Rock Your World {building} in 5 Easy Steps

 

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.

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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:

  1. Who has it?
  2. What does it do?
  3. How do you make it happen?
  4. How is the user affected?
  5. How is the world affected?
  6. 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.

2. Customs/traditions

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?

3. Food/clothes

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?

4. Setting

There are two things to keep in mind with describing this world:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

  1. Who has the most power? And why?
  2. Who is the weakest—and again, why?
  3. Just how powerful or weak are these people or groups?
  4. How does this effect the rest of your characters?
  5. 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!

Contemporary World Building

We are thrilled to welcome our newest contributor, Amanda Hill!

World Building is a term most often associated with writing sci-fi and fantasy. But have you ever thought about the concept when it comes to writing a contemporary story?

People inhabit different cultural spheres within our world. Different communities. And each of these communities have different rules of engagement. Take for example a family.

Seems pretty simple. Everyone understands what a family is. But how different can each family be?
I think we all know the answer to that. Very. And not just because of how many people are in a family and what their ages or genders are or where they live. That’s not world building. But thinking about these questions is.

  • Who is in charge?
  • What are the rules?
  • Which traits are prized most?
  • Which weaknesses are most despised?
  • Is there a common goal? What is it?
  • Is there some kind of chain of authority or pecking order?
  • What are the consequences for “stepping out of line?”

The answers to these questions will change from family to family, and in order for your main character’s family to seem realistic, you need to know the answers to create a unique dynamic just for his/her family.

All these same questions need to be asked of other microcosms in your character’s life and each of those little “worlds” built from there. The communities that come to mind first are school/classes, extracurricular teams/groups, religious communities, jobs, a tight-knit group of friends, and a neighborhood/town.

Look at your own life and these different groups you have been a part of. Can you answer the questions posed earlier for each group? Can you answer them for the groups your MC is a part of?

The answers to these questions will make your character’s world far more relatable and layered.

But how does this world-building look in an actual story? I went to some of my favorite stories to answer that question!

Some of the best world-building within a school happens in the movie, Mean Girls.

Think of when Janis explains the cafeteria.

Where you sit in the cafeteria is crucial because you got everybody there. You got your Freshmen, ROTC Guys, Preps, JV Jocks, Asian Nerds, Cool Asians, Varsity Jocks, Unfriendly Black Hotties, Girls Who Eat Their Feelings, Girls Who Don’t Eat Anything, Desperate Wannabes, Burnouts, Sexually Active Band Geeks, The Greatest People You Will Ever Meet, and The Worst. Beware of The Plastics.” 

And then this about Regina George.

Regina George… How do I begin to explain Regina George?Emma Gerber: Regina George is flawless.Lea Edwards: She has two Fendi purses and a silver Lexus.Mathlete Tim Pak: I hear her hair’s insured for $10,000.Amber D’Alessio: I hear she does car commercials… In Japan.Kristen Hadley: Her favorite movie is Varsity Blues.Short Girl: One time she met John Stamos on a plane…Jessica Lopez: – And he told her she was pretty.Bethany Byrd: One time she punched me in the face… It was awesome.

This montage is great world building, because not only do we come out of it with a better sense of who the queen bee is, (Who is in charge?) but we can infer what is important in this school community based on what different people know and admire in Regina George.

Now how about a family dynamic. I went to Melanie Conklin’s Counting Thyme for a good example of this in the very opening paragraph.

When someone tells you your little brother might die, you’re quick to agree to anything. You give up after-school activities because no one can take you to practice. You start eating kale chips instead of regular sour cream ‘n’ onion because your mom says kale is rich in antioxidants, which means healthy. You even agree to move across the country, if that’s what it takes. 

That’s how I ended up in New York City. 

We came for my brother, Val, and the drug trial that might save his life. I didn’t know if the treatment would work or when we would go home again. All I knew was that Val needed to be in New York and we had to go with him. So I came.

Three paragraphs in and we already have a sense of who is in charge/most important. What the rules are. What the common goal of the family is, and what traits are most prized.

World-building in a religious community? Look no further than Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.

“Well, Winn-Dixie saw that mouse, and he was up and after him. One minute, everything was quiet and serious and the preacher was going on and on and on; and the next minute, Winn-Dixie looked like a furry bullet, shooting across the building, chasing that mouse. He was barking and his feet were skidding all over the polished Pick-It-Quick floor, and people were clapping and hollering and pointing. They really went wild when Winn-Dixie actually caught the mouse. 

“I have never in my life seen a dog catch a mouse,” said Mr. Nordley. 

“He’s a special dog,” I told her. 

“I imagine so,” she said back. 

“I believe that mutt has got some retriever in him,” said somebody behind me. “That’s a hunting dog.” 

Winn-Dixie took the mouse over to the preacher and dropped it at his feet…The preacher looked down at the mouse. He looked at Winn-Dixie. He looked at me. He rubbed his nose. It got real quiet in the Pick-It-Quick. 

“Let use pray,” the preacher finally said, “for this mouse.” 

And everybody started laughing and clapping.

Don’t you get a real sense of this community? What do they value? How do they treat each other? Who is in charge?

I particularly enjoyed the world building within a small social group found in the first chapter of Brooks Benjamin’s My Seventh Grade Life in Tights. 

“All right, we’re rolling,” Austin said, then glanced at the lights flickering above us. “Hold on.”  

Carson let out a loud groan. “Perfect. Last practice before school starts and we’re going to look like we’re dancing in a lightning storm.” His entire body perked up. “Ooh, that might actually be cool. Let’s start before it turns normal again.” 

“Trust me, it looks terrible,” Austin said. “We need to invest in some lights. This place is a cave. And don’t get me started on the smell. It’s like someone farted in an old shoe.” 

“The lighting’s fine,” Kassie said. 

Austin poked his head out from behind his camera. “Oh, sorry. I thought I was the director.” Carson opened his mouth, but Austin cut him off before he could speak. “Come on, guys. I already feel stupid recording these. It’s not like y’all can’t just do it yourselves. Let me at least make it look good.”

Are you getting a feeling for the pecking order? For who’s in charge? Who’s low man on the totem pole? For the group’s common goal?

As you can see, there are several different ways to accomplish this sort of community world-building in a contemporary story. You can come right out and say it like in Mean Girls or Counting Thyme. You can show it in scene, like in Because of Winn-Dixie and My Seventh Grade Life in Tights. You can also show it through story (think of the story the teacher tells in A Snicker of Magic, even though that’s not contemporary. Same principle.)

Remember not to get bogged down in clichés. Not every band is going to be full of weird kids. The band I was in in high school was full of many high achieving, pretty popular kids. The class above me had all-state football players who were in every drama production and it wasn’t a big deal. Some religious communities are much more foot-loose and fancy free. They aren’t all full of gossipy church ladies. Don’t be afraid to experiment with your world building in your contemporary story!

Happy writing!

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Amanda Rawson Hill grew up in southwest Wyoming with a library right out her back gate, which accounts a lot for how she turned out. She now resides in central California where she is a gardener, chemist, homeschool mom, Yosemite explorer, and Disneyland enthusiast. She writes middle-grade fiction and is represented by Elizabeth Harding at Curtis Brown LTD.

How World Building Impacts Plot

A lot of times, when people discuss world building, it is as a part of setting. While this is important to ground the reader, to give visual ideas of what is involved in the book, I would argue that the greater role of world building is the impact it has on plot.

Building a world full of magic and wonder is lots of fun (I’ve been told) and it can allow a reader to escape, but the magic has to serve a purpose. Harry Potter didn’t just go to Hogwart’s because it sounded like a nice change in scenery from the closet under the stairs; he needed to enter the world to meet his potential, and, eventually, save that world. The complications facing many groups of people existed because of the magical world (see also Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and so forth).

This is the same with all our books. We discussed a few ideas about how to write historical fiction not too long ago, and that is a good launching point for anyone building a world. But with every setting, we need to ask ourselves a few questions:

1. Why does my story need to take place here?

If you are like me, you might have the inclination to set a story in a place where you lived. But in the book I’m querying, that didn’t make sense for certain elements of the story. I had a list of things that needed to happen, elements of the story that mandated proximity to other locations, as well as certain weather elements. One of the stories a CP of mine recently worked on featured a character who went rock hunting – which wouldn’t provide a great deal of success on the beaches of California. Part of what we need to consider, as writers, is the possibility that certain locations are worn out. It only takes a quick glance through #mswl to see that agents (and editors) are looking for stories of diversity, which includes diverse settings. England, Paris and New York are fun, but they have also been home to many stories. Considering less popular locations adds a depth to your story that will allow it to stand out. 

2. What would happen to the story if I put it in a different time or place?

1620. 1720. 1820. 1920. 2020. Take a moment and think about the differences between those times. Think about how different the world would be. I really wanted to have a story set against a mountain range, but even within the United States, the options range from the Cascades to the Sierra-Nevadas to the Rockies to the Appalachians. All of them have mountains, but the diversity between culture, height, climate and experience in those four ranges are significant. Same with beaches – Washington, California, Florida and Cape Cod would weave so many ranges of experiences, accents, points of reference, food, expectations. 

3. How does the setting impact the characters?

I live in Southern Utah. My lips and skin are in a semi-constant battle with dehydration, people in my community pray for rain, we know how to negotiate snow-covered roads, sun-filled summers, hiking is often an integral part of the culture, and people marry young. When people from pretty much anywhere come to visit, they feeling the drying effects of the climate immediately, slathering chapstick, lotion and drinking lots of water. I recently read a story set in California, with references to sea glass, beach hair, the behavior of the ocean and salt water beaten houses. In that culture, marrying at 20 would be met with raised eyebrows.

The point is where we live impact our own lives. If you have moved at all, you know this to be true. Points of reference, the way people speak, what a get together looks like are all impacted by the nuances of setting.

4. What do I need to deliberately write and what can be assumed?

I once heard someone say reading a novel is like filling out a crossword puzzle: it’s not very much fun if someone has put all the answers in the squares already. Give your readers hints and nudges toward the setting, but then leave a little for their imagination. After all, you are telling a story, not providing an (archaic) encyclopedia entry.

Once someone says a story takes place in Georgia, I’m going to read the dialogue with a slight drawl. It doesn’t have to be written in – no need to drop letters from words. My brain is going to do it automatically. Of course, there are figures of speech that belong in certain areas that lend to the characterization, but setting often takes care of that (yes, I heard a southern accent while writing that). If someone lives in Russia, I’m going to expect them to own a quality coat. And I’m anticipating they will have to negotiate snow. If they life in Tonga, I’m already anticipating a slower pace of life.

5. What can I do in my description to make the setting rich, alive and tangible? 

If the story that you have been working doesn’t change with the change of setting, chances are you have plot holes and characterizations that need some work, because the place changes both these things. 

You might be thinking that this contradicts what I just said. Just because I don’t need to see the southern drawl doesn’t mean I don’t want to see southern hospitality in all its traditional glory. I write women’s fiction, so there is more allowance for clothing, decor and food descriptions, but if someone just sat down to a slice of Georgia peach pie with homemade ice cream, let your reader see the crumbly perfectly browned crust, smell the sweetness of peaches and sugar drifting through the parlor, experience the combination of hot and cold that shows up with that first bite. Besides, the bits of the world that you let the POV character share with us will let us see what matters to them, will let us see them belong (or not) in this place, and adds depth to both location and character.

Do you have any other suggestions about ways world building impacts plot? What books have you read that blend these well?

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Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a dash of magic. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is the managing editor for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter.