What is world-building? World building means developing a rich, detailed and convincing landscape for your characters and for the reader. Whether you’re writing a fantasy novel set on Mars in 3013, or a realistic novel set in Minnesota in 2012, your job is to make readers forget they’re reading a book, and convince them that they’re inside a true experience, that they are witness to a world that exists beyond the page. Books that do this successfully—the Harry Potter series, for example—have lasting impact, because readers can be subsumed by the world of the book—they never want to leave!
Why it’s important: A unique and fully-realized world could be the key to making your novel stand out in an already very competitive market. Most agents will tell you they’ve seen thousands of “coming of age” stories on submission and that they all start to blur together. It’s extremely difficult to prove that your version is fresh and worth picking up. Having a distinct and believable world will make your book more special… and if readers can only experience that world in your books, they’ll have to just keep reading more of them!
Why it’s hard: When you’re super excited about your story idea, you may have a hard time knowing what “world questions” to ask yourself. After all, it all makes sense in your head. Say you want to set a kinky romance on an alternate planet that’s just like Earth but where there’s no such thing as sexual orientation. It’s 50 Shades of Gray meets Avatar! You tell your boyfriend all about it. The first thing he says is, “but do the people on this planet know about real Earth?” You stare at him blankly, annoyed that he’s not focusing on the awesome love triangle you were just describing between your main character and two aliens. You’re even more annoyed because you hadn’t yet considered this question. And you’re most annoyed because this could have huge repercussions on your story: If the answer is no, how is it possible they don’t know about real Earth? Is there a giant cover-up conspiracy? Has all knowledge been lost due to some kind of disaster? If they do know about it, what’s their relationship to real Earth? Are they in direct competition with it? Are they a colony, under real Earth’s rule? Is real Earth gone now? Why? As you can see, every “logic hole” leads to a series of other questions—and opportunities. These questions will be daunting, and will demand a lot of time, attention, research, and, well, agony. But your book can’t simply ignore them—unless you’re okay with the entire world ignoring your book.
How to start: When you were in fourth or fifth grade, someone probably told you that you should address a few key points first: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. Turns out, this is great advice when it comes to world-building. Jot down your answers to these questions!
Who: World-building is as much about people as it is about place. All societies are defined by structure and organization, and this is equally true for, say, a country as it is for a high school, a gardening club, or a tight-knit group of friends. Your world—whatever it is—will be at least partially defined by major conflicts between groups of people (rich vs. poor; mean girls vs. geeky girls; boys vs. girls) and by social hierarchy. Who are the authority figures in this world? Are there secret sects or societies? Conspirators? Warring factions? How are these groups intrinsic to the world you’ve chosen?
What: What is this world—a subterranean realm? A posh summer spot? A middle-of-nowhere town? A wealthy suburb, or an impoverished urban area? The what goes beyond a simple name. The what of a place is its essential makeup: big or small, rich or poor, country or city, cage or castle.
When: Deciding when your story takes place will influence every single detail. If it’s a book set in the 19th Century, you’ll steer clear of convertibles and televisions and anachronistic phrases like “dude!” If it’s a book set in the future, you’ll have to think about how technology and social conventions might have evolved. Even if you set the book now, you have an obligation to remain consistent—you can’t just ignore the advent of cell phones, for instance!
Where: Is your book set on Mars? A current Los Angeles? An underground bunker below Paris? The location should be linked to the primary situation. If it’s a story about family conflict, perhaps you want to intensify the drama by having everyone trapped in a small house in a small town, in, say, a blizzard. If your story is about a girl who sees fairies, you’ll need to ask yourself if there are fairies everywhere or just where she lives and if the latter, why there? What about her specific location makes it an ideal spot for fairies to hang out? Which leads us to…
Why: Why is it important that your story occur here, and only here? What is special about this location? How does it mirror or complicate your main character’s issues?
Follow the Rules. You may not always think about the rules that govern our real lives—that’s because we take them for granted. We don’t sit around everyday going, “this gravity thing totally sucks—I want to levitate!” or “dude, I just don’t get why we only have two eyes!” But the rules are there nonetheless, and they don’t just change one day when you wake up. This is especially important to remember if you’re writing fantasy, paranormal or dystopian novels—the rules in your book may in fact be different from our real-life rules, but they must remain consistent in order to be believable. Can your characters fly after consuming mint oreos? Fine. But that means that they must always fly after eating mint oreos—and never fly after eating milanos. Is gravity less powerful on your fictional planet? Fine, but that has to affect everything from the way people move to the boiling point of water. YOU CANNOT SIMPLY MAKE UP THE RULES AS YOU GO. If you try to change or tweak or adapt your world-rules partway through, what you’re doing is completely undermining the previously-established rules, which in turn completely undermines your readers’ trust in you. And when that happens? They don’t buy it anymore. They no longer care.
Elizabeth Miles, author of Fury, a paranormal series set in a fictional town in Maine, offers some advice on keeping your rules organized:
“I decided to make a ‘Fury cheat sheet,’ a short synopsis of the mythos I was creating. When you’re building something from the ground up, it’s important to have an extremely concrete set of rules, even if some of the minute details don’t make it into the narrative—you still need to know the answers. One of the most important pieces for me was realizing that the Furies had a logic all their own—that their choices didn’t necessarily need to fit into my conceptualization of good/evil, moral/immoral. Once I wrapped my head around that, it was easy to let their particular brand of evil—one that knows few boundaries and wants to wrap its fingers around everything it sees—permeate the books. From there, my ultimate goal was to infuse even the non-paranormal scenes with an undercurrent of darkness.”
Go for full immersion. Ooh, we love Elizabeth’s idea of permeating the book. We love undercurrents of darkness! Remember, you don’t want to tell readers all the rules of your world. Nothing’s worse than a long string of dialogue in which one character says, “the thing about us aliens is that we can only fly when we eat mint oreos,” and the other character says, “but what about mint milanos?” Just because it’s dialogue doesn’t mean it isn’t still a totally obvious shortcut to explaining the rules of your world. What you want to do instead is truly immerse us. And you do that by making all the details show how the world works.
Here’s a tip on immersion from Fiona Paul, author of Venom, a steamy historical mystery set in late Renaissance Venice:
“My imagination is selective. It will embrace the task of describing the love interest’s taut muscles or the glistening tendrils of hair clinging to his forehead after he does battle in the name of honor or justice. However, when I have to describe a house (or a chair or an old lady or a teacup) it shuts down, and what ends up on the page is: ‘The house was empty except for the old lady sipping from a teacup as she sat nestled in a chair.’ Zzzzzzz. Boring. What I do is let my imagination go wild when it wants to, but when it starts to stall out I go looking for things that trigger sensory experiences. Maybe that means interviewing someone or poring over strangers’ vacation photos of Venice on Flickr. Maybe it means spying on old ladies at the grocery store or heading off to the oldest cemetery I can find in the dead of night armed with only my trusty journal. Each setting has its own requirements, and I have done (and/or googled) a lot of unusual things in the name of getting a scene just right.”
Be specific. Real life is extremely specific. Not only do you sleep in a room, you sleep in a room in a bed in, say, the back of a railroad apartment in New York City where you can constantly hear the traffic; or in the attic room your parents converted for you after your older sister went to college. You don’t just drive a car. You drive an Acura you inherited from your Dad, or a Honda you saved up for by babysitting for a super bratty kid who lives down the street and refuses to go to sleep until you let her watch Toddlers and Tiaras. You don’t eat dinner. You eat chili at Applebee’s and then you have heartburn. Novels should have just as much specificity as real life.
NOTE: This does not mean that you should clutter your novels with useless or excess details. A few key specific ones will allow your readers to fill in the blanks. Try to see every detail as an opportunity. It can (and should!) tell us more about what kind of world we’re in. Do all the kids in high school drive Beamers? Or run-down Buicks patched together with duct tape? Or personal space ships? Specific, well-chosen details inform the reader about what world we’re in, and relieve the author from explicating everything. Specific details are a form of showing, not telling!
This doesn’t mean you should simply list details, either. You want the details to appear organically amid the action and dialogue. Don’t tell us she’s walking into her childhood home and that there’s a hand-knitted blanket thrown over the back of the couch, sewn by her grandmother in 1936, and then launch into dialogue. Instead have the character walk in, flop down on the couch, and absentmindedly play with the worn fringe on the old blanket grandma knitted, all while she’s talking. Immediately we’ll have a deeper sense of the world and the character’s role within it, without noticing how this information was given to us.
Field of Dreams. Finally, world-building happens as much off the page as on. It happens in the mind, in dreams, in conversations. Talk to people about your book’s world, as much as possible. Let them ask those glaring logic questions you’ve been avoiding. A fictional world is like an invite-only party; you can’t invite readers in unless you are a fully-fledged member of the world yourself. So dive in, and dare to dream!