World-building, the process of creating a fictionally imaginative world, is essential to the stability of any novel. At first glance, world-building can appear to be a simple act of building a physical world,like creating worlds in Minecraft or painting an imaginary landscape. World- building is much more than mountains in the distance or the physical space in which your character exists.
At its core, a story is about conflict. A fight between two siblings, a nation at war with another, a character struggling to find themselves, or deciding what’s important to them.
Conflict makes the world go round.
The kind of world your character lives in is a part of that conflict. Is the character unable to accept themselves because the world they inhabit rejects them? Are the two nations at war because there are limited resources? Are the two siblings fighting because they have a difference in ethics when it comes to what or who they support in life?
Ethics, morals, beliefs, resources – all conflict and all an interconnected part of world-building.
When it comes to world-building, you must be able to acknowledge the vastness of the term. You are, after all, creating a world: a place filled with people, places, and things. It makes sense that you should consider not just where your world is,but also who exists there.
For Example, in J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter Series, we are introduced to a Wizarding World that exists within the non-magical world. This is the basic physical setting we are introduced to. As the story progresses, we are given other elements that add to this world. Rowling introduces us to several diverse races of creatures such as Goblins, House elves, Unicorns, Centaurs, Dragons, Pixies, Hinkypunks, and so on. We also begin to notice the various statuses among the witches and wizards: Pure-bloods, Halfbloods, Muggle-borns, and squibs. It’s hard not to notice the intrinsic layering of world building: The Ministry of Magic, the economy, Quidditch, and Hogwarts, a seven-year school system which mirrors that of Britain’s. In between these major world-building landmarks, you’ll find values, beliefs, conflict, and diversity.
The details created by Rowling emphasize the uniqueness and the relatedness of the world to our own. Every detail, from the way the characters dress to the major systems of the Wizarding world, create an elaborately rich tapestry that brings about greater understanding. It deepens the story and gives us a place to get lost in.
How do you get started? Well, here are some general guidelines to keep in mind when creating worlds for your characters:
- Figure out where your story is taking place. Create a map or an outline that illustrates the geographical, physical, and even anthropological place, time, or setting your story takes place.
- Show & explain who lives in this world. Think hierarchal status, beliefs, religion, morals, and social norms. Is there diversity among the inhabitants? What do they look like? How do they interact? What kind of cultures exists? What do they eat? What kind of jobs do the people have? Or, are there people at all?
- Lay out the rules of the world. Does magic exist? If you are writing a science fiction story, are there black holes or hyper speed in space? Rules make the world you’re creating more realistic. What are the rules of your world?
- Consider the history of the world. Every world you read about has some kind of history explained, implied, or even hinted at. How did the people come to be where they are? Were there any wars? Who were the main powers contributing to the war? Who suffered from the war? If there aren’t any wars, what has been done to avoid war? This can lead to details about whether or not there is a military system, the kinds of weapons used, and how the world has survived the past.
These kinds of questions are just a few examples of ways to build a logical, realistic world in which the reader can become fully invested. Of course, researching, asking questions, and becoming an expert on the kind of world your characters live in helps too!
Here are two Youtube videos by Vivien Reis that explore the concept of world-building and go more into depth about what you need to know through Do’s and Don’ts.
Do’s & Don’ts:
- World-building questions: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/
Writer-Ariana Nelson Editor-Callie Oliver Video – Vivien Reis
Photo – “Story Time” by Alector Fencer