By Ronda Simmons
originally published July 16, 2019
Never one to pass up a bargain, I recently attended a free class taught by Trai Cartwright at the Old Town Library on World Building. I don’t write science fiction or fantasy, but since Trai was teaching, I decided to go because a) Trai is hilarious, b) she’s also an effective teacher, and c) I might learn something.
And boy, did I!
World Building isn’t just for sci-fi/fantasy. Any story we tell has to be set somewhere, and that somewhere needs rules. And for some genres, setting is much more than where or when the story takes place.
With Trai’s permission, here’s the low down:
There are three main realms of world-building:
Physical – geography, cities, nations, species, weather, physics, etc. This includes specialized physics, like magic and supernatural phenomenon.
Sensory – looks, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch.
Social – history, politics, religion, culture, class, language including dialects and slang.
Another aspect of your story is the fundamental ‘who’ of your character. Think about your protagonist, remembering that the protagonist doesn’t automatically mean hero. Your protagonist is the character from whose point of view we experience the story.
Questions to ask:
How does your main character’s position in society influence her motivation?
Is she trying to fix her world, or defend it?
Is she a champion or an outsider?
What is the point of conflict? Her faction versus an opposing faction? Her society versus another world? Her versus a villain from within her own world?
Like any other aspect of writing, for example, backstory, it’s easy to go overboard on World Building. Here’s how a writer can go wrong:
Going into too much detail. You only need to write about the aspects of your world that are pertinent to the story. You might have worked out the genealogy of the ruling class, but unless it’s necessary, your reader will get bored and, GASP, stop reading.
Now thinking about basics and ask yourself:
What do they eat?
Where do they sleep?
Who cleans the toilets?
Why is the ruling class in power?
What drives the economy?
Having an ornate society that has no connection whatsoever to the folks who grow the food/clean the stables/de-frag the photon torpedoes is just not believable. You may not have to cover the minutia, but some exploration can help flesh out your world.
Putting more effort into world-building than in telling a good story. Only Tolkien can get away with that. Include world-building to enrich the story, not to impress your friends.
“Should I add another species to Middle Earth? Flying Monkeys perhaps?”
I am noodling around with a new story. I think I’m going to set it in the 1980s in a small town like the one I grew up in. Should I bother with World Building? Heck, yes. I’ll need to study up on the politics of the times, popular music, social norms.
I doubt I’ll write about politics, but I better have a grasp of the basics from the ’80s to avoid making a mistake, like referring to the Green Party, which wasn’t founded until 2001. Or having my protagonist listen to alternative rock music, which didn’t really go mainstream until the 1990s.
The resurgence of ’80s fashions isn’t happening fast enough. Who doesn’t want to see this make a comeback?
Researching the ’80s might sound like a drag, but I also get to dive into the styles, which is going to be totally tubular.
For more on World Building, check out these websites