
- What customs rule your world? How do civilizations interact with each other? How do the different governments of your world communicate? How is trade handled?
- How do your main characters fit into this world? What kind of interactions do they have?
- How is sexuality viewed in your world? Is it underground or expressed openly?
- What major military actions have shaped your world? Your main character? Is there wartime happening now? How does this impact the public? How has this impacted history?
- What’s the general history of your world? How far back does the written word date back to? How bad is corruption in the old texts? In the government?
- What kind of weapons exist for your military? Do the general public have access to advanced weaponry or are they on their own with whatever they can make or find?
- What kind of business, industry, commerce, transportation, technology, medicine, and science exist in your civilizations? Are other regions/cultures more or less advanced than the main civilization?
- What types of food do your citizens eat?
- What kind of celebrations, festivals, or other cultural customs are expressed? What kind of worship is practiced? Are there different types? How do they express such worship? Who rules and how are they treated?
- What type of animals inhabit your world? Are they familiar, new, or a mix of both? Are there some that are customarily domesticated? Which aren’t? Are there some that aren’t “here” but are elsewhere in your world?
- How do people make a living in your world? Do people have the right to choose their own money source or is it assigned to them?
- Outline the crime and legal system in your world. How are criminals punished? Or are they not? What levels or layers of punishments exist in your civilization(s).
MAGIC SYSTEMS / TECHNOLOGY
- What are your rules of magic? Is there one magic system, or do multiple different types of magic exist in your world? What can your magic do? What can it not do? What limits bind your magic system?
- What’s the ritual around your magic system? Are wands involved, hand motions, or is it entirely telepathic? How long does it take? Can you fail or be not powerful enough to do certain spells?
- Is everyone magical? Or a select group of people? Is magic innate or must you train to focus and master it? Is there numerical limit to the number of individuals who can possess such magic? Can it be lost? Gained?
- Are certain magics considered more evil than others? Are any considered extinct? Can magic be abused?
- What type of impact does magic have on the person performing the magic?
- Are there special languages involved in the practice of magic?
- Can magic gain sentinel status? How is magic treated in general society?
Suffice it to say there are an endless stream of questions you can ask yourself in regard to world building your world – some people spend years detailed every aspect of every civilization, creature, and resource in their world. Some never get around to actual writing because they’re focused to heavily on their world building, and while I totally understand, I don’t suggest allowing yourself to get to wrapped up that you forget why you’re world building in the first place.
As with many phases in the writerly process, it takes time, energy, and an entire tree’s worth of notes. What doesn’t kill trees are the tips I’m adding to round out this blog post. Some will pertain to the writing process in regard to world building, but all are general rules of thumb that I keep in mind when I’m writing a world-heavy novel.
Advice for World Building Your Novel
Tip #1 Avoid Information Dumps
First and foremost when you create a world… you’ll become a part of that world and you’ll just want to share with anyone and use any opportunity to dive into the details of your novel. While you’re writing the novel, it’s good to add detail, but limit it to the most crucial and add more during revisions if your betas are getting confused. Another suggestion is to have a critique partner gloss over it and ask if you think you should add more detail or just leave it the way it is.
These people are great for this because they are far removed from your novel and often know little or nothing about it. If they can get by without the entire history of the castle or know about the king’s sister from the east who likes to shop while she’s in town, then you shouldn’t include it (though you should know it!)
Tip #2 Start Small and Build
When I start building a new world… I usually start with my general story idea and the roughest of outlines and build my world around that. Remember, your world is a tool for your story, not the other way around. While you’ll want to nail certain things down, like what types of magic there are and what they can do or if there’s only one type of magic, but the overarching story shouldn’t be completely negated with a little world building. I find this makes the process more streamlined.
Tip #3 Compile all your world building notes together for consistency. Create an encyclopedia for your novel.
I did this for my first series and… a habit was born. When I wrote my first series, a supernatural romance set in modern times, I created a “bible” were all my character, locational, magical, etc. information was kept. I actually just used Trello so I would have it all in one place whenever I needed it, but you can use a physical notebook if that’s easier for you.
Tip #4 Create names relevant to your story.
Don’t make your 1800s royal Andromeda – it just wasn’t a popular name at the time; and if you do name a character that… they better be super into Greek mythology or time traveling to modern times (where it’s used as a galactic name). Search, find, or create names that are relevant and consistent with the themes in your novel.
Tip #5 Balance the good and the bad in your story.
Every place had bad people; but every place has good people too. While you can have stereotypes in your world or civilizations that push thievery or the like, there will be just as many good Samaritans along your main character’s journey.
Tip #6 Create multi-dimensional people, settings, places, creatures, etc.
Just like your characters, your world should be multi-dimensional too! If you’re building a fantasy land, there will be several layers to the world, including hierarchy, religion, politics, military, royalty/leadership, commerce, economy, agriculture, and more. Though your focus might vary, it’s best to delve (at least) a little into each of the facets that make an economy work, whether like a well-oiled machine or like a frozen Siberia.
Tip #7 Don’t rewrap existing cultures; your readers will know.
We’ve all seen it in characters, where the author inserts people they know (or even themselves), but it’s the same in world building. Sure, take bits of cultures – we all draw inspiration from what we know – but don’t just rip off entire philosophies. The only exception is if you’re writing a novel about that culture.
Tip #8 Reveal the critical; no the in-depth details.
When it comes to world building and your novel, you’ll want to remember that the world builds your story…and not the other way around. When you’re writing, you’ll want to write with the mindset that your story is emphasized by your world, not that the story is about your world and world’s history. This mindset should assist with the previously mentioned info dumps.
Tip #9 Remember that there’s activity aside from your main characters; things don’t just stop when your protagonist leaves the area.
Things happen all around us even if we aren’t there to bear witness or contribute to an event. This is the same for your novel. The world keeps moving, people keep living, and stuff keeps happening – the good and the bad.
Tip #10 Every world has rules.
The most important of all the tips, remembering your world has rules is key to staying consistent throughout your books and relates to more than just your magic system. When you’re building out your world, you’ll want to keep magic systems in line from story to story and person to person, but also keep people consistent, locations consistent, and any and all other relevant tidbits consistent. And remember, these rules aren’t meant to be broken… unless you’re using it as a plot device.
Something you’ll want to remember when world building is not to divulge all the information at one time… that would turn into an information dump which only proves to bore the reader. Instead of this nonsensical way of introducing the diversity of your world, you’ll want to insert tidbits throughout the normal narrative – while keeping every aspect straight in your head!