“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.”
—Virginia Woolf

World Building 101

If you write fiction, you need world building. It’s the skeleton of your story: though unseen, those bones determine the shape of the beast.

World Building 101

 

I recently had the honor of co-leading a panel at Geek Girl Con all about world building (you can hear the audio and read the notes here), so I’ve been giving the topic a lot of thought. I want this to help you no matter what genre you write, so this post will cover broad but powerful principles.

Buckle your seatbelt. It’s time to dive into advanced world building.

What Is World Building?

World building means you have the sense of a bigger universe. There’s a sense of more, maybe even of epic, that haunts the edges of your story.

This goes way beyond clothing designs or the shapes of trees. This goes past whether or not your characters have magic and what political systems they use.

World building encompasses every assumption and belief your characters hold, spoken  and unspoken—and that means it determines the decisions they make and the responses they choose.

Why We Need World Building

We’ve all encountered stories that didn’t bother with this crucial step, and we felt the difference; the world lacked authenticity. It didn’t feel real. It didn’t feel like we could step into the story and live there. With world building, you have the chance to capture imagination of your reader—and isn’t that what we want?

As an aside, world building also leaves open the possibilities for sequels, which is always fun. With an entire world to play with, you will never run out of stories.

World Building 101: First, the Scary Part

The scary news is this: complete world-building means having an awareness of the real world.

The real world exists around you. There’s history (how things came to be the way they are), geography (the lie of the land and how long it takes to get from one place to another), ecology (environment and what lives in it), economy (how does money work), mythology and religion (how people view  things that go bump in the night and morality), and the way all these details affect cultural development.

You have to be aware that the winner writes the history books. You have to be aware that just like you, your character lives, acts, and reacts within the context of their world—just like you do yours.

Don’t scream. This is possible, and it’s not as overwhelming as it sounds.

You don’t have to know how cars work in order to drive one, but you know the principles of how to start and steer one. Your characters will be the same way. Those things I mentioned up there determine your character’s culture, and the culture determines what your character deals with and how he/she reacts.

Make sure you have at least some handle on the world you live in right now. Yes, this will take time. It is totally worth the effort.

World Building 101: The Window Frame

Think of world building like this: your story is basically taking place through a window. The walls of the house are the covers of your book. Your readers see what’s inside the window frame, and that’s it.

But what happens out of sight beyond those walls determines what passes in front of that window.

Here’s a fun little example I drew scratched out for you:

World building - like a window

World building – like a window (Click to see larger)

The little window frame in the middle is all your readers will see; it’s the confines of your story. In the story above (which I just invented), I want Little Dude up there to ride his dinosaur to the hot air balloon and fly away. In order for that to happen, however, I need to have in mind a history that includes dinosaurs alive and domesticated, as well as air travel.

So I’m thinking of a world with unicorns and dinosaurs and steampunk-y transport together with rocket ships (because why not?) and also hot air balloons. That means I have to consider the history of this world from the beginning, including magical influences (hence the unicorn) needed to direct the way society developed.

In other words, I have to know why and how these things came to be. My (imaginary) book doesn’t have to include all of these details. Readers don’t necessarily need to know about the history of this world. However, if I don’t know it, my ignorance will negatively affect the way the characters talk about their world.

If there’s an actual history in my head for how this world came to be, then the characters will have some passing knowledge of it, kind of like you and I have knowledge of our own world’s history.

You know about airplanes, so you tell jokes about airports and airlines and airline food—even if you aren’t flying on a plane. Your characters have your world building as their backdrop, even if the reader doesn’t need to know all of it. The world you build determines the way they speak and act and interact with their world; in other words, what they do inside the window frame.

You have to know why things happen. World building, in essence, is answering the question why.

World Building 101: Two Ways

There are generally two ways to go about building your world.

  1. From the outside in. This means tackling the history, geography, politics, gender delineations, etc. first. This means considering economic weirdness because the locusts were bad three years ago and how that affects spice trade, or the distance between countries and the travel time required. Once you’ve created the world, then you have an idea what kind of people can live in it, even if they don’t fit into the world or understand it fully.
  2. From the inside out. I confess this is my favorite method: you start with the characters themselves, paying attention to the tiny, weird ways they live their lives, and you let that tell you piece by piece the way their world HAS to work. When I wrote The Sundered, I knew Harry was terrified of the water because touching the water meant instant death. I didn’t yet know why the water killed; I had to learn that as the story unfolded.

In both cases, you need to know the why.

Why do your characters wear kimonos? Why does your alien species only have one language (and there really needs to be a reason for that)? You don’t need to be a science major, but you need to have some idea why fire only burns green in that fantasy you’re writing.

If you build it from the outside in, you’ll already some idea for the physics for green fire, even if your characters don’t know. If you build it from the inside out, then you’ll see that your character believes fire is normally green, and you’ll have to go figure out why. Both methods are really fun to do. I personally enjoy the second method because characters come to me first. My job as a writer is listening to them, then figuring out how and why.

World Building 101: Your Character’s Eyes

perspective

Once you’ve begun to tackle the rather daunting task of world building, you’re going to quickly realize that your gloriously built world will creep into the window frame of your story in one of two ways: what your characters know, and what your characters don’t know. 

Just like real life, your characters don’t always know everything. In fact, they can be completely wrong about the way their world works.

Mind you, incorrect information is a great way to move the plot along. The world won’t always work the way your characters think it will, forcing them to grow. But that’s an aside.

In all points of view in writing (first, second, third, and narrator POV), your characters will be right about some things and wrong about others. Take advantage of that. Your reader only knows what your characters know, which means your reader gets to learn alongside your protagonists.

World Building 101 Bonus: Characters Matter

One question I get often when it comes to world building is this: how do I know what details to include in the story?

The way you know is to answer this question: what does that world building tidbit have to do with your characters?

In the end, the characters are the most important part of your story. They’re the ones your readers empathize with; they’re the ones your readers will finish the book to follow. So here’s the simple principle: whatever makes it into the window frame of your story has to either impact your characters somehow, or at least impact a character in a way that will grab your reader’s attention.

There’s been twelve planets in your solar system, and one was sucked into a black hole? Crazy awesome! But if this has no effect on your characters now—if it doesn’t touch their daily lives or change the way their systems work or change anything at all—then your readers don’t really need to know. You can know. Your readers don’t need to, at least not in that book.

Of course, there’s another way. You can make something happen that affects a one-off character, and if you design that character right, your readers will care.

Here’s a great example. Remember The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? There’s a brief, delightfully weird moment in which a bowl of petunias is literally yanked into existence by the “infinite improbability drive” miles above a planet and falls to its death—but before it does, it actually thinks, “Oh no, not again.” In that one second, in that one thought, this bowl of petunias has become a character, and its feelings (which imply a story) are so surprising that the reader cares about the poor thing.

Build your world. Play and have fun. Go crazy. Then when it comes to your story, just make sure that the parts seen through the window frame matter to the characters, and all will be well.

Do you approach world building from the outside in or the inside out? Let me know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Complete world building isn’t something you can do in fifteen minutes, obviously, but I do have one fun task: take fifteen minutes. choose one aspect of the world you’re trying to build, and in the comments below, figure out how it applies to your character’s reactions or point of view.

Your subject can be as grand as the political rise of a dynasty or as silly as why a particular character has never seen the color purple. Go crazy with it, but most of all,  have fun!

About Ruthanne Reid

Bestselling author Ruthanne Reid writes about elves, aliens, vampires, and space-travel, and she is the author of the Among the Mythos series. Subscribe to her articles at RuthanneReid.com, and follow her on Twitter (@RuthanneReid)

  • Megan Angel

    I’ll bite, I need to fill my 750 words and I’m attempting Nanowrimo for the first time in years, after failing the first time. Head’s up, this will probably be a bit of stream of consciousness because I have so much to work out.

    But the first thing I’ve figure out is that it seems like my world wants to be science fiction-y, even though I’m also throwing fantasy style magic into it. (The magic is also a work in process, everything is a work in process.) But okay, for it to be science fiction, in my own little world at least, I like to have spaceships. I’m probably operating a bit off of watching Killjoys over the summer and so I’m interested in having that kind of galaxy, where there’s multiple planets. When the story was a strictly fantasy on earth thing, I had the academy my main character worked at as a well, academy, a school, but now I’m wondering if it’s off planet, maybe a space station that hovers over the main planet.

    But I also need her to be able to meet up with her brother and people who’s she exchanging data with, so space travel has to be either easy enough to go back and forth or she’s exchanging data and conversations in a different fashion then I envisioned. I’ve been getting the sense that she doesn’t get much freedom to move around, so looks like you go up to the station and stay awhile, you don’t just pop up and out. That means travel up there is not easy and/or cheap. I know it’s not cheap because Lana is the only one of her family to make it there and her brother gave up his chance so that she could go. Okay, lot more to work on, but I have to go now.

    • Megan Angel

      And to answer the second question, it’s definitely from the inside out. I almost always start with characters first anyhow, so it just makes sense.

      • ruthannereid

        🙂 Glad I’m not the only one! 😉

    • ruthannereid

      I absolutely love this! It’s a fantastic idea.

      It would definitely work, too. I can already feel it coming together; great job thinking it through!

      • Megan Angel

        Aww, thank you!

  • Sarah Riv

    Love love love this! Helped me really think of my setting. Now I have a much better picture of their world AND some nifty concepts that came with them!

    • ruthannereid

      That’s awesome, Sarah! I’m so glad to hear it!

  • Sarah Riv

    Was this article sent to the email list? I found the article from google (thinking it was an older article) and still haven’t gotten an email about it. This is happening with other sites I’m subscribed too also. Not sure if it’s only me or if emails aren’t being sent. Resubscribing just in case.

    • ruthannereid

      Good question! I can check with Joe. 🙂

  • nianro

    When I’m building a world, I like to write down all the little snippets of insanity that zip through my mind on a daily basis to try and create logically consistent (and totally insane) events that occur in the world, then write them as scenes. Most of them get cut, but I like to think they contribute to Hemingway’s iceberg effect.

    For instance, one of my razors fluttered to the ground when I unwrapped it this morning, and I thought, “oh, it’s raining razors.” I’ve been working on a setting in which the combination of nostalgia and environmental friendliness and frustration with modern airports have led to a resurgence in old-fashioned dirigible-type airships, with big triangular solar panels affixed to the tops of the balloons to power the engines. This led to a note about a scene in which terrorists or rebels or whatever shoot down a cargo airship, carrying millions of razor-thin razors, and they all flutter down over a densely populated area at terminal velocity and shred innocent bystanders into gory ribbons—or, in a less twisted story, slash foliage and shave innocent poodles and destroy property and similar nonsense.

    Relevant? Doubt it. It’ll be cut (like the unlucky poodles) But the more ludicrous the examples of what life is like in the world I’m inventing, the more accurately I can portray the not-so-insane, day-to-day life. Taking things to their absurd, (il)logical extreme helps me to get a handle on the less extreme.

    • ruthannereid

      Nianro, that’s a terrific idea! Keeping track of them all is great; that way, you can’t forget them.
      And wow – “raining razors” is glorious. I really hope it ends up in something you write!

  • Sara Beth Williams

    This is an amazing article. Thank you!

    • ruthannereid

      Thank you! 🙂 I’m really glad it helped.

  • Sara Beth Williams

    To answer your question: I don’t write fantasy, but I always start from the characters. I’ve kind of always written that way, but then after extensive gleaming and research I’ve read that that is really the best way to do it, let your characters tell the story. However, I have been jumbling the idea of writing a dystopian romance series and so this blog/article comes at JUST the right time, when I need to learn world building (as I said, I’m not a fantasy/sci fi writer) so this is very intriguing to me and should help me out a lot I think. The framework of the story is around a dystopian society due to massive, unresolveable cyber-attacks…hmm. Still working on it, very rough 🙂

    • ruthannereid

      That sounds like a fantastic story idea, Sara!

  • Rea

    Where it can get really fascinating and involved is when there is more than one world going at a time. Everyone sees the world differently so when you see your world through your character’s eyes there will always be surprises. That makes writing fun for me and creates depth I don’t always expect. Definitely an inside out writer here!

    • ruthannereid

      YES! I didn’t go into that here because there wasn’t room for it, but I’m doing that with my latest work in progress. WOW. it gets complicated!

  • Nikki, Amy Zeigler

    This is an interesting (in a good way!) take on writing! It was good to hear. I definitely write from the inside out.

    • ruthannereid

      Thanks, Nikki and Amy! I love meeting another character-first writer. 🙂

  • Pingback: Monday Must-Reads [10.26.15]()

  • Pingback: Tipsday: Writerly Goodness found on the interwebz, Oct 18-24, 2015 | Writerly Goodness()

  • I loved this post and will definitely be using it. I am actually writing my first fantasy novel for Nano, which gives me an opportunity to do it all wrong, with some basis of what I want, and then to edit it all right. I am looking forward to applying these and hopefully making this world a strong and realistic one!

    • ruthannereid

      I’m delighted to hear that, Olivia! 🙂

      There’s no doing it “wrong,” I promise. There’s only doing it better than you would have before. 🙂

  • Antonia

    What a wonderful post! Some of it I have figured out by myself, either by doing it, or by getting angry at people who’ve done it wrong. 😛
    Other parts of this post are putting words to things I’ve vaguely known about, but never really crystallised into conscious thoughts.
    And other bits again, make me go: yesssss, spot on — how can I possibly have missed that, all this time?
    Thank you for enlightening me! 🙂

    I love world-building. It’s one of the best part of starting a new project, and it makes me want to start so many new projects, all the time! Bad, bad world-building.

    I realise I usually alternate between the two methods. I start off from the outside and work until I have a frame in which to put some characters. Then I work on the characters until they begin shaping the world from the inside, filling out the blanks. When I have enough inside material to work with, I figure out the technical details, and then, from the outside, add some more stuff to go with it, and so on.

    When helping a friend study for an exam in political science a couple of months ago, I unexpectedly found another depth of world-building.
    The political systems of Sweden and Norway are strongly dominated by socialism, and the main reason for this is, surprisingly, the harsh climate and the difficulties involved in growing crops at this latitude. Even back in the old days, the state sometimes needed to step in and distribute food over the country, and even help farmers out economically when their part of the country had had a bad year. It created a bond between farmer and state, the legacy of which can be seen in the Scandinavian societies to this day.

    I thought this was incredibly interesting. The actual lay of the land — the dense coniferous forests, the mountains, the short summers and the cold winters — shaped the whole society and its political orientation through hundreds of years. Who would have thought?

    • ruthannereid

      Antonio, I’m so glad to hear this! World-building is absolutely fun. I love the way you go about it, too.

      That is a FASCINATING fact about Norway and Sweden. I did not know that, and it really helps me think even more fully about other governmental systems. Thanks for sharing!

  • Pingback: About self-publishing()

  • SBillustration

    I definitely work from the inside out in my story. Everything originated from a single character who formed the foundation of the world based off of who and what she is, why people treat her a certain way, and how it got to be that way.

    The main character for my story grew up in a society of rangers removed entirely from cities, where daily life consisted of patrolling and scouting, and the economy largely consisted of a barter system where one trades something with another based off of that person’s perceived notion of value. In her teens, she is removed from that environment( both willingly and forcefully) into a society that is nomadic, traveling from place to place. They used a similar method of bartering, but the stronger and more elite individuals were also free to take what they wished from those of a lower class if the weaker member couldn’t protect or guard their property properly. As a direct result, when she finally enters an actual city, the idea of money (or something that she deems as being virtually worthless being exchanged for something of value) is a ridiculous notion to her and her initial attempts to make purchases are treated with her either being scorned and ridiculed, or being considered a swindler or thief. The way that she is dressed does not help matters much, but a hooded cloak that obscures her is absolutely essential for her to even be in a city without causing a panic.

    I’m considering putting in a scene like that somewhere in the story, but the likelihood of her even interacting with people in a crowded city, especially while the sun is shining, is not very likely. The idea of the character’s outlook will remain even if the scene itself is cut. Usually, she would probably just hunt or gather whatever it is that she needs, but there might be a scene where she desperately needs something from the city that she can’t get on her own. This desperation could add extra tension to the scene as she struggles with her high morale code when normal methods are not working. How would she actually end up getting this important item? Would she find some money and use that to purchase it? Try to get a quick job (is there enough time and could she find a job that would even work within her skill set?) or would she break her morale code and steal it (or steal the money necessary to purchase it?)