The phrase “world building” usually calls to mind fantasy and science fiction. But writers of all genres can benefit from strong world building, and you’re no exception. Here’s how.
It All Comes Down to Characters
World building is all about knowing the circumstances of your characters. The more you know their circumstances, the better you understand and write them, and the more rich and authentic they appear to the reader.
Here are some world-building questions that might surprise you:
- What is your hero’s favorite coffee shop?
- What kind of car does your heroine drive, and where is her regular car shop?
- Are there any interesting neighbors living on your protagonist’s street?
- In what part of town did your villain grow up? How has it shaped him or her?
When you know these details—even if they don’t make an appearance in your final draft—your writing becomes richer and better.
Your settings may be completely fictional, like Westerose in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, or a fictional town in our real world, like Castle Rock in various novels by Stephen King. It could be a fictional street in a real city, or somewhere real altogether.
Whatever your case is, there are several aspects of your settings you’ll want to explore or invent. Let’s go over them.
Some Aspects of World Building
If your settings are fictional, draw a map of them. If they’re real, make sure you have a good, detailed map at your disposal. You’ll want to know street names, business locations, the immediate neighbors of your characters, the homes of otherwise interesting people. These will be the different stages on which your hero’s journey may play out, so make them varied and detailed and interesting.
2. Demography & Society
Is your chosen location full of young parents and their children, or of elderly people? When you walk down the street, what kind of population are you likely to meet? Who stands out? Where do they hang out?
How’s the crime rate in your settings? Do people walk the streets without concern? Where are the scary places? What should the average person avoid?
What’s the common worldview, political inclination, or religion in your settings? How would they affect your heroes’ mindsets?
How is wealth distributed in your settings? What’s the average economic level? Does any person or family stand out? How hard or easy is life for the simple man? What does the average family eat?
How old are your settings? How and when were they created? What are their historical highlights? Local legends? Local mysteries?
5. Sensory Input
What do your settings smell like after it rains? What are the dominant colors? Are the houses crafted of stone, wood, or mud? What’s the current fashion? Create lively details and help the reader experience your settings to the fullest.
As you work through these questions, don’t come up with random answers or the obvious answers. Choose the kind of settings that will highlight the conflict in your story and add to it.
For example, if your protagonist is struggling to come out as gay, place him in a non-supportive town where being gay is frowned upon. If your hero needs a specific resource, place that resource in a hostile land and make it a rarity.
Some Pitfalls to Avoid
Avoid one-dimensional concepts. A planet with one terrain type is boring. So is a community with a single religion, or a people with one obvious character trait. Life is complex, and interest arises from the conflict of different things.
Make your settings clear. If there’s something in your settings that’s inherently different from our world, either make it obvious or at least hint at it from the beginning.
Don’t info-dump. You might get excited about knowing your world in so much detail, but don’t drop it all on the reader at once. Dole out details throughout your story, and only when they can be included in an organic, natural way.
Let chaos and chance have their play. Don’t create worlds, systems, or societies that are based on pure logic. While humans usually abhor the idea of randomness in their lives, it does in fact occur in nature all the time.
Now Go Build Your Own
Ready to give your characters an interesting sandbox to play in? Create with diversity, conflict, and authentic details in mind, and you’ll find your story much enriched. Have fun world building!