World Building

Improve your Craft with Worldbuilding by Catherine Peace

We’re introduced to a young man.

The people around him don’t see him as anything special—he’s dirty, poor, painfully ordinary—but we know better. We know he’s been chosen, and when a wizened mentor takes the young man under his wing, we know we’re right. He’s a savior, destined to better the lives of everyone by ensuring their safety against a tyrannical force. This is commonly known as the Hero’s Journey, and it’s found all throughout literature and film. The previous description could match Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars original trilogy, Eragon in the movie and books by Christopher Paolini, or even King Arthur himself. And those are only three of hundreds of examples. What is it that sets these stories apart?

You might say, “Oh, it’s the characters!” or perhaps “The settings, duh,” or maybe even, “Well, their stories are different. Luke has the Force, Eragon gets a dragon egg, and King Arthur pulls Excalibur from the stone.” And you’d be right. But there’s something that encompasses all of these things, and it’s worldbuilding.

What is worldbuilding?

Simply put, it’s the process of crafting the world your characters will inhabit. You need an idea of how things work, and some people will flesh out their worlds while they write their stories. It’s not a process that has to be done first, but having a strong idea will help you flesh out your characters and setting, and it’ll even help you develop subplots and ways to inconvenience or outright endanger your characters.

A lot of authors balk at the idea of worldbuilding, thinking their characters or settings will differentiate their stories enough from others, but they don’t realize that worldbuilding affects literally every part of a story. The reverential treatment of the Light and Dark in Star Wars shows how important it is for Luke to bring balance to the Force, and its philosophical approach confirms that we cannot have one without the other. In Eragon, the dragon Sapphira’s presence and attachment to Eragon help create conflict throughout the series. And in Arthurian legend, it’s Excalibur that makes Arthur legitimate in the eyes of the people. All these differing philosophies, viewpoints, and awe-inspiring events are made believable due to the worldbuilding in each story. Without it, the plots would be too similar to tell apart.

How about another example?

A boy and girl from very different families fall in love, causing an already-tense situation to explode like a powder keg.

Is this:

A) Romeo & Juliet,

B) West Side Story, or

C) the movie Warm Bodies?

Or for a special bonus answer, D) The Lion King II?

It’s E) All of the above.

Is it starting to make sense now?

Or maybe you can think of it like the writing version of Food Network’s Chopped (my second favorite Food Network show [the first is Cutthroat Kitchen]). If you’re unfamiliar with the show, it works this way: each chef is given the same basket of four ingredients and challenged to make a dish with them. They might get meat cake (it’s a real thing, I swear), dragonfruit, seaweed chips, and a can of cherry pie filling, and they have to figure out what to make from those ingredients by utilizing the pantry. Worldbuilding is the pantry. It gives you tools to take your ingredients—plot, character, genre, etc—and elevate them to another level, to make something new out of something every writer has in their basket.

According to a bunch of writing professionals, there are somewhere between 7 and 12 plots in all of writingdom. So these millions and millions of novels and short stories and movies and plays and video games that we love and enjoy are all based around some of those 7-12 plots. That’s staggering to think about! And it’s why taking time to craft the worlds your stories are in is so important.

Okay, you might be saying, that’s great for science fiction and fantasy writers but I write contemporary/historical/genre that doesn’t really need worldbuilding.

To you, I say, WRONG, in the nicest and most loving way I can.

One of my favorite examples of non-speculative fiction worldbuilding is from the Gilmore Girls. Stars Hollow is simply a fantastic microcosm of everything small town worldbuilding needs, from Luke’s Diner to Independence Inn and the myriad of places in between. Rory and Lorelei’s interactions with the townsfolk, and with each other, center around the parts of town they go into. They meet at Luke’s for coffee. Lorelei works at the Independence Inn with Michel and Sookie, whose characters are tied directly into the worldbuilding from the inn.

A second example is Downton Abbey. I’ve recently been watching it after missing it on the first go-round, and the worldbuilding is extremely evident in each episode. Though it takes place during an actual period in British history and utilizes historical events, everything from the house to the costuming is a result of the world that the creators built for these characters to inhabit. The distinct difference between the upstairs and downstairs, the characters’ relationships with each other, and even their reactions to WW1 and other events are a result of their worldbuilding. Downton Abbey wouldn’t be the same show without this worldbuilding.

Some authors (like myself) will take a lot of time to create a world before any writing even starts. I like to know the nuts and bolts of the world I’m working in, whether it’s science fiction or contemporary, meaning I want to know how the world works and how it affects the people I’m putting into it. I’m currently working on a fantasy novel that may never see the light of day, and I’m taking a different approach that a few other authors I know enjoy, which is to worldbuild as I go. It’s much more of a challenge, but it’s an interesting way to stretch my muscles.

So far in this manuscript, I’ve had to think about how magic works, who has it, and how it can be undone. I’ve had to think about this island the main characters are inhabiting, how its buildings and streets are built, how its society functions, how an occupation by an enemy force has changed the island for better and for worse, and about the inevitable rebellion forming to take the king down. And I’ve had to think about my main characters and their relationships to each other, and how the world shapes those relationships. It’s a lot to think about all at once, which is why I like to take my time and keep notes, but I have to say, moving through the dark is an interesting experience.

Like with every other part of the writing process, there’s no right or wrong way to worldbuild. Contemporary writers won’t need as much worldbuilding as science fiction or fantasy writers, but everyone needs to have some kind of worldbuilding to make their stories stand out.

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Catherine Peace has been telling stories for as long as she could remember. She often blames two things for her forays into speculative fiction—Syfy...