We are happy to have Sara B. Larson as our guest today!
If you’re like me, when you think of world building, you probably conjure up memories of masterpieces like LORD OF THE RINGS. Elves, dwarves, kings, and hobbits, making up entire languages, and of course creating a detailed map. Thinking about books like LOTR can make world building seem a daunting—even impossible—task, and causes many would-be authors to quit before they even start.
Today, I hope to help ease your fears (at least a bit) by breaking it down into five easy steps. If you follow these steps, you will have a fantastic basis to create your world and get to the most important part—the writing. As we go through these five steps, you’ll see that you will need to ask yourself some questions. This is a vital tool to help you figure out your characters, and your world. But it’s important that you don’t get too bogged down in unessential details. Are details important? Yes, of course! But you should only include the ones that actually are vital to your story. It is often a temptation to include too much, almost as if proving to our readers how much work and research we did to build the world they’re diving into—and will hopefully come to love as much as we do.
As you go through these five steps, you may not be able to come up with every tiny detail right away—and that’s okay! Do the best you can and if there are other details that need figuring out or explaining, they will come to you as the characters and world come alive through your drafting process.
So, now let’s get started!
1. Magic System/Rules
If your book has magic of any sort, or high tech/advanced science, you need to have a very solid base for how it works and where it came from. You can’t just say “I don’t know.” Step one is to figure your system out.
One of the foremost fantasy authors of our day, Holly Black (author of THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN, THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES, and WHITE CAT), lists six questions to use when establishing your world’s rules about magic:
- Who has it?
- What does it do?
- How do you make it happen?
- How is the user affected?
- How is the world affected?
- How are magic users grouped & perceived?
By answering each of these questions, you will have set your rules boundaries/rules, and your world can start to take shape. Also, the balance of power (or lack thereof) will become solid and believable.
Every culture/kingdom has customs, traditions, festivals, and celebrations that show us what is important to them. These are often very telling about that world. If you’re not sure what I mean, think of it this way: what are some of the customs and traditions we have in our society? Getting our driver’s license when we turn sixteen, graduation parties when we finish high school, New Year’s Eve parties, the 4th of July…the list goes on. By thinking through your world and what customs and celebrations your characters experience, you will help to start shape a world that is fully realized and feels authentic to your reader. Even if they aren’t the same celebrations and traditions that we have, we, as readers, still feel a connection to the fact that your characters also have important dates in their culture.
If you’re still not sure how to come up with these, think through your favorite fantasy or sci-fi books. For example, what are some of the customs/rites of passage found in Harry Potter?
Think about any really great fantasy/dystopian/sci-fi or even realistic fiction. Can you remember what the main characters ate? How about what clothing they wore?
Simple details help your story come alive. What are some examples you can think of where food/clothing helped immerse the reader even further into the world and culture of that book? Some examples I can think of right away are THE HUNGER GAMES, DIVERGENT, and SHADOW AND BONE. In my own books, what Alexa (the main character in DEFY) wore and ate is very different than Evelayn from my newest release DARK BREAKS THE DAWN.
Evelayn is the princess of the Light Kingdom, and can wield the power of spring, summer, and daylight. She and her subjects prefer the heat and sunshine, so they tend to wear airy clothing and eat fresh, light food such as fruits and vegetables. On the other hand, in the Dark Kingdom, where they wield the power of fall, winter, and night, they enjoy the cold and even darkness; hence, they prefer heavier clothing and food, including rich sauces and roasted meats.
These details can truly help make your world feel real. Food and clothing are basic needs and how your main character feels about them and obtains them will make a huge difference in your story—and can also be a way to show your reader what the characters’ lives are like through small snippets of description (rather than having to “tell” or long explanations). The key word here is small. Do not spend pages on the details of their clothes and food. Little pieces of information woven into the story can do a world of good. Too much can do a world of hurt.
Example: Does your main character eat well? Or do they eat gruel?
There are two things to keep in mind with describing this world:
- First, you need to make sure you are describing the setting in an authentic way. Does it make sense for the character to think that or say it that way? If you have your character giving a long, detailed internal monologue about the setting, that is probably a warning indicator that you are telling rather than showing—and in an inauthentic way.
- Ask yourself what thoughts you have about YOUR world on a daily basis.
- Do you think about it in that much detail?
- If so, why?
- If not, why not?
- Make sure your descriptions are authentic in that way since they are coming through your characters’ lenses.
- Is what you are describing important to the plot/characterization at some point? Descriptions are powerful and very useful, when utilized correctly—and if they are important to the story. Everything you include in your book is a promise to your reader, an assurance that everything they’re reading is essential to know. Little details lend depth to your world building that gives the reader confidence in your story and allows them to immerse themselves into the world you’ve created. One way to do this is to use all of your senses and to be specific. Ask yourself, what makes this world unique and different—or the same—as ours?
But again, remember to keep it authentic! When details or descriptions of your setting (or any other aspect of your world building) don’t feel realistic you will pull your reader out of the story and disrupt the flow of your pacing, characterization, and plot. I call this “when your tell is showing” – meaning your reader will realize you are telling them something rather than showing it. This can be especially tricky if it’s something important that you need the reader to know, but that might not be something the character would authentically comment on. As an example, if I lived in San Francisco and was looking at the bridge, how would I describe it? Would I think about all the details of how it was built and why and when—or would I just have a passing thought about it, since I was used to it, having lived with it as part of my life for so long? It can be tricky to figure out how to keep your characters’ thoughts and dialogue authentic, but it’s worth the extra work.
Description of the setting needs to feel effortless and natural. It is their world, so there should be no strain to explain it. It just IS. Ask yourself these three questions: Is it necessary? Is it authentic? Does it flow naturally? If you can answer yes to all three questions, then keep it.
5. Who’s in charge here—and why?
One of the main sources of conflict in any story is going to stem from who has the most power and control (and who doesn’t). Ask yourself these questions:
- Who has the most power? And why?
- Who is the weakest—and again, why?
- Just how powerful or weak are these people or groups?
- How does this effect the rest of your characters?
- Is anyone fighting against this system or not?
Very often the main character is fighting against a hierarchy where the power and control is out of balance, giving one group too much (for unfair reasons) to the detriment or even demise of another group. But it doesn’t always have to be this dramatic. World building and power hierarchies are present in all kinds of stories—even contemporary romances. You still have to create the balance of power in high school, and make a realistic world for your characters, even if there is no magic, no advanced science, nothing beyond the world as we know it. Because truly, everyone sees the world just a little bit differently, don’t we?
And that’s it! BOOM. World built.
Again, are all of your details now complete? Most likely not. But by completing these five steps you will have a very strong base and be able to get to the most important part of all—drafting your book. You can’t publish something that isn’t written, no matter how extensive your world building bible might be.
I hope this helps you in creating your own worlds and wish you luck with your writing!