No matter what kind of fiction (or even memoir!) you write, you're going to need to do some world building, even if it is just to capture the daily life of something that happened in actual history.
But what is world building and what elements do you need to include to do it effectively? Today, we welcome guest writer Jevon Knights who shares his process. Welcome, Jevon!
What is world building?
World building refers to the process of creating a fictional or imaginary world for your story. It involves constructing an entire universe, complete with its own history, geography, culture, and society. This world must be believable and immersive enough to transport your readers into it.
To effectively build a world, you need to consider various elements such as the physical environment, the political system, social structure, norms, values and more.
It’s easy to forget when writing a story all the details involved in building a world. In the first draft of my debut novel Guardian of the Cursed Crown I had totally overlooked the length and breadth of the land, focusing instead on getting the protagonist from the beginning to the end.
My editor demanded that I go back and put some more work into the world where the whole adventure takes place. My fictional setting didn't feel vivid and real yet.
But what exactly does that mean, and where did I begin? Let me take you through my worldbuilding process, and see if it will help you do some world building in your book too.
Elements of World Building
The goal of worldbuilding is to transport the reader into a new world—one that feels like a complete and complex story world, like the one we live in. The elements you include will impact your characters and their choices in the story, so pay attention to the details that make the most sense for your character journey and conflict.
Here are a few of the elements of world building that helped me.
For me the most logical place to begin was the map. As a child playing JRPG's like Final Fantasy or adventure video games like Zelda, I'd always spend several minutes with the included map, studying the large continent and the smaller islands scattered over some imaginary ocean.
Even today, when I start reading a new fantasy novel, I obsess over that first page with the map of the world, trying to remember the locations of roads and cities that I'm certain the protagonist would visit.
All that was totally missing in my first draft (and the second, and the third).
I had a general idea, sure. The protagonist Larsen leaves his city and journeys north into a dangerous land to revive his wife. I knew he'd ride across a field, trod through a forest, and over a mountain, but I had no concept of the continent it all takes place on, no major rivers, no beaches, not even an ocean.
The setting was more like a movie set of painted plywood than an actually living, breathing world.
So how to draw a map of your own? Real life is a great inspiration.
Sit in a location and record all the physical details that impact your experience of the place. Think first about the immediate physical location, including the structures, natural elements, and weather, but then expand out to imagine a bird's eye view of the topography.
Now create a rough map of your fictional world. What natural elements are part of the landscape? Mountains? Rivers? Roads? Islands? Whatever map choices you make, keep your character's journey in mind and where they need to visit during the course of your story.
Because fantasy is often based on medieval times with noble knights roaming the land seeking adventure and performing quests for great kings living in even greater castles, it's tempting to fill an entire world with people based on that design: everyone may share a similar complexion, dress in the same dull clothes, live in the same stone kingdoms, speak the same common language.
This single-race dominated world works for fairy tales and old Hollywood movies, but it's terrible for current-generation fantasy novels. For a fantasy world to be believable, it must possess a variety of people.
Now consider a world of various races from different regions. Maybe some are rich with resources like silk, maybe some have mastered skills like metalwork. Sometimes they trade resources, sometimes they war over land, sometimes they even fall in love.
Select characters from these different regions, keeping in mind the difference in complexion, clothes, language, and now your world is truly diverse.
Science fiction fantasy stories can have worlds created entirely by imagination, but it must stay within the bounds of evolution if readers are going to relate to it.
A massive stone city powered by electricity, surrounded by a tall defensive wall patrolled by guards using plate mail and swords, and commuted by floating chariots zooming through the streets only looks good in an episode of He-Man.
Technology develops along an arc, where older methods are replaced by newer advancements. The design of defensive walls changed as engineers developed better siege engines, with walls taking on a broader, more squat appearance.
Armourers had to keep upgrading their armour as new weapons came out, and with the advent of gun powder, metal-piercing weapons caused the armoured knight to fade into the past.
Steam power can replace horse power. Electricity might replace steam. Civilization tends to use different designs and fashion based on what powers an economy.
So decide, do you want horses to be the primary method of transport, or do you want engine-powered vehicles? Do you want swords or firearms? Does magic support technology, or will it be so difficult that it’s confined to a minority?
Take time to think about the technology advancements that will govern the ways your characters live, move, and work in their world.
When we strip away the grind of everyday life, it all comes down to faith that somewhere there exists a reverent power proud of our accomplishments, and generally wants to shape our character and propel us to victory.
Many times when things seem hopeless, we offer a silent prayer asking for strength, seeking guidance for our actions. Even atheists are faithful to something physical here in life – family, money, health, travel.
So it makes sense that a fictional world would need a similar faith. Characters should recognize something that gives life meaning, something to give thanks to, or something to despise when something bad occurs. This can really influence a society’s culture.
Phrases like “may god bless you” or “damn you to hell” have meaning when an actual deity is attached to them. Rituals and symbols can have spiritual value. Places of worship can designate holy grounds where the spilling of blood is prohibited, or maybe a blasphemous temple that people are afraid to set foot in.
The existence of such beings will shape the world, and the culture of society would certainly be built up around them, even when in defiance. They can also help define the values of a world, helping you define why your character is taking on a daunting task against insurmountable odds.
What does your character (and their world) believe in?
For fantasy, magic is far more than abracadabra, hocus-pocus, alakazam, a snap of the finger and poof, a rabbit jumps out of a hat.
Translated into fantasy, fire could suddenly appear and burn the invading army. Maybe someone goes pitching into the air. Or my personal favourite, spacetime bends.
It's easy to squeeze that kind of imagery into live action or animation because they can be consumed within an hour or two (or recently four). But enter the much slower, revised world of fantasy novels, when a character waves a hand to perform magic, there better be something relatable driving it. Something that makes sense, otherwise readers will knit their brows in confusion.
So how do you make magic relatable?
From chemistry, biology, physics, to astronomy, everything works by rules that governs natural forces. People relate to the rules of nature because we live by them every day. Every action has a reaction. Every decision has a consequence. And it's no different with magic.
Clear rules should be established. Share bits of explanations throughout the story, don't break your own rules, and have fun. That way when the impossible happens, readers accept it with a nod, understanding the workings of a believable magic system.
Consider how power works in your world. Even a commune is a specific political structure and will impact the ways your character sees themself and interacts with others. Power structures can be centered around families, clans, regions, or entire worlds.
Who is in charge? (Or who thinks they are in charge?) Who makes decisions? How do things get accomplished in the world?
Whatever the political system (or power structure), take the time to understand the hierarchy and how your character fits in it.
Build Your World
These few elements will get you started as you begin your one world building journey. They helped me revise my own books as I took another look at how to make the setting come alive for my readers. I hope you'll use these elements to expand your own!
Which elements of world building are your favourite? Did I leave any out? Let me know in the comments.
I want to hear it! Pick a scene from your story that showcases an element of your world. Choose one the elements from above and expand those details in the scene.