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World Building 101

The Basics of Creating a Believable World


Especially for sci-fi and fantasy writers, creating a convincing world is key for immersing readers in your story. The world is the backdrop for your entire narrative, and a truly well-developed world will play a role in the characters’ journeys and drive the story’s conflict.

But world building can be intimidating for new writers. I have to create an entire universe? Yes, it’s a difficult task. But it’s also a lot of fun! You get to create something entirely unique, the perfect home for your characters. What would Harry Potter be without the wizarding world? Or Riddley Walker without the post-apocalyptic world? Let’s talk about how to get started and the most important aspects to consider during world building.

Keep It Organized

Everyone has their own method when it comes to organizing world building. It’s important to use the method that works best for you and to keep everything in one place. Create a story bible that you’ll refer to during prewriting, drafting, and (perhaps most importantly) editing. Having an organized, complete story bible will help you easily identify consistency issues to make your world believable. Remember, if a reader spots a hole, they shatter suspension of reality—the single most crucial element to a good tale.

If you like prewriting with good old pen and paper, consider using a binder so you can add and rearrange sections and pages. Your story bible will change and develop a great deal during the process, and it’s difficult to predict exactly how it will develop. Keep your system flexible and organized. Add a table of contents to the front of your binder, and keep it updated so you can always find what you need.

For the tech-savvy among us, Scrivener is amazing for world building. Create a “Story Bible” folder in your research section. Add folders for different categories. You can also add images or import web pages directly into the folders. This is a super convenient option, since your story bible will remain accessible during the drafting phase.

Lay Out Your World

There are infinite factors to think about while you’re setting up your world. Your specific layout will depend on the type of story your telling and different aspects of your world, but here are a few basic categories everyone will want to address.

History

Every place has a history, and it affects the way things are in the present. Create your world’s past, going back as far as you want. How did things get to be the way they are? The history of your world will impact people’s attitudes toward places, events, and other people.

Social Structure

How is power distributed? How do the classes interact, and is there bad blood among them? Consider the minorities and disadvantaged groups in your world. Does everyone have the same rights, opportunities, and responsibilities? Social interactions are complicated, and these questions aren’t ones you’ll answer quickly. Keep them in the back of your mind while you’re developing your world, and by the time you’re finished, try to have a clear picture of what life is like for different groups of people.

Economics

Nothing drives conflict like money. What sort of economic system does your world have? How do people make money, and how does that affect the way they live? Relate the economic system back to the social structure.

Natural Features

Of course, you need to know what your world looks like! Is it grassy or dessert? Does it have one sun or twelve? If you’re artsy, draw or paint your setting to get a clear image. Don’t choose these features arbitrarily—think about how they will affect the other categories. Are two groups of people divided by mountains? Was a prominent city once a rainforest? Are there rare and valuable natural resources?

All these aspects will affect each other, so don’t try to develop them independently. Allow the process to take its natural course, and your world will develop organically. Once you’re deeper into the process, world building is a lot like playing Sudoku. You begin to eliminate certain options, and others simply fall into place.

Connect It to the Story

World building is fun and exciting, but don’t forget there will be a story taking place there! Don’t forget to ask yourself, How does the world drive the conflict? Consider your characters and the plot of your story, and create a world that includes the elements you need for your narrative to function. Depending on your prewriting process, you may begin world building before you develop the plot outline. If that’s the case, don’t worry! This is your world, and you can always change it to suit your plot. But the earlier in the process you’re able to change those elements, the better. Once you begin drafting, changing major pieces of your world can be frustrating and can tear holes in the continuity of your story. Try to have your world’s details in place before you begin drafting, and if you do need to make a change, also change it in your story bible and remember to address continuity issues during editing.

Go Forth and Build Your World!

World building is intimidating, but it’s also one of the most rewarding parts of the prewriting process. Create a world that’s full, detailed, and believable, and then populate it with characters just the same. Devote the time to developing your world, and readers will be immersed in your story from the first chapter.

Photo by Tom Simpson

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Victoria Griffin

Victoria was born and raised within sight of the Smoky Mountains. She loves any place you can still see the stars and constantly struggles with (and sometimes succumbs to) the temptation to write "ain't" and y'all." To connect with or hire Victoria, visit her website, VictoriaGriffinFiction.com
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