Essays, Misc

Musings about World-Building

Today’s post is inspired by a post on Constance Burris’s blog in which I was tagged.

Constance wrote:
‘My first novel is almost complete and ready for publication. I can feel it. I can taste it. I can see it being published and being great. But……+Dyane Forde pointed out that my world is flat.

Well Dang.

I closed my eyes, crossed my fingers, and I’d hoped that I’d done enough to make my world passable and none of my critique partners would say anything. But someone did. And now that someone did I have to admit this to myself:

my world building is just f*cking lazy.’

​Of course, now she had my attention. (If you’re curious about how the article concludes, I encourage you to check it out). The idea for this article came to me when I started to consider how I went about world-building.

Now, I come from a short story and poetry background and only started writing novels about 3 years ago. Most of my stories are in the 1000 word area or less, though I sometimes venture into the 2000+ range. Though I do write longer pieces, I love the concise, tight nature of the shorter versions because I like to produce works that people can enjoy in a short sitting, sort of like an ‘amuse-bouche’ for foodies. Usually this means that descriptions of places, things, and characters are limited to the bare essentials in order to focus on the story rather than its parts (even if those parts are important and assist in the telling of that story). But writing a novel is different. In them, you have spaaaaaaace (pages) to fill in all those blanks. And especially in the realm of the fantastic, elements like setting and context (social, political, geographical, era, culture, etc.) are essential. Just as important is the ability to develop characters which are connected to their environment. Without these, a story can come off feeling flat, undeveloped or simply boring. So how do you go about developing the ability to create a world with depth?

Before I go on, let me say that I am not a master world-builder. I don’t sit down with spreadsheets or clever programs and list every type of food this or that people group eats or what they wear in different seasons, nor do I make in depth family trees of the main and secondary characters. I do research things which are necessary to make my world feel real, like learning the proper names of tools/articles I’m unfamiliar with, watching fight scenes on YouTube, or researching topography and geography to make sure my land masses and their corresponding weather/seasonal changes make sense. But all this came later. The first book I ever wrote was all of seven chapters and it basically told the story of what happened to the main character and her eagle friend and little else. Obviously, I had a problem.

So what follows are a few thoughts on what helped me make the leap from short and sweet stories to full length fantasy novels.

1) Learn to see your created world as a character. This is an excerpt from my response to Constance’s post I mentioned above: “…The one thing I can suggest for anyone trying to deal with this is to treat your world like a character. Give it a mood/tone, make it come alive with colours and smells and textures. There’s nothing worse than reading a dead description. But make it come alive with these elements and you suddenly have a vibrant backdrop for your characters and they now feel grounded in something ‘real’. Best of all, it’s much more fun to write. :)” Okay, nice advice but how do you do that?

Think of a house. The decorations inside and outside as well as its overall condition can stir impressions about its history and the people who live there before the owners open their mouths to share about it. Who cares if you’re wrong? The point is there is a story to be told in these details which make up the whole. When you think of the world you’re building, who lives in it? Who lived there before and how did they influence those who are there now? What is their economy built on? How do people marry and procreate? What is the world outside of this village/town/city composed of? And so on. These are all details that when put together make a whole world. Granted, everyone will differ in terms of how deep they go in this exploration, and in the end, you might not use all the details you come up with. But just having them in mind gives you plenty of material to work with and before you know it, you’ll have many more tools to build with than you thought.

The point is to learn to connect with our story environment in the same way we do in our natural environment. None of us lives in a vacuum but in a society. We each have our own stories, histories and backgrounds, and all of our actions affect those around us just as we are affected by them. We are essentially characters in our own stories. I think once we make that connection, it becomes easier to transpose the idea to the worlds we are building.

2)​ Learn to make new environments feel real. This is something I really enjoy doing because it allows me to get into a character’s head and experience the environment at the same time they do. So when they walk outside first thing in the morning and the wind and sun hit their skin just so, I ‘feel’ it too, as well as the sensations which go along with it. Whatever the character touches, smells, and sees, I’m right there with them sensing those as well. Writing from this perspective creates an immersive experience for both the writer and the reader. I believe that because the reader has become a participant and is connected sensually, intellectually and emotionally to the story, it becomes easier for them to ‘buy into’ a new world, even if that world is not perfectly laid out or detailed.

So what do you have to say on the matter? This is just my two cents on what has worked for me. What’s worked for you? Any suggestions to anyone seeking to overcome this challenge?

21 thoughts on “Musings about World-Building

  1. Great read and advice … Still trying to get there. I am still very much a poetry/short story person but will certainly take this on board. Thank you for sharing your insight into writing Dyane.


  2. Thanks for tagging my post and going into more detail about worldbuilding. I’ve been editing my chapters with that in mind: treating my world as a character. And its helping a lot. Hopefully you will notice the difference in my next submission to you.


  3. Very well stated. I love the world as a character idea.

    I tell people, when they’re writing descriptions, to remember to include all five senses. We don’t just walk into a room and look around, we hear things, smell things. Things have textures. And, what we experience isn’t what’s in the room. Rather, we experience our emotional reactions to the room. Have the character respond to the environment. That way, you’ve tied the world to the people in it. Just don’t describe everything. There is such a thing as too much.


    1. 🙂 I started to write that in the article but it got edited out. But that’s exactly true. When was the last time you walked into a room and noted the colour of the tablecloth on the table? (Someone actually criticized me for leaving out that detail in a story). Or how many chairs are around the table and if your host has a ‘smoothly curving jawline’ or ‘a flat nose’ or wears a blue shirt? We might see these things but they are not what engages us; a listing of such details do not make interesting for reading. But rather, it’s the smell of baking bread in a kitchen first thing in the morning, the feel of the wind on our skin as it enters thru the window, the creaking chair we are offered to sit in, etc., the things that stir the senses and trigger our emotions which make the difference. :). Thx for bringing that up.


  4. I can’t help but feel like you’re making fun of me when you say you don’t create spreadsheets about details of your world .
    1) ‘See your world as a character.’ Love it. I’ll take it a different direction and that is to also see how your world AFFECTS your MCs. The significance of a living, interactive world in a story is that that world can affect the character’s decision, or lead to specific consequences that can change the outlook of the story. This is huge if you think about it! For instance, let’s say one of your characters rips a piece of paper. No biggie, right? Now, let’s say that in your world paper is rare and priceless. Suddenly, this simple act takes on a whole new context and voila, you’ve got a powerful scene going.
    2) Great points about hitting all the senses. One thing to add is the importance of show vs. tell in this case. For instance, you’ll lull a reader to sleep if you say things like “It was dry and hot” too often. Now, if you were to say, “I coughed myself awake, the dryness in my throat from the dusty desert air was like having sandpaper rubbed along my gullet,” it can be more effective.
    Great post.


    1. Lol You know me too well, Mr. P! ;P

      (Ahem) Yes! Excellent points. I think that by changing how we see world-building, as something dynamic and almost ‘organic’ versus simply a task that must be done in order to have any sort of story, then we’ve opened the door to increased creativity and improved motivation. 🙂


  5. I like the comment about making it feel real. I hate it when I read about a world that is so perfect, and mundane, that I can’t even relate to it. The little details are the things that make places the most connectable, you know what I mean? I read that post by Constance as well- it’s an excellent post!


    1. I’m so glad you mentioned how it’s the details which make a world relatable and feel real. I’d tried adding more of that idea in the post but it was getting long. But thanks for highlighting that point. Oh, and thanks for checking out Constance’s post as well! 🙂


  6. Pingback: sources tell me

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s