By Riley Amos Westbrook
I love world building: the stage at which you create literally everything about your world. Magic, religions, realism, everything down to the length of shoelaces if you want to delve that far. All of them are on the table at this stage, and all offer their own benefit.
In this article I’m going to talk about different aspects of world building, and try to offer some examples from my own experiences.
The image you see
I tend to “watch” the books I write, like a movie in my head. In truth, the hardest part of writing to me is translating the image in my head to words. However, the more in depth you go, the better you paint the scene for your readers to enjoy.
You need to be careful though, as going too far in depth can pull your readers away from the story.
I was talking to my mother the other day about this very subject. She was reading a detective novel that she was really enjoying. Great pacing, fun and realistic characters - almost the perfect book. The thing that detracted from the score? How in depth the author went about painting the environment. They worked so hard at putting you in the moment that it just didn't work. Here’s where I think authors who have art of their works get an advantage.
Missy, for example, has a rich and vibrant world full of magic and fairies. She does a wonderful job of describing just enough to let your imagination fill in the blanks. However, if her readers struggle, she has pictures and paintings she can show them. Then they have a direct glimpse into her mind.
Dancing the line between too much description and too little is a challenge for every author, but there are steps you can take to prevent it. I tend to ask myself two questions:
- Does it further the plot?
- Is it important for my readers to know this?
If the answer is no to either of those questions, then I ignore the idea.
I tend to start with Gods for my worlds, I don't know why, it just seems to help with my story making process. Establishing an order of worship, even if that worship is nothing, makes some decisions easier with my characters.
First things first, you need to decide if you want Gods in your book. Even if your story is an atheistic world where everyone believes God is a sham, or they don't even have a concept of Gods, you can’t skip this step. Whether or not your characters speak to a higher power can shape just about everything on your world.
Just look at our real life examples with religions that teach peace and love having zealots that can cause massive amounts of damage. Those same people can band together to affect immense changes for good in the world.
Monotheistic versus polytheistic is the next decision. An all powerful singular God, or many Gods with wide and varied powers? Are you the God? If it's an atheistic world, is God dead?
I tend to focus on worlds with many Gods. I feel it adds variety and helps to make characters easier to differentiate. Even though I don't mention Gods in my stories much at all, how I shape this aspect of a character/world completely changes how I write it. I have to consider their actions in connection with their fate, and adjust the story accordingly.
Cities and population centers
Another aspect of world building that can affect a wide range of plot points. The larger your setting the louder the environment of your character will be. In Breath Of The Titans I needed to make the different areas have another level of sound that separated the different areas. It wasn't something I really considered until I started writing the story.
For instance, a large city is going to be much louder than the towns. A hive of underground insects will sound different than a city above ground.
When I wrote Everyone Dies At The End, I had to consider what zombies would sound like. I needed to include shuffling steps and groans, the way their rotting skin smelled putrid, and how they spread the disease gave sights and sounds of more disgust. I admit, I made this choice from the start as I built the world.
And it isn't just noise; it's every sense. Smell, taste, touch, all can be affected differently by the environment.
A bakery in town is going to add a lot of great smells and noise, and a forge is going to do the same, but the sights and smells they create are nothing alike. (*Note From Ann: If you've ever driven into downtown Kansas City, MO, you immediately know that The Roasterie is there as you can smell the coffee beans from inside your car - even with your windows rolled up!)
The businesses you fill your population centers with will give you little sounds to fill the air with. Remember to consider these things when you are writing, to better draw in your readers.
Foreshadowing and prophecy
If you are going to include prophecy or foreshadowing it is best to start it early. If you build your prophecy/foreshadowing directly into the world it becomes much easier to share with your readers.
I’ve helped Christina McMullen with a few projects, and she does an excellent job of this. As she creates her characters and the world around them, she melds her character creation and world building to shape her story. I won’t ruin the story, but you can see what I’m talking about if you read A Space Girl From Earth.
Building a world from the ground up means you can bring anything into existence. You aren't limited by anything other than your imagination, which is probably why I love doing it.
G.G. did a great job of this with her legacy series. She took some of your usual tropes, and twisted them around to fit her narrative. She didn't force it, but she guided it with great skill.
In conclusion, don’t be afraid to world build. Revel in it, love it, and learn how to best use it to shape the story you want to tell. One word at a time.