How to build worlds

When it comes to setting the scene in a book, everyone will tell you the worldbuilding is important. This is true no matter what sort of book you’re writing or which genre you’re writing in.

If you’re writing a fantasy novel, of course people tend to focus more closely on the worldbuilding since it is expected that you will be inventing new, make-believe worlds with your words. But it is just as important to create a believable world if you’re writing a memoir or autobiography: you have to recreate the world of your past, bring real people and landscapes to life for today’s reader.

Similarly, even if you’re working between these two extremes, creating a fictional story set in the real world, you still need to focus on piecing the foundations together. Things need to make sense. They must be believable and consistent and well-rounded. The biggest mistake a writer can make is to assume that their own knowledge or view of things is enough to for an entire world.* We all have our blind spots and biases, and these can easily be revealed in the worldbuilding if care isn’t taken.

The devil, they say, is in the details. They can make or break the story. As the author, by presenting the reader with your words, your vision, your world, you’re asking the reader to suspend disbelief and let go of this world to enter yours (even if the story is set in this world, and even if what they’re reading is “true” rather than fiction). So, you have to give them enough information to experience that world – and you have to maintain their interest in your world throughout the story.

Add enough detail and the world you have created is brought to life. Leave too much out and the entire story can seem shallow. Lose track of even the most insignificant-seeming fact and the entire plot can fall apart. **

Worldbuilding and the speculative fiction focus has already been mentioned. The skill it takes to create these fantastical places is widely recognised by fans of the genre. These authors are not just creating a land or planet complete with landscapes and townships, but also ecosystems, cultures, politics, language, magic – entirely different states of being. Ideally, everything that makes the world run on every level has to have been thought out as it affects every character and the way they interact with each other and the plot at large. The author needs to keep hold of every strand that they’ve used to weave this world together if they are to keep the reader convinced with every page they turn.

All this attention to detail gives a sense of realism to even the most incredible of tales. If the world works, the story works. But if some of the details feel off, if the worldbuilding isn’t strong enough, the whole story can come crashing down. Unless it is a plot point, nothing is more distracting than finding a character possessing skills or achieving feats that the very rules of the invented world insist should be impossible. A reader will snap out of a story in an instant if, for example, the shapeshifter who couldn’t touch metal in the first three books of a series is unharmed by several silver bullets in the fourth because the author forgot that particular clause.

Consistency and attention to detail is just as important in less fantastical novels. Action thrillers that otherwise show extreme attention to detail when it comes to science, technology and military power can fall apart if, for example, the political scenes depicting world leaders gathering to combat the major common threat (aliens, terrorists etc.) only show the US President and his security force in action – leaving out any further mention of the other supposedly powerful “leaders”.

Such a situation suggests the author has cribbed from US-centric Hollywood movies, rather than researching how global political leaders might react to crises. It doesn’t matter how convincing the aliens are, how believable the technology, or how tightly-written the gun-fights if the scenes most easily imagined in our world are the ones that are merely sketched over. Such a contrast in the level of detail is likely to pull the reader out of the story. It suggests a lack of authority and mastery on the author’s part and the mirage can be shattered.

Research, then, can be key to ensuring that details and your own narrow knowledge base don’t let you down. But there’s more to it than merely adding and enforcing those details. It’s not just about creating a world – you have to make it believable and it has to make sense.

If your world is different to ours in some way, if it breaks the laws of nature or physics, you might do well to familiarise yourself with the consequences of such a change. How would that affect day-to-day life? Geography? Trade? Buildings and cities? Education? Politics? Family life?

If you’re writing non-fiction, think about your audience and consider whether you’re writing about something that will be different for them – are you writing about a different time? A different country? Again, how is life different in that world to this one?

It’s also worth ensuring you’re familiar with the genre in which you write, even if (or especially if) you plan to break all the perceived rules of those who have written before you. It’s worth knowing in advance if the concepts and characters you think you have invented are actually featured heavily in World of Warcraft or bear an uncanny resemblance to a well-known Celtic myth, even if it is entirely coincidental. Whether or not these similarities are acknowledged in your world are themselves  important in the building.

* Unless you’re writing a dystopia. Or utopia, depending on ego size and confidence/tendency towards tyranny…

**Of course, add too much detail and you leave no blanks for the reader’s imagination to fill in. There’s a lot to be said for hinting at information. Worldbuilding doesn’t necessarily mean giving all the facts, figures and measurements of a world or city. That way page-skipping lies.

What are your tips for worldbuilding? And have you seen any major slip-ups? What pulls you out of a writer’s world?

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