A to Z Challenge: World Building

Almost as promised, here’s the post on World Building.

I believe that whether or not you write a form of speculative fiction, you will have to engage in some degree of world building to make your story believable. You might have to create a fictional town. Or disguise a real one (Gotham City, anyone?). Otherwise, you might simply bend the real world rules a little in to make them fit the purposes of the story.

Because of this, I’m going to address two types of world building. Spec fic and non spec fic.


If you’re not writing spec fic, or only want to gloss over reality a little, you’ll need to put time in to research as much about the location and time of your story as possible. Especially if you don’t live in the location or time that you’re writing about. And the more you research, the better.

BUT remember, you’re looking for a feel for the place/time so that you can write a piece of fiction. You’re not writing a text book. So if you’ve written blocks and blocks of information with minute details of everything, you might have to cut back. It’s sort of similar to what I said about using senses. Characters aren’t going to list the histories/descriptions/cultural impact of every single thing the see and experience. Rather, we the readers want to feel everything through the character. Show the impact of certain things. Show what they mean. Don’t list them and go on and on about minute details.

Special bonus for historical fiction writers: Anachronisms are incredibly annoying, so make damned sure that the things used/referred to by characters existed/happen in the time of your story. NOTHING annoys me more than reading a western where badass gunslingers use the colt peacemaker three years before it existed. And yes. I know when it did or didn’t exist. Other people will too. Keep your dates straight. If you absolutely must bend the dates to suit the story, please remember to make note of it in a foreword or something. That way, you show that you’re not an idiot, and (possibly more importantly) that you don’t think the reader’s an idiot.

Spec fic, on the other hand, sets world building on a whole new level. More often than not, the world of your fantasy/steampunk/sci fi/urban fantasy/dystopian/horror/etc. etc. story will be foreign to your readers. And if your readers can’t place themselves in the world of your story, you already lost the battle.

When it comes to my spec fic stories, I try to know more than what goes into the book. Note: MORE. Not everything. Every single thing doesn’t have to go in. Important things go in. And not always in a clearly outlined way. Let’s say that amongst other things, your world randomly loses gravity. I wouldn’t suggest that you necessarily go into the depths of why, unless it’s important. The same for the cultures that you create. Remember, most spec fic characters already live in the world that you’ve created. So they won’t be explaining things to themselves or others. At least not all the time. There’s a fine balance between enlightening the readers and boring them with too much detail. Make sure that you stay on that line.

Taking the world rules a little further…. Natural laws should exist as natural LAWS. Same with the rules of your magic system. Or your cultural norms, rules and regulations. DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES let your characters break any of the above without them being aware of the fact, without an explanation, and without potentially huge (and hugely negative) repercussions. Especially, don’t let them do it to save the day. If you do, you’re undermining the credibility of your own story. These rules should be the frame that keeps everything in your story structured and believable. You can’t ignore them for convenience sake. It will make your story collapse like a house of cards. If the world rules create a problem for the story, you have two options: either rewrite the rules (and revise the whole story to fit them) or go look for a solution that fits and even comes out of the rules. See my P post for more info on that.

On a lighter note, having a fantasy world helps to set the mood of the story, if you use your world right. You have the joy of creating something special and unique. It’s one of the few forms of pure creation. So have a blast!

Look Out for These:

1) In both: Over-telling on the world/time, boring the reader and making everything seem unrealistic. Under-informing the reader, making them wonder how things work.

2) Non-Spec fic: Anachronisms, not knowing enough to get the feel of the time/place right.

3) Spec fic: World rules that are broken.

What do you love/hate about world building in your genre?

18 thoughts on “A to Z Challenge: World Building

  1. Over describing is not a problem for me!
    One thing I found out about science fiction – the hard core tech readers want to know how everything works. They want those details. (Which is why that type of reader will be disappointed with my books.)

  2. I love world building. Initially I found that I could write a whole series of short stories that helped ddefine the world and the timeline. That allowed me to build a very detailed setting, and some of the events in the short stories could “appear” or at least cameo in a larger work. In a fantasy I started, I wanted to write the book, so to a large extent I've had to world build, and I'm debating the existence of cannon- which may mean I have to rewrite significant parts of what's been completed.

    I am enjoying the creation of the mythos, and the cultures, and the map.

  3. Great post. My pet peeve is on overdescribing/telling. I tend to skip through that prose which means that in my own writing I have to work hard to get enough to satisfy the people who like it but not so much that I drive myself crazy with boredom.

  4. It is not for the faint of heart, is it?

    Author Sharon Hinck does a great job in her Restorer's series.

    Anne Elizabeth Stengl's Tales of the Goldstone Wood series is also a good example of fantasy worlds done well.

    Great post! 🙂

  5. My novel Tainted Souls is set in the fictional town of Santa Isidora, on the other side of the San Gabriel Mountains from L.A. I had a lot of fun creating the place, which included eventually imagining the downtown core, the municipal and couty buildings, parks, restaurants, how many and what kind of schools, a local community college, rivers, ponds. It was great. But I also had to be careful not to contradict myself. I had to think about where I'd placed a museum before figuring out which direction people would drive to to get there, etc.

    I could probably draw a map of the place if I had a mind to, even though it doesn't exist!

  6. I love worldbuilding. My main WIP right now is set in this world, but with a twist in history. Also, a little bit in the future, so I'm inventing all sorts of gadgets and rules that I think should be in place. 😉

    Great post!

  7. Great post! You've touched on so many important points. I generally map out any worlds I create so that I can make sure my character moves through the spaces easily, as if I were there guiding him/her. With the historical aspects I, again, immerse myself in the world (after extensive research, of course) and make the characters that actually belong in that space/time interact with items without thinking about them. My time-travel character might ask questions about certain things which I can then explain through dialogue and not huge chunks of information. 🙂

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