I have always loved world building - and, as most kids do, I did it constantly, whether playing with my friends in the trees or building homes for my stuffed animals. What we were all doing, without thinking about it, was creating a setting for our story. No story can happen without characters, and no character can come to life in a void. They need a setting. The setting is the structure in which the characters will evolve and the story will unfold. It shapes how the characters view the world and how they react. Whether done consciously or unconsciously, the world we create as writers informs the story problem and its themes.
One of the exciting things about world building is that you can create your world starting from any point, be it the physical realm, the society, the character or the story problem. But no matter where you start, at some point you have to decide how your main character and his/her story problem fit into the larger world he/she lives in. It is this interplay between the character and his/her world that will help give a story the depth, and coherence, necessary to engage readers and create a vibrant world that will live on in their minds well beyond the end of the book.
Although it is easy to see details of world building when reading about Middle Earth or Starships, a contemporary novel set in a small town also has a distinct world that the author has created – either by constructing a fictional setting or by choosing which parts of a real setting to include or to omit.
A world is a complex system of interdependent threads ranging from the physical to the metaphysical and covering everything in between. Geography, population, government, history, ethics and religion are just a few examples. The clearer you are about the impact of each thread on your characters and story arc, the more depth your world will have and the more alive it will feel.
A river that floods, such as the Nile, can be seen as destructive or life-giving or both – but it can’t be ignored. No matter how it is perceived, the river’s cycle will affect how the civilization that it nourishes develops. Climate and local resources influence everything from clothing to fighting techniques to societal structure and religious beliefs.
Just as in our world, the way fictional characters perceive the world around them is shaped by the culture they grew up in, their past experiences and their own ideas of right and wrong. This in turn will affect how each character can evolve over the course of the story.
For example, in The Game of Thrones, Dany wouldn’t be who she is, or where she is, without the past events that pushed her and her brother into exile. Of course, what she chose to do afterwards was based on her own experiences and understanding of the world around her and the potential she had within herself.
All worlds, even ones with magic, have limitations – and limitations are often a great starting point for introducing problems and increasing tension. And tension, especially when it is innate to your world’s structure and your character’s personal view of the world, is what makes a book something a reader can’t put down.
What are your thoughts on world building? What do you usually create first, the world, the characters, the story problem? I’d love to hear from you!
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