Getting world-building ‘right’ seems to be a fascination with many writers. Panels at cons, podcasts, and blogs on this subject are ever-popular and seem to loom large compared to those on character, plot, tension, pace, and all the other things that come together to make a good story.
I wonder if this demand is because people think if they get world-building right everything else will fall into place. To a degree I think that’s a good argument. A well-realised environment – by which I mean society, technology, history, geography and so on, all according to the needs of your current work – all help limit plot and character arc to what is possible within that world. Until it doesn’t. Or maybe it’s that some writers think they have more of a handle on everything else. Let me know.
From this perspective you could say a story has three main ingredients: world, character, and plot (though I might argue over beers that none of these actually exist, they are just summoned by the writer into the mind of the reader so they feel as if they are real. No matter.) Each one affects the other two, constraining or directing the way the tale unfolds. As with an artist at their easel, a limited palette in writing is often of great benefit.
1. Word Building needs Breadth and Depth
One of the things I like about writing in SFF and adjacent genres is you get to make everything up. It’s also one of the hard things, because you have to make everything up. Depending on the scale of the story this may include geography, civilization(s), climate, religion(s), architecture, languages, history, and more.
I’ve read more than one story where it feels like the characters are walking through some kind of studio set and you could step off the path and bang your hand on the backdrop, no matter how beautifully it may be painted. How do you avoid that?
My best tip for worldbuilding is that you must write your characters as if they live in their own world. If you do nothing else, do that. Nothing about their everyday world should be extraordinary to them, and therefore they won’t necessarily comment. You, on the other hand can describe them going about their lives. Fishermen go fishing for girl-faced lobster, and hand fish. Back in town people buy them off the boat or in the market, take them home and cook them up. It’s not unusual for them, but for us the names of those sea creatures hopefully bring a picture with them, and a sense of being elsewhere.
So the road is long, it never rains on Tuesday, the tax collector is a right bastard. Then, when the journey is quick, it does rain, or the tax man pleads for a favour, you are there with them. You know the world is no longer as it should be just as well as they do.
3. Ingredient or garnish?
I’m just going to say this – there’s too much walking up hill and down dale in Lord of the Rings. That’s not world building, it’s boring. If you want to see how the world bit of world-building is done well, read Jack Vance. Lyonesse or Night Lamp are good places to start. For more recent work, try Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time. or Kameron Hurley’s The Stars are Legion. Or go back to a favourite author of your own who, when you’ve finished their books, have left the little ache in your heart and mind that tells you have actually been somewhere real. Read their work carefully and notes on how they achieved this effect or that. It’s what I did.
You might find what I discovered, that world-building is neither ingredient nor garnish, but a spice, present throughout the entire dish, often only notable by its absence. But it’s there, and sometimes those grand vistas of landscape or vast technologies, or small details of daily life, all briefly sketched with pen and mind will make you stop reading for a moment and sit and wonder.
4. Be Specific
With shorter work it’s the same, but you simply don’t have the space to show everything, so decide on what is essential. Characters clothes, relationships, their jobs and the things in their pockets all add to the world.
No culture ever has ever called their currency ‘gold’. Pieces of eight, solidos, sequins; all these words bring a vibe. This is just good writing. Always be as specific about things as you can. This doesn’t mean you need to be wordy. Trousers can be shabby, leather, patched, russet, tied with string. All are better than ‘she pulled on her trousers’ because they tell you things about the person wearing them too. Make your words work.
5. Don’t stop.
Keep inventing as your characters move through your worlds. Ideas are cheap, you will always have more. Yes, it can get a bit exhausting but it needs to be done. Maybe you’ll sprinkle this in as you go along, maybe you’ll need an editing pass. You can do it. You’re a writer.
This isn’t all of it, it never is. If you think you’ve arrived and know it all it’s because you’ve reached a creative dead-end.
Writing is a continuous process of learning, experiment, refinement, finding your own path and voice for a particular story or your own writing voice. All these can change as you change. Writing may change your writing as much as life. Nevertheless, enjoy, have some fun. Serious fun.
David Gullen has sold over 50 short stories to various magazines, anthologies and podcasts. He is a two-times winner of the British Fantasy Society Short Story competition, his work has appeared in The Best of British SF 2020, and 2021, with other work short-listed for the James White Award and placed in the Aeon Award. David was born in Africa and baptised by King Neptune He has lived in England most of his life and been telling stories for as long as he can remember. He currently lives behind several tree ferns in South London with his wife, fantasy writer Gaie Sebold, and the nicest cat you ever did see. Find out more at www.davidgullen.com.