Unleashing Your World-building Potential
There's a lot that I love about books - a clever turn of phrase, a shocking plot twist, an emotionally gripping read that brings me to tears. But if I'm gonna be honest, I'm mostly in it for the escapism. What I love most about books is being drawn into a story so captivating and compelling that I completely forget about the weird pretzel I've twisted myself into, and am forced to spend the next day with a serious crick in my neck. (Worth it!)
One of the most effective ways to create such an immersive experience for your readers is through world-building. Though you might associate this term strictly with fantasy or science-fiction, every genre can benefit from a fleshed-out world. For example, a murder mystery can feel radically different if it's set in a cozy, snow-covered, small town, versus a bustling, flashy, metropolitan setting.
What Is World-building, Anyway?
World-building is the process of developing (imagining, designing, and implementing) a world, often fictional, and it's key to creating a rich and engaging story that feels real and lived-in. It's not the exact same thing as setting, although the two are very closely connected. Think of world-building as the umbrella over setting - you can have two scenes set in completely different places, but the motivation, the reason, behind your choice of setting should still feed into building out your world.
Now, I won't be giving you an extensive questionnaire to work through (it just wouldn't make for particularly good reading), but that's definitely an exercise I recommend doing, and I'll link to my go-to site here. Instead, I'll be suggesting some more general advice to help you get into a productive world-building mindset.
With that in mind, here are a few tips to get you started on your world-building journey!
1. Start Small
It can be easy to get overwhelmed during the world-building process - you're crafting a whole world, after all! And there are so many amazing resources out there, from the questionnaires I mentioned earlier to free map-making platforms like Inkarnate. You should absolutely try all of these out and see if they spark any inspiration for you, but you should also remember that you don't have to invent your own language to be successful at world-building. Leave that to J.R.R. Tolkien.
You can start with something as simple as a room - your main character's room. What does it look like? What do they own, and why? Maybe this is a world that's dangerous, where they need to be constantly on the move, so they only own the essentials and everything can be packed and ready to go in five minutes flat. Think about their daily routine. What's the first thing they do when they wake up? Where do they go, who do they interact with, and how? Questions like these will help you develop a more complex world.
2. Consistency Over Complexity
At the same time, all of your world-building should serve a purpose - your story! Effective world-building will be intrinsically tied with character choices, motivations, and beliefs. It will determine the types of challenges that your characters face, and the problems they'll have to solve. You don't need much more than that, however. For example, you won't typically need to worry about the intricacies of passing laws in your fantasy government - unless it's specifically relevant to the plot. Thematic consistency will leave a much bigger impression on your readers than complexity.
3. Don't World-build in a Vacuum
You know how the saying goes: good writers borrow, the best writers steal. Take inspiration wherever you can, whether that be from your favorite books and movies, or from real life. (Did you know that J.R.R. Tolkien based the character of Treebeard on C.S. Lewis, who was noted to have a booming oratorical voice?)
Remember, too, that you don't need to constrain yourself to the tropes and imagery common to Western fiction. When we think of "classic fantasy," for example, we all tend to have the same image in our heads: knights, castles, princesses, dragons -- basically, medieval Europe. And there's nothing wrong with that, but I promise you that so many more possibilities will open up to you if you look into other cultures and time periods.
Of course, if you do choose to draw inspiration from other cultures, it's imperative to do your research and be respectful. But again, this doesn't have to be just on your own shoulders. That's what editors and sensitivity readers are for, and yes, that includes Singularity Press, too. We're here to provide authors with the editing services you need to get your writing out into the world, and we also offer pro-bono work for writer from marginalized communities, so please mention that when you reach out to us!
4. Be Flexible
As you continue to write and work on your story, it's only natural that your ideas will evolve and change. That's what revision is for, after all. It may hurt us to kill our darlings, but it's a necessary thing to do. Don't tie yourself in knots trying to stay faithful to the magic system that you first implemented 100 pages ago. After all, your work is never truly wasted, even if you don't end up using it.
5. Have Fun!
In the end, you're the writer, and this is your world, and you get to choose what advice works and doesn't work for you - which applies to any and all of the above points! Maybe it does help you to start big, so go for it! Draw that map, create legislative documents for your governments! The most important thing is that you enjoy what you're doing, and that you feel satisfied with all of the effort you're making.
What are some of your favorite ways to world-build? Let us know in the comments down below!