Whether you're a first-time writer or a seasoned author, creating believable worlds and communities can be a challenge. You may think, "I don't write fantasy, so I don't need to worry about world building!" Unfortunately for you (and fortunately for us readers) that is not the case. World building exists in every genre, not just fantasy or sci-fi. So what is it?
Well, think about the last play, movie, or TV show you watched. If you had just seen the characters speaking to one another on a blank screen, you might have been able to develop an idea of what was happening and why it was happening, but without the backdrop of the stage or the set you would miss out on fundamental points in the story.
This is also why we need world building in our writing.
World building sets up where your story takes place, which you might say , "No, that is setting" and you're not wrong. Setting is a huge part of world building. But there is far more to it than that.
In this blog, I'm going to go through some key points in developing both your world and the community that exists within it. This is not a fully fleshed out list. It is just a starting point for you to examine and use within your own stories. So let's get started. These may not all apply to your story, but I hope they will help you create a more believable world and/or community in the long run.
1. Where do you start world building?
Well, first ask yourself "Where does this story take place?" Is your character living in a version of the real world that you and I know? (A Fault in our Stars by John Green) Or perhaps they've entered a magical world they did not know existed before? (Wings of Fate by Skye Horn - Yup, that was a shameless self-promo, y'all. 😎) Maybe this is a dystopian society?(The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins) Whatever your answer is, write it down so that you don't forget. That is your starting point.
2. Describe that world to yourself - It's time to dig deep!
Now I want you to write down everything you know about your world. This is going to be a complete brain dump so don't worry about being organized and don't let yourself erase anything. Basically, just grab your computer or a pad of paper and answer some, if not all, of these questions. You can keep your answers brief or you can write pages and pages about each one. You'll be surprised to discover that you're writing more than just the answer to these questions in the end! But you'll also be surprised how much you learn about your own story.
This description does not have to be perfect. In fact, I would bet the description you write today will ultimately change! Maybe you've already written your story and you are just now writing all this down. That's fine. Or maybe you haven't started yet and this is part of your process of creating the story. That is also fine! The great part about this is that you can do it however you feel works for you and your story.
Here are some things to consider when building your world:
Magic & Technology - Does your world have a magic system? Describe what that magic system looks like. By this, I mean is it elemental? What is the cost of the magic? Does your magic follow any physical laws? Does everyone have magical abilities? Are there certain people who are more powerful? Why are they more powerful? . AND/OR is your world scientifically advanced instead? Do they use technology? What does this look like and does this exist alongside or instead of magic?
Politics - Does your world have a government? How much control do they have over their citizens? Is there a boundary to that control? What types of laws have they put in place? What type of relationship does your main character have with this government? What about the people around your main character? Are there rebellions? Does everyone follow the rules? What flaws exist within this governing system? Remember, you don't need to answer every one of these questions. This is just here as a blueprint. You might have better questions to ask.
Cultures & Languages - What type of communities exist within your world? Take into consideration your character's perspective and your narrator's perspective. Maybe your character doesn't even know about half the communities that exist and is limited to their own view on the world. (For example, Katniss in the Hunger Games has very limited knowledge about the other districts until she actually enters the games and/or visits those districts. Each district is a great example of how a community can exist outside of the character and reader's perspective) Another question to ask is what kind of role community plays in your character's life. Is your character searching for a way to better their own life, or perhaps their family/friends lives? Do they speak a different language? Is this based on something you've experienced or researched in real life? Be careful how you describe groups of people and look into gathering "sensitivity readers" to make sure you are representing properly.
Gods, Goddesses & Religion - Does this community have a culture, religion, or traditions they follow? Also, remember you don't have to give your community an entire religion, but the community should have a distinct thing that bonds them together. Perhaps they are all witches persecuted by the government? Or maybe they have been there for generations and take care of one another in a way the world never could? There are endless possibilities here, but the important part is that you give a group of characters, even secondary ones, a way to band together and relate to one another. Again, this will depend on your story structure.
History/ Myths & Legends - What is the history behind both your world and its communities? These can definitely twist together. This becomes especially important in the fantasy and sci-fi genres, since you are often creating brand new worlds. But it can be important in other genres as well. Ask yourself what important points of history (whether real or made-up) shaped your story and its characters.
Physical Description of your World inc. Flora & Fauna - How is your world structured? Is it a continent? A city? Draw a map just for yourself! I recommend using the website inkarnate to create your map digitally. This program has a free and paid version. Trust me, you won't regret it. What type of plants grow in your world? What animals exist or don't exist because of the environment? Make this as detailed as you can, even if you don't plan to use the info in your actual book. What does your world smell like? What foods are popular and important? Is this a city where it is loud and busy? Or maybe a forest where you only hear the animals? Use all your senses if you can and write these descriptions ahead of time.
3. Read. Watch. Play.
This is my biggest piece of advice for both new and careered authors: read, watch, and play.
Read: What I mean by this is read the "good" books. Read the "bad" books. Read the books that are hundreds of pages of world building and the ones that have very brief world building. Basically, read until you understand what it takes to create a world that swallows you whole. The shelves of libraries and bookstores are full of thousands of worlds for you to explore, so get out there and do your homework!
Watch: Much like libraries, television is full of stories! You can find tv shows and movies full of fantastic world building. Some of my favorite things to watch are: "The Handmaid's Tale" on Hulu, any of the "Lord of the Rings" movies, or any of the "Star Wars" movies. Basically, just go rewatch your favorite movie or tv show with your "writer goggles" on and analyze the world building. You'll be surprised what you find!
Play: Video games are another great way to study world building. One of my absolute favorite games to play is "Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic". This game is perfect not only for world building, but also character development! You can also play a Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) campaign to practice your world building. This might sound a little intense for a newbie-gamer, but trust me, it is excellent training for your writer skills. Other games recommended by fellow writers include "Skyrim", "Assassin's Creed", and "Breath of the Wild"
There is no right or wrong way to build your world, so I hope that this has helped you get started! If you need help writing the first draft, check out my last blog post.
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