All narrative fiction requires some amount of wold building, even if the world you’re building is a real-life setting; however, if you write speculative fiction, particularly science fiction or fantasy, world building is absolutely critical. Here are some general tips for creating an enthralling and believable world.
Setting goes a long way to enhancing mood and creating a vivid image of where the action takes place. It will also influence the behaviours of the characters and the types of societies that are likely to develop. Consider the following:
- Where do people live, and how do they get food and water?
- What kinds of housing structures do people build?
- What kinds of animals (wild or domestic) live here?
- Is the landscape lush, mountainous, arid? Does the world include a variety of landscapes?
- What natural resources are available?
- What is the climate like?
When describing a particularly scene, be prepared to engage all five senses. Writers frequently privilege visual descriptions, but even human-made environments are rich in sounds, smells, and textures. Your characters’ sensual experiences—good and bad—can bring glorious detail to your world.
Provide specific descriptions. How would you describe a major character—do they drive a car or a gleaming red mustang? Do they live in a house or in a one-room wood cottage with blue shutters? When describing setting, you want provide a similar level of detail.
Once you have an idea of what kind of physical environments appear in your world, you can start to develop more complex societies. First and foremost, food, water, and shelter are the physical needs that we look after, and we typically do it as a society.
The ability to produce and control surplus goods tends to drive power imbalances in society. Subsistence societies tend to be much more egalitarian than agricultural societies, and women are more likely to be viewed as equal to men. For agricultural societies in harsher climates, being able to create modest surpluses may not be a huge advantage unless some members can amass considerably more than the bare minimum needed to survive the winter. Industrial societies can generate vast wealth for industrialists and other capitalist bigwigs, but technology may level the gender playing field as machines can now handle heavy physical work, making it easier for women (and children) to work outside the home. What the world can produce and how these products can be managed will play a huge role in how your society develops.
Consider what the needs of the people are, how the people meet these needs, and what might endanger their survival. How will goods and services be provided? Will there be a ruling class or other elite group that can control the production and distribution of goods? Do they have some form of economic system that relies on currency (or a good that stands in place of a currency) or do they employ some sort of barter system? How do they handle scarcity? How do they treat the poor?
Laws and Morals
Moral and legal codes often reflect and maintain the power structures and values of a society, particularly the ruling class.
Example 1: the U.S. and Canadian legal structures have their roots in English feudal practices, which developed after William the Conqueror declared himself the landlord of England. After that, the sovereign settled property disputes and criminal matters as these were disturbances to “the king’s peace.” In modern U.S. practices, the state (i.e., “the people,”) prosecutes criminal matters; in Canada, the queen remains our head of state, and criminal matters are prosecuted in her name.
Example 2: Early medieval Iceland was settled by Viking peoples who were trying to get away from the burgeoning kingdom of Harald Fairhair in Norway. The Icelanders instituted the first parliament in the world (the Althing, which still operates today) as a means of preventing the emergence of autocratic rulers and preserving the independence of wealthy landowners.
Consider how the societies in your world developed. What sort of social and legal structures are in place to encourage order and social cohesion? How do the morals and laws of this society promote equality or inequality? What model of justice do they employ: punitive, retributive, restorative, other? What factions within society are trying to change the existing social and legal codes, what changes do they want to make, and what methods do they use — legal arguments, economic pressures, religious activities, peaceful protests, violence?
Religious and spiritual beliefs tend to grow up around things and ideas that we consider valuable; rituals and superstitious behaviours help us feel like we have some control over our lives and deaths. They may also promote social cohesion through shared beliefs and activities. What are the core beliefs of the people in this world, and how do people with different religions interact with each other? How does each group respond to threats to its belief system? What relationship do these religious structures have with other power structures in society — are they in harmony or do they conflict?
Equality and Inequality
How are human differences treated in society? Does skin color or ethnicity matter? How do people of different religious or political affiliations view each other? Are gender and sex differences accepted, revered, despised, or a non-issue? For example, the Samoans recognize a third gender of homosexual males who live and act as females and caregivers. They are respected for their role in the family, even though overt homosexuality is expressly forbidden.
Never underestimate the power of social bonds to both lift us up and hold us down. The human drive for social connection can easily be manipulated and used as a means of control. Once you’ve convinced someone that they are powerless, they may not find the courage to free themselves, even when the opportunity is right in front of them.
To Infodump or Not To Infodump
And now for the big question—how much world building is enough, and how much is too much?
There isn’t really a single correct answer to this question or any precise rules to follow here. Much will depend on how different your world is from the modern real world that your readers know, how much the settings influence the specific challenges your characters face, the mood you want to create, and even your writing style.
Regarding style, some authors employ detail-oriented styles, while others prefer a more reserved approach to description. Both have their pros and cons, but I can assure you there is an audience for each. Either way, keep it consistent overall. If your writing style tends to be rather spartan, a sudden blast of adjective-laden text may seem out of place; likewise, if you have a more detail-oriented style, skimping on descriptions later in the story might make readers might think you’ve gotten lazy.
Write the way you write, but focus your descriptive powers on the most important details and don’t let your language get too purple. Even when you need to do a lot of describing, a nice shade of lavender should suffice. As always, look for the most powerful words that have the right connotations.
If you need to do a lot of world building up front because the plot depends on it, prologues can be quite handy. A prologue can help snag the reader’s interest early on, often with information that either doesn’t fit neatly into the narrative for any reason (including intended narrative structure) or is taken out of context or out of order. The result is that there is some narrative distance between the prologue and the first chapters of the book. If you absolutely need to reveal critical information immediately, especially if you know your story is going to start off a bit slowly, a prologue may be your best bet.
But whatever else you do, make sure you limit the number and length of any infodumps. Just as there are times when you have to tell rather than show, there will be times when you just need to drop a whole lot of information on the reader’s head. The key is not making it too heavy. Identify the most critical information required at that moment to set up the scene and focus on that. Additional details should be introduced gradually as the story unfolds.
Of course, you could always go the route of Moby Dick and devote entire chapters to massive dumps of information, but author beware—you may end up chasing your own white whale.
Find the Right Balance
No matter what you write, balance is the key, whether its showing versus telling, descriptive prose versus dialogue, or world building versus character and plot development. Remember to treat your world as a character. You don’t want to focus so much on one character that all the rest are flat; likewise, you don’t want to overdo the world building until your plot and characters seem like afterthoughts.
World building, character development, and plot development are the three major pillars of storytelling. Each is important in its own right, but no one can hold up the story on its own.
Some World Building Resources
- io9/Gizmodo (You may have to dig around the site a bit, but they have some top-notch writing articles.)
- Dungeon Master’s Guide
- Chuck Wendig’s “Terrible Minds” blog.