I have a small group of people I allow to read my early book drafts. They’re the ones who give me solid, truthful feedback, are great at catching typos, and call me out when pieces of my story don’t add up. Last month I popped in to visit one who is currently working through the second book in my work-in-progress fantasy series. We turned the kids loose on a box of LEGOs, plopped on a couch, and the subject immediately turned to books.
“This book is so much faster,” she said. I agree; mostly because the world is already built.
As I’ve shared my fantasy books with both friends and strangers in seeking feedback, one consistent statement they make is they enjoy the world building that happens in the novels. Creating worlds is something I enjoy, so I’ve read a lot about doing it, but there are a few key points that I’ve had to learn myself. Everyone develops their own pieces of writing advice, though, so here’s some of mine: The things I wish I’d been told about world building before I started doing it myself.
1. Blend, Don’t Build.
When you need a quick start, blending real cultures to create new ones to populate your fictional world is the best and easiest starting point. You can always add on later, fleshing them out however much you want, but taking a few key elements from people and places around the world and mixing them lays the ground work fast. Blurring the lines between the two is where your imagination fills in the blanks, creating new and unique twists to the civilizations you’ve created. Plus, having a real-life basis for your creations lends an air of familiarity, which makes it easier for people to connect to your fictional world.
There’s one catch, though: You can’t just clip whatever you want and toss it in with no thought. If there’s something you like about a culture, you have to research it first before creating a mash-up with something else. Remember that what you’re building on is the framework that real people have created over thousands of years. Be respectful.
2. Opposites attract, which makes for interesting worlds.
This, of course, grows out of the point above. It’s a cliche saying, but it’s true. We like things that conflict, because we want to know what makes it work. The most interesting blends come from mixing cultures that contradict each other.
One good example is James Gurney’s Dinotopia series, which blends a technologically developed society about on par with Victorian ages with the prehistoric wonder of dinosaurs. That resplendent era clashes with the primitive nature of the beasts that populate the world, creating an intriguing setting. In that setting, dinosaurs have their own developed and refined purpose, which makes their inclusion more believable and adds a unique flavor to the world.
3. Fill in the empty space.
Generally speaking, most books don’t contain a ton of globetrotting. Even if you create a vast world for your stories to take place in, you’ll probably only visit a handful of locations in each volume. But these aren’t the only places you should be creating; your world is much bigger than that.
Open any map and just glance over it. There are hundreds of major roadways and thousands of cities, probably more than you could ever visit. Fictional worlds are like that too, and the people who live in these worlds know it. They might mention a grandmother in a certain township, or a childhood vacation to a city on the coast. If nothing else, when creating a map, take the time to fill all your empty space with a variety of locations. It’s a small step that can lend a lot of flavor to your world, even if these places never come into play.
4. When you visit a book’s world, you’re a tourist.
That’s why simple insights into a culture are almost always best. Characters live in this world, but we don’t; they’re already familiar with the ins and outs of traditions and cultural norms. Filtering everything through that lens paints an interesting picture. People feel a sense of awe when they only get peeks into what a world is like. It’s new and exotic and spurs curiosity.
It also meshes well with the “show, don’t tell” principle, and the practice of sprinkling background information in just a little at a time. Build your world in a way that makes people eager to peek down the next narrow street when your story takes a turn.
5. Don’t let world building interfere with a first draft.
This one seems to be a big issue for people, and I admit it was an issue for me, too! It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that you need to have your world fleshed out and developed before you get started, but it’s simply not true.
Rarely does the story being told depend on more than the most basic information about the world it’s in. More often than not, the world works better if it’s shaped by the actions of the characters within the story, anyway. Just think of it: Our world’s cultures and countries are all the result of people’s actions. They’d develop in fictional worlds the same way and, sometimes, the best way to get a feeling for the world you’re creating is to jump into it with both feet and see where the trip takes you.
Not only that, but a first draft is always rough. All the fleshing out and refining of the story–and the world–will happen later, so don’t let it bog you down. A well-built world offers a lot of support to a good story, but a bad story can’t save a good world.
I could talk about world building for pages, but from my experience, those points are the most important to me–and also the points I’ve rarely (if ever) seen anyone talk about.
Do you have any writing tips you’ve picked up in your experience?