Friday, April 21, 2017

10 Points to Think About When World-Building

This post is for all you writers of fantasy settings, brand-new worlds, and alternate universes. Those of you who don't write speculative fiction....Well. Your loss. Come back next week. Maybe I'll have something for you then.

Just kidding. World-building is not solely applicable to speculative fiction writers. Many of the below world-building tips are helpful to any and all types of writers, so pay attention.

You're building a world? Then Build. A. World. Not a few towns. Not two or three races. Not one religion, history, terrain, currency. You have the power to create a universe, a way of life, and you're going to settle with making a faded, incomplete blueprint? Absolutely not. Go big or go home.

Our world is incredibly diverse. It's overwhelming to think about trying to replicate that in a story without writing an entire history textbook. As a fantasy writer who's creating her own world, I feel for you. Thankfully, I have a list of points you'll want to address in your world-building to help your world feel as fascinating and real as possible: 
Hannah Heath: 10 Points to Think About When World-Building
1. Think about species and race. If you're building a fantasy world, there will probably be more than one species. Hopefully, these species go outside of Man, Elf, and Dwarf. Hopefully each species contain several races. Is there really only one type of faerie? Can't there be faerie's specific to woods, mountains, rivers? Can't they have skin colors varying from green to orange to purple? Rather than randomly choosing a few species, really think about which species and/or races will lend something to the plot.

2. Think about setting. I have an entire post about different non-forest settings you can use in your fantasy world. Try sprinkling several of them throughout your world. No matter what Star Wars tells you, worlds don't have to have just one main terrain. I mean, I love you Star Wars, but what is your problem? Sand planet (Tatooine, Jakku). Rain planet (Kamino). Metropolis planet (Coruscant). Hawaii planet (Scarif). Unless you have a specific reason for making your world all one type of terrain, I'd suggest trying a bit harder.

3. Think about religion. I don't care if you aren't a religious person. Your world needs to have some semblance of a religion. And I don't care if you are a devout religious person. Your story can't just have one religion that is a copy of your own. That's not how this works. Religion is an elemental part of all cultures. There are countless religions out there. They affect the way people eat, sleep, relate to others. It seeps into government, judicial systems, and education. You can't just ignore something this important in your world building (or shave it down into something very narrow). You need multiple religions. You need splinter groups within each religion. You need prophecies and moral codes. If you don't know anything about religions (or are only familiar with your own), then I recommend this book on world religions to give you ideas.

4. Think about currency. Does this world run on a barter system? Paper money? Coins? Some technological "Pay through The Cloud" mumbo jumbo? Take note of how your currency changes from place to place. Money systems are very diverse and, frankly, very confusing. You don't have to have a detailed outline, but it is important to touch on the fact that your entire world doesn't just conveniently run on one type of currency.

5. Think about past times. What do people do for fun? Do they play sports or just sit around and tell stories? The way people spend their free time is very telling. It reflects their culture, and, thus, enriches your world building. Also, sometimes it just looks cool:

6. Think about communication. Just like with currency, there's really no chance that an entire world of people speak the same exact language. Even in places that do share a common language, you have to consider dialect, slang, and accents. You also have to think about how different cultures find different manners of communication more acceptable than others. Maybe hand motions are offensive. Maybe speaking rapidly is common. Maybe eye contact is a must. Think about the people you know and consider all of the different communication styles they have. Then think about the larger world and all of the languages and dialects out there. Incorporate this knowledge into your world.

7. Think about health. There is a disturbing shortage of sick people in most fantasy and sci-fi settings. You can't just pretend they don't exist. How does healthcare work in your world? Are blind people consider demon possessed? Are the physically crippled given intellectual jobs? Are all sick people just shipped off to Elsewhere? Please elaborate.

8. Think about government. Who rules who? Do you have kings? Queens? Presidents? Dictators? A republic? How do people obtain these positions? IQ tests? Blood right? Killing the former ruler? So many options. People are always struggling for power, criticizing the people who are in power, or just stepping back and pretending like it's none of their business. It's common in our world and, thus, it always seems incredibly odd when fictional worlds don't address power systems.

9. Think about magic/technology. Chances are, your world either has magic or technology, or, if we're getting really crazy: both.  Either way, these systems should be fleshed out. Can anyone use magic? Is technology only for rich people? Make up rules.

10. Think about food. Do you have any idea how many speculative fiction books I've read where nobody ever eats anything? Too many. I don't know about you, but I want to know what people eat in space. I'd also like to know how people in fantasy novels seem to survive on bread alone. Please tell me what kind of foods exist in your world.
Why are you keeping this curiosity door locked?

Now that you have this point to think about, I want you to write down a little bit for each section. Next, connect the pieces. How does religion affect your world's food or past times? Do certain species have a difficult time communicating with others? Does the government control your magic/technology? Are some settings more ideal for certain races? How do all of these things connect to your plot, main character, or conflict?

Ask questions. All the questions. Get to know your world as much as possible. However, not all of this information needs to go into your story in an incredibly detailed manner. Avoid allowing your world-building to become so out of control that it obscures the plot. Your world should be pushing along the story, not holding it back.

There are a lot of other aspects to think about when world-building. These are just a few to get you started. Do you have some points to add? Please leave a comment below! And don't forget to tell me about some books that had excellent (or horrible) world-building.

Related articles:
7 Tips for Choosing Your Character's Appearance 
Tips for Writing Stunning Science-Fiction: A Guest Post by Author S. Alex Martin
7 Tips for Writing A Character with a Chronic Illness

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  1. Wow, I need to do this more... My world system is very basic, but since it's low fantasy, it just doesn't come up as much. Doesn't mean I shouldn't know it. Thank you for the excellent pointers!! Great job explaining how to get started, too.

    One of the best series I've read concerning point 3 is the Six of Crows duology. There were multiple religions and they actually influenced some of the characters. I definitely did not expect that going into the series, but I really liked those aspects, even if they didn't line up with my faith.

    1. So glad this helps you, Justice! Low fantasy does have a different level of world-building. I find that it's slightly less stressful. =)

      While I wasn't a fan of Six of Crows (I only read book one, though), I did thing the world-building was very well-done. The world had a very realistic, gritty feel. I felt like I was there, which I feel is the ultimate goal of world-building. =D

      Thanks for the great comment!

  2. Oh also, consider family dynamic. A lot of times, characters are these random lone rangers that have no family. If they do, these family members are rarely encountered, never an influence, or an issue. Like everyone is an orphan or something. It's weird. Even orphans had families and influences from the people they grew up around. Write everybody's backstory and please don't kill their family members for convenience. That's just cruel. It's hard cuz you don't want to overwhelm your readers with unnecessary characters, but aren't your family members kind of necessary to your life adventure? Why would it be different for your characters just because they live in a book?

    Fabulous post as always!

    1. GREAT point, Reigha! How are families run? When are people expected to move out and start a new family? Or is it a communal kind of thing?

      I agree that a lot of books just kill of parents because it's easy. I'm guilting of this....I went back and re-wrote one of the parents back in because I realized I had too many orphans. It's a hard habit to break. =]

      Anyway, yes, family members are absolutely necessary to a story. Thanks for the comment!

  3. "Chances are, your world either has magic or technology, or, if we're getting really crazy: both."
    Both? Both. Both is good.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Ooh! I needed this.

    I gotta confess, since my story is basically just set in an AU of the Victorian Era (but with ghosts) I figured I didn't have to put much thought into this. Just read up on the Victorian Era and try to mimic it to the best of my ability. But I keep on forgetting about the inevitable sub-culture: the Ghost Market, the Occultists and Cult Leaders, the Necromancers, the Vampires, the Scientists Trying to Defy Death By Tampering With Forces They Can't Possibly Understand, etc. It's like a whole invisible network; much like a twisted, evil version of the Wizarding World in Harry Potter.

    I could go crazy with this!! So why don't I? o-o




    *steals list*

    1. Ooh! Ooh! I just thought of something you could add to the list! (Although it may be so obvious it isn't even worth pointing out.):


      What kind of jobs exist in your fictional world? Are there any specialized ones relating to the magic or technology of your world? Do you choose your job, or is it hereditary, or does the government choose it for you? Are there apprenticeships, or do you need to go to school for things? Do you need special credentials to run certain world-specific businesses (such as a Curse Breakers Inc. or something)? Is there a department that regulates these world-specific jobs?

      The book series Lockwood & Co. by Jonathan Stroud does a great job with this, I think. There are so many layers to the fight against "The Problem", with jobs that make perfect sense considering the rules of that universe, but are at the same time kind of morally disturbing considering the implications and, quite often, consequences.

      Of course, the attention to detail in that series is probably because the whole series revolves around the main characters and their fantastical job. But I think it's something to think about even if your character is a wandering beggar or deserving farm boy about to become the Chosen One. It adds an extra layer of depth to the story, and also how the characters relate to one another.

      Of course, this may have been so obvious it didn't need to be pointed out and I'm a dum-dum. But I thought I'd throw that out there.

  6. Great list of things to think about. I'll have to keep this stuff in mind. My worldbuilding could certainly use some work.

  7. Good list. I especially like #7... I've always thought there is a lack of sick people in fantasy. Sickness is such a common thing (it's why there's a long standing argument over healthcare in EVERY country). I'm working on a story idea in which a large city sends anyone found to have a life long disease to another city (or planet) where they are healed... but really they're just being taken outside the dome and shot. The story centers around the diseased people who for some reason or other have escaped the execution. An entire cast of characters who struggle with one illness or another. I love the concept... but it's proving a challenge to write.

  8. Very good points!
    I'd like to add one. If you're writing about different planets and moons, remember that they might not have the exact gravity and air composition of Earth. In one of my stories, I solved this with artificial gravity fields, but it was expensive tech and not all the poor towns could afford it, leading to one asteroid having varying levels of localized gravity!

  9. 'For man cannot live on bread alone'

    This has challenged me to really think about the depth of my fantasy world. Thanks Hannah, great post as always

  10. Thanks for this post!
    (I absolutely love writing about food.)
    Rachel Hartman's Seraphina has incredible world building.

  11. Really great post! Glad to have found this! I'm working on a story that takes place in two different worlds! The regular world and the Celtic other world. These questions will help me figure out the similarities and differences and how they affect my characters!

    I'm currently reading a series called Crown of Stars by Kate Elliott, it takes place in a pseudo model of medieval Europe, Kate Elliott has built this immersive world and a main religion that permeates everyday life much like Christianity in medieval Europe. I'm nearly through book one and with every page i'm more and more immersed in this fantasy world! I highly recommend it for an example of fantasy world building.

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  13. One of my favorite books for world-building, and probably my all-time favorite fantasy novel, is 'The Iron Dragon's Daughter' by Michael Swanwick. It isn't Christian by any means, but has many, if not all, of the elements you recommend in this and other of your articles. I highly encourage anyone to read this hidden gem of a novel.


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