My Guide to World-Building (Part 1)

Oh, the joys of reading new, immersive worlds. Oh, the struggles of creating those worlds.

I am by no means an expert in this department, though I do write epic fantasy—fantasy that takes place in another world—and over the course of these last few manuscripts, I’ve learned quite a bit about building immersive worlds that feel as real as the one we live in. Below, I have included some of my tricks and tips to world-building

When it is available, you can find Part 2 here.

Backstory

This is, in my opinion, the single most important part of writing a good world—knowing your backstory. Mind you, your characters do not necessarily need to know the full backstory, and they don’t even have to talk about it. But if you know the backstory of your world, it will shine through in your writing.

By this, I mean, pretend your world is our world. Create something of a history class curriculum your education system might teach budding young minds. For example, in our world, there is Greek history, there is ancient Mesopotamian history, there is World War I and World War II. There is Chinese history and Indian history and Native American history. Each continent has its own history, and we learn about these histories in school. Think about what your would characters learn about in their school systems, and you’ll have a rough basis of what you need to know in creating a world.

Sometimes, as is the case for the World Wars, these histories intersect. However, every single culture in your world will have a different backstory, a different set of wars they learn about, different pagan religions, different cities and empires that stood where the main characters are standing. There is something about knowing these details that make the setting come alive, I think.

The best example of our world, in my opinion, is Greece. There are so many ancient well-known buildings: the Parthenon, the ancient temples of the gods, theaters, and the acropolis. While, for the most part, these buildings area tourism spots, the influence on the architecture even today is substantial. Does your mythical country/planet have anything from the past that exists as a window to ancient civilizations?

Here’s another thing to consider: your characters won’t all know backstory. For example, I studied ancient Mesopotamian history in college. I LOVE ancient Mesopotamia. But how many people (even those who live there now) do you think could recount the history? Vice versa, I know people who studied Chinese history in high school, and know far more about it than I ever will. I couldn’t tell you anything, except perhaps the building of the Great Wall. Your characters will not know everything there is to know, and that’s okay.

Characters don’t need to have all their history facts right, nor do they need to be spouting facts constantly to show you’ve built an immersive world. The history should be in the architecture, in the foods, in the art, and in the government. It should be on their coins and in their idioms. Their history is all around them. Remember that when writing your world-building, showing rather than telling is vital to avoiding large info dumps.

Diversity

Let’s get into diversity! Whether you are writing a Sci-Fi novel about aliens, an alternate dimension of our own world, or simply writing Middle Earth with hobbits and dwarves and orcs, diversity is an important thing to include in your novel. Look around! The world is diverse. And I’m not just talking about skin color—I’m talking about language, food/taste, disabilities, eye color, hair color, face shape, animals, plants, etc. We live in a diverse world, and a realistic planet has diversity.

Let’s start with skin color, first. On planet earth, we have skin tones of pink/tan/brown ranging from the palest of pales to the darkest of darks, and, if you look at the geographic location with skin tones, you will find the darker pigment is closest to the equator, and the lighter skins are closer to the equator. I would recommend something similar for your planet, however, keep in mind people tend to travel, so you won’t have all these people of the same ethnicities in one place—hopefully. If you do, there must be a reason why (and that’s important to know in your backstory). Even if you’re working with a blue skinned race, are they a pale blue near the poles, and a deep midnight blue around the equator? Or maybe they’re lighter green near the poles, and a royal blue around the equator.

Research while you write this. Keep in mind, cultures are often very different, and cultural identities are important to many people. Research how different people are proud of their heritages, and find things for your races to be proud of. Again, none of this has to be blatantly obvious. Your main characters (MCs) might appreciate certain foods because of their heritage, or a certain style of music, or a even a religion. Subtly adding these things will also add another layer to your characters, thus making them more relatable to those reading.

Staying on the topic of skin tone for a moment, think through racism in our world. Is there a race that believes themselves superior in your world? A race that is discriminated against? Is segregation prevalent? Are there laws in place to prevent this or to further this? Are there any prejudices?

Or, perhaps, moving away from skin tone, is there another trait discriminated against (i.e. gender, hair color, disability, etc.)? It’s important to remember there are many different types of discrimination, and they will often exist together (for example, racism and ableism and sexism exist in our world simultaneously). Are there different prejudices? How do these affect characters?

Moving onto disabilities, what are the types of disabilities on your world? For me, I tend to use human races in mine, so I use the same disabilities we would have here when I write. Think through treatment options for the disabilities (or lack thereof, as chronic illness is a real thing). What is terminal? What is acute? What is chronic? How difficult is it to get healthcare (and if you aren’t aware of the issues in healthcare on planet earth, I encourage you to do research)?

Remember, not every character on your planet will speak the same language/eat the same food/look the same. They won’t act the same, believe the same things, or experience the world the same way. Some cultures might be ridden with war, while others are thriving. Keep in mind the whole world is never at peace. The more problems in your own world, the more realistic it will seen.

I will dive more in depth into creating diverse religions/cultures/foods/races next week!

Governments

Aren’t you sick of high fantasies with monarchies (I say as I write monarchies consistently)? How many monarchies can you name in our current world? I can name only one off the top of my head (England), and while I am sure there are more (is Greece a monarchy?), there are other types of governments, and while it is okay for your MC to live in a monarchy, or to write of a monarchy, there should be other forms of government on your planet besides this very standard example.

And even in monarchies, there is diversity. There are feudal systems, and absolute monarchies. Don’t be afraid to make your governments diverse as well. Write about dictators. Write about anarchy. Write about democracy. Write about capitalism and socialism and communism.

Keep in mind, too, that your characters will not all agree with leaders. But you will also have characters that do. Be especially careful about generalizing characters and their political beliefs. Too often, I’ve read stories where [hero] is a fantastic character because they hate [rotten politician] and [bad guy] is awful because they support [rotten politician]. Life is never this black and white. Maybe [hero] likes [rotten politician]’s policies, but hates how they implement them. Maybe [bad guy] disagrees with [rotten politician]’s policy on [viewpoint] but loves that they’re willing to go to war and shed blood.

Don’t alienate people for their beliefs simply because you don’t agree with them. It’s one thing to say racism/sexism is a fault. It’s another thing to suggest that because a character believes in a subjective policy/politician, they are evil. Political beliefs are not character flaws, and be wary of generalizing your character’s political beliefs because of this.

Technology

Technology, as defined by Dictionary.com, is a scientific or industrial process, invention, method, or the like. Thus, regardless of how advanced your fictional world is, they are going to have some technology. And not all civilizations will have the same the same technology. Some will be very advanced (think first-world countries), while somewhere else on the planet, they might not even have clean water. Just because a country is advanced technologically does not mean other countries are.

Also, think through the types of technology the country would have needed based on topography/war history/common jobs. Are they farmers? If so, they might have more advanced farming tools than anything else. Are most jobs corporate? They might have computers/cell phones. Do they live near large water sources? They may have a rather advanced system of irrigation. Technology, by large, comes from what the society needs. Keep that in mind as you write.

As a side note, your characters won’t necessarily know why they have the technology they have. Much like the history/backstory, this is subtle. Important, but subtle. It’s a reason why knowing your country/world’s history is so important—you, the author, know why they have the technology they have, even if it’s never stated.

Building an immersive world, most of the time, is behind-the-scenes. Unless it is central to your plot, your readers may never know the history. They may never even know it to the extent the characters might. There will be a lot that goes unsaid, and that’s okay.

Have you ever read a book where the history is all laid out for the reader, as the author proudly boasts their world-building skills? I know, I do this all the time, too. But reading it is such an info dump, and I always lose interest. Most of the world-building you do may never make it onto the pages. It might, however, make good supplementary material for your readers. More than that, knowing your world will help you write a better novel. You will be a better writer for it.

This concludes Part 1 of My Guide to World-Building. I hope you found some of the information on here useful. Check back next week for Part 2. Happy writing!

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