One of my favorite things about fiction would definitely have to be world building. Not just in writing my own stories, but getting to explore the worlds delicately crafted by other writers. Often times, I find that a uniquely created world can save mediocre or cliche plots and characters. Some of my favorite worlds are in the Grisha trilogy, Graceling, Hunter, Daughter of Smoke and Bones, Sunset Rising, Seraphina, Cats Cradle, and of course masterpieces* like Lord of the Rings, Song of Ice and Fire, His Dark Materials, and Harry Potter. All of these books have taken the time to think about the environments where their characters live and work; the creatures, the cultures, laws of nature… It’s not just background.
Since world building is something dear to me, I wanted to share some tips of things to consider when creating the world in which you place your story. It may seem like a lot of extra work, but once you know the systems and these unspoken rules that we live by ourselves every day, it can help give more depth to your characters and reasons for behaving and believing the way they do.
I always start out with what does this world look like. Is it mountainous or coastal? Grassland? Tropical? Knowing the physicality of the world will serve as a base for which all other elements are built upon. I’m a visual person, so I tend to create maps. As much as I hate to reveal the magic, it’s not as daunting as you may think to make a map. I take a lot of inspiration from our own natural coastlines and national borders — but arranged in my own way for the most part, since I don’t often set my stories on earth as we know it. If you are writing stories using our world, use real town maps if your sites exist or make your own if they don’t. You can definitely take liberties, but just make sure they make sense and feel consistent. The coffee shop should always be two blocks left and one block right from your MC’s apartment, and should generally take the same amount of time to get there. It’s not often that your characters will be fighting your geographical world directly, but these elements will definitely butt heads with them and bring additional challenges for them to overcome.
If you’re creating your own planet (aka not using Earth), then you can really play around with this. But if you want it to be earth-like, it’s good to play within our own climatic rules. Equatorial zones are hot, poles are cold. The climate will dictate what sort of clothing your characters will wear, what type of food they’ll eat, even the type of housing or transportation. It can also effect other things. I always get a little peeved when you have these post-apocalyptic scorched earth scenarios but all the characters are as white as white can be. Fun fact: our skin has melanin, and melanin helps protect us from UV radiation from the sun. The higher the UV exposure, the darker the skin of your population will typically be. Now, skin color is clinal — meaning it’s a gradation — and it’s also a complex trait. Is your story in a tropical climate? Does it have mosquitos? Ok, so if you’re creating your own world, you likely skipped the mosquitos… But, the point is, mosquitos (and other bugs, etc) carry disease. Mosquitos can carry malaria, for which humans have developed a number of adaptations to help protect against this disease.
The main point here is to take into consideration the adaptations needed to survive in your environment.
There are a lot of ways you can take this one. But culture sets the rules by which people interact with one another. They should not be taken lightly. Having two cultures come into contact with one another is an easy, but also very good, way to create conflict and tension in your story as well as a means for moving the story forward. Culture will also dictate what people will wear and eat just like climate will. Think about what’s taboo in your story’s culture, how will those play into the story? And remember consistency within your culture. People living in the same areas will be influenced by the same cultural laws. If your character doesn’t follow these rules, then you need to consider why that is… or if you need to change the overall culture of that population.
In fantasy, science fiction, or speculative fiction you can go wild with this one, if you can excuse the pun. But like your people, the animals and such also play by a set of rules. For most creatures, they’re non-sentient and thus act on a matter of instincts.
One of the reason I don’t write modern fiction is because I really don’t want to deal with cell phones and the internet in my stories. Technology can be a blessing and a curse. Lack of technology does not mean a society is automatically lesser or savage. Your character can feel that way about other cultures, but I highly recommend not having that come through the narrative. Also, technology is more than just gadgets and computers and such. Weapons, methods of making containers or cloth, agriculture… these all have to do with technology. Think about the light sources, how they heat and cool their homes, how they cook and store their food.
Sometimes these aspects can lead to more questions that answers. I wouldn’t stress over them too much unless they directly effect your story. But dynamic worlds can lead to in-depth characters as well as help you create conflict to keep the pace going steady. Like all things, it’s about finding a balance. Your characters can (and sometimes should) break or question the rules of their society. However, your story — and most importantly, your characters — need laws to guide them, natural and societal.
If you feel overwhelmed or stuck or if all else fails, take some anthropology courses. One of the unexpected bonuses of my studies is that it is letting me see world building in a whole new light. If you’re not interested in pursuing another degree, you can always find a lot of really good resources online. Or find a friendly anthropologist or anthropology student (hi!) and ask them to hypothesize with you.
What are some of your favorite fictional worlds? What other aspects do you think should be considered?
*In terms of world building, these works are just phenomenal for creating worlds you just seamlessly sink into and they are highly realistic.