When you hear the words “world building,” do you think of Westeros and Asgard? Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings? Neverland, Wonderland, Oz, and Narnia? In other words, do you tend to associate world building with the fantasy section in a bookstore?
While some of the most memorable worlds ever to capture the human imagination have come from fantasy writers, writers in other genres build worlds, too. Every work of fiction, every story that takes place in a fictional world, has a specific set of rules, customs, and expectations tied to the place and time in which the story unfolds.
If your story is set in the past (historical fiction or alternate history), or the future (SF or futuristic fiction), you’ve got a world to build.
If you’re writing a story that shifts cultural expectations (upending norms in, say, Silicon Valley or on Wall Street), or transports readers to a place in the world they know nothing about, then you, too, must practice the art of world building.
I’m currently coaching the MomWrites podcast writers, Abby Mathews and Mel Parish, both of whom are creating unique worlds into which readers will be able to escape. In Abby’s story, aimed at middle-grade kids, readers enter a magical world of storybook characters. In Mel’s, the action takes place in a dystopian reality, where characters have an opportunity to prolong their lives indefinitely, but not without a terrible cost. In both stories, there are characters who have to cope with problems arising from the fictional realities in which they find themselves. The challenge for both Abby and Mel is to figure out a way to show readers the fullness of the worlds they’ve created without stopping the action to do so.
On the lookout for ideas that might help them with their work, I found inspiration in an unexpected place: I attended a talk offered by Crystal King, author The Chef’s Secret and Feast of Sorrow, called “10 Takeaways for Authors Writing Historical Fiction.” Though Abby and Mel aren’t writing historical fiction, I realized many of the same rules could be applied to building worlds for their genres.
Here’s Crystal’s list of advice (in italics) and my notes on how it can apply to other genres:
- Know your era. Not “just the facts, ma’am” but how it feels to be living in that particular time and place. What would people (or other creatures, depending on your genre) be likely to care about, talk about, dwell upon on an ordinary day? What would matter to them, upset them, spur them to act? If someone from your world showed up on my doorstep and started a conversation, what cues would tell me they probably aren’t from my neck of the woods? Create that impression for your readers.
- Consider setting as you would a character. Give it personality traits, develop a relationship between the setting and the characters in the story. (Examples: The Shining by Stephen King, The Hobbit by Tolkien, and The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman.)
- “Outline” your story, characters and world events. Figure out what’s going on in parallel in the world you’ve created, beyond the events taking place in your story. Can you set up the timeline (or “outline”) for your story so that “macro” and “micro” level events collide at just the right moment, increasing the conflict and tension? (Think of the snowstorm in The Shining, for example.)
- Don’t give history lessons; you aren’t a historian. Put another way: avoid info dumps. Show readers the historical (or scientific or technological or magical) details at the exact moment when those details serve a specific purpose in the story. Show how the characters interact with the history (or science/tech/magic). Ask yourself : Why would my character need to know about this RIGHT NOW?
- Get the little details right. “Right” as in accurate (double-checking facts and figures), but also right as in consistent. Keep a running list of names, dates, gadgets, slang, spells, and so on. That way, you can keep your sanity when you’re trying to remember the name of the whatsit or whether Howard is the guy who says “huzzah” instead of “kudos.” (Examples of books that get the details right: The Stationary Shop by Marjan Kamali, and Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff.)
- Employ backstory sparingly. Don’t avoid backstory entirely! Just don’t dump it in where it isn’t needed. (See #4 above—the same applies to backstory. Use it to serve the story.)
- Visit the location. Well . . . if that’s possible. If not, look for other ways to experience in real life what you’re trying to create on the page. The idea is to get a feel for what it would be like to inhabit that world. Not only visually, perceptually, but viscerally as well. For example: Mel (of MomWrites) went to a shooting range to find out what it would be like for her character to hold and shoot a gun for the first time.
- Try to be fair. A world isn’t just a setting or a cast of characters—it’s also a cultural mindset. Especially with historical fiction, it’s important to avoid judging characters by present-day standards. Try to see the world from their perspective, even if it offends you. Then, use the story to make your point, allowing your characters to question the way things are.
- Be cautious with dialect and vernacular. If you aren’t 100% sure you can pull off a particular dialect, do more research. Talk to people who know and understand it well.
- You can’t get it all right. At some point, you have to stop fact-checking and move on. Does the world you’ve created seem authentic and credible? Is it an integral part of your story, reflected in the way your characters think and interact? Is it serving a purpose, deepening the story and helping to reinforce the point you want to make? If so, it may be time to cut the ribbon and declare the world ready for visitors.
For more on the subject of world building, check out:
Seven Rules for Writing Historical Fiction by Elizabeth Crook, who offers similar advice.
Picking the Right Setting Details by Becca Puglisi (Writers Helping Writers)