Oct 8, 2012
Five Foundations of World-building
As a writer of fantasy and science fiction, I’m often asked for my tips on world-building. Earlier in 2012, I taught a workshop on it at my local library, and all year I’ve been meaning to put those notes online. Finally I have time to do it! So, here are my thoughts on world-building, with examples for you to investigate on your own.
In the Beginning …
If you look online or in books about writing fantasy, you often find lengthy lists of questions to ask yourself about the world you’re creating. Everything from “Where are mineral resources located?” to “What shapes are the eating tables?”1
A lot of these world building guides also suggest that you draw a map of your fictional world. I actually love to draw maps, and when I was in high school writing fantasy novels, I spent weeks drawing maps and answering these kinds of questions. But what I later discovered was that spending all that time on world building meant that I never started actually writing the story.
Of course, it is important to spend some time on world building, especially if you’re writing a story set in a secondary world.2 But I don’t think you need to get bogged down in answering 100 questions about the economics and politics and plant life of your world. I suggest you focus on five main issues that will serve as the foundation for your world. All those other details — even the shape of eating tables — can emerge after you’ve established this foundation. Often those details emerge right out of the writing itself.
Before I go into those five foundations of world building, I want to remind you of one very important thing: Be aware of your own cultural and social assumptions.
- If you’re creating a world inspired by medieval Europe, that doesn’t mean you need to import all the prejudices of medieval Europe. It’s your fantasy world; you can have women knights as well.
- If you’re creating various different races of people, you might want to avoid making all your heroes light-skinned, and all your villains dark-skinned. This is an unfortunate metaphor that a lot of traditional epic fantasy is known for, even The Lord of the Rings.
- This doesn’t mean your fantasy world cannot have these kinds of prejudices, but try to be aware of when you write these into your stories. You should have a reason for them.
Five Foundations of World Building
If you have magic in your world, or if you have any kind of science that is more advanced than what we have in our real world, you need to establish logical rules for how that magic or science works, and stick to them.
- Who has it?
- What does it do?
- How do you make it happen?
- How is user affected?
- How is world affected?
- How are magic users grouped & perceived?
Example: In Holly Black’s White Cat, she sets up a world in which magic users are known as “curse workers,” and curse work (aka magic) is officially illegal. It is a master class in using rules to limit magic and build a thoroughly believable world.
Rituals involve the passage of an individual from one social state to another, and they really tell you a lot about a culture. More obvious examples of rituals from our world include weddings and funerals, but there are plenty of other experience that have been ritualized. For example, birthdays in the contemporary United States involve eating a ceremonial cake that is lit with candles, and the birthday celebrant usually makes a silent wish for the future. Doesn’t that sound magical?
Other examples of rituals that say a lot about a culture: graduation or commencement ceremonies, homecoming football games and dances, senior prom. I’m sure you can think of others! A ritual experience is an excellent way to show your world’s cultural depth and traditions.
Example: In the Harry Potter world, every school year at Hogwarts begins with a famous ritual in which the sorting hat places students into their academic houses.
And in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, each year a powerful ritual known as the Reaping selects kids from every district to compete in a televised battle to the death.
By power I mean a system of hierarchies. In our world, we see different hierarchies all over the place. In the government, there’s the president, the vice president, the Cabinet, the Senate, etc. At school, who’s in power? Is it the principal? What about the students? Are there hierarchical systems among the students?
When building your world, keep the idea of power in mind. You always want to be aware of which characters are on top. I suggest you ask yourself these three questions:
- Who is powerful in your world?
- Who is weak?
- Who wants to be powerful?
Example: Chapter 1 of The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman sets up the power dynamics of this world immediately, as the main character, a 12-year-old girl named Lyra, sneaks into a scholar’s posh study, where women (not to mention girls) are not allowed. This chapter alone shows us power struggles relating to class, age, and sexism.
One of the most important tools in writing a realistic fantasy or scifi world is the idea of place, which is more than merely the setting. When you describe your fantasy world, it’s important to describe it from the perspective of the characters who inhabit it. You should pay attention to their lived experience of being in that place.
To do that, it’s a good idea to describe the place using all five senses. Be sure to get personal. Don’t simply describe a mountain range from the outside; think about what your main character would think about that mountain range if he were describing it.
And always, be specific. Don’t be satisfied with “the trees were green.” What kind of trees were they? Oak trees or redwoods? What kind of green? Dark green like pine needles or light green like new buds? All of these details make a place real.
Example: In Chapter 1 of Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, the main character, Nailer, crawls through the metal belly of a ship, scavenging wire and metal. When you read this chapter you get a visceral sense of how Nailer feels while he’s in that dark, claustrophobic place. It’s a three-dimensional reading experience that makes that world seem incredibly real.
This is one of my very favorite elements of world building because I love to eat! But food does more than just taste good. In fiction, it can tell a complicated story involving ritual, power, and place, which makes food an excellent short-hand for worldbuilding.
Consider this: Two characters are going out on a date. Where do they go on the date? A nice restaurant or a fast-food chain? What kind of food do they eat? Do they like it? Who pays? So much can be told through a meal. Through this kind of scene you get to learn what tastes a character has, which reveals their upbringing and some of who they are (whether they have an adventurous palate). You learn about power dynamics between two people when the discussion about who pays arises. And you also learn about the food in that world when you describe it: is it American? Is it more like Chinese or Ethiopian food? A lot of fantasy fiction tends to stick to people eating bread and stew (and don’t get me wrong — I love bread and stew), but this is an opportunity to give your world a unique flavor.
Example: One of the best examples of the usage of food in fantasy is from Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon. In this book, Cindy uses Chinese fare to paint a specific culture … and also to make readers really hungry!
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So there you have it: my five foundations of world-building. Once you’ve thought about these five issues, I think your world will become a much more real place. Feel free to ask questions in the comments!
- These questions come from Patricia C. Wrede’s Fantasy World Building Questions. [↩]
- Worldbuilding is also important even in books set in the real world. But in that case, you mind think of it more as “scene-setting.” [↩]
- These rules come from a talk Holly Black gave at a writing conference, as recounted in this blog post. The whole post is worth a read! [↩]