I know I'm in my own little world, but it's OK.
They know me here...


Friday, July 9, 2010

CRAFT: How Do I World-Build?

In the third post in this series we'll look at what elements make up world building. It's the practical part, where you get to ask yourself lots of questions and apply them in the context of the book you're writing.

So, where do we begin world building when we have no idea where to start?

I discovered plenty of comprehensive checklists of elements essential to world building and character development in articles and books as I researched this topic. Too many to cover in the space of this post. So I’ve combine a smattering of those with some our authors mentioned in the previous post.


Environment – What is the world your characters inhabit? What life forms are there? Are there any physical features such as continents or landforms? Ecosystems? What are the locations of any cities & towns? Does weather or climate play a part in your story? Will these factors influence your characters culture, lifestyles, shelter, food production or types of clothing?

I like to draw maps of the places where my characters live, putting in details of topography, territories or borders, cities and place names and often thumb through information books or travel guides to get a visual image of the landscapes to accompany them.

Culture – What building blocks make up your characters life? Do they have government, religion, an economy, values, language or dialects, beliefs, social classes, education, family structures, law, the arts or leisure activities? How do these issues relate to marriage, sexual relationships or death?

All these things will influence your characters thoughts, behaviour and actions. The foundations of culture can come from your imagination or you can draw on aspects of past & present societies from our own world history. This is where research comes in. A lot of fun can be had hunting for information, whether you surf the ‘net or visit the local library. Note taking is a definite must and don’t forget to reference where you found your ideas as there’s nothing worst than losing a great source of information when you want it again.

Alternatively, post a query on the on-line loops – there’s a wealth of information among our own members for all sorts of things or they can refer you to a site, article or book if they don’t.

Technology – Is your society/culture industrial or pre-industrial? What forms of machinery, communication and transport exist? Have they achieved space travel? Who uses the technology in your world? The military? An undercover cop? Everyday Joe and Jane? A specific race or culture? How does it impact on your characters lives? Do they have a phobia associated with technology?

Clothing – What does your character wear? Does their environment dictate the style? Will their culture or class influence their choice? Do male and female clothes differ? What fabrics make up their clothes? Does their employment require a certain image?

Language or communication – Do your characters speak another language or dialect? Will their conversation be interspersed with words from their native tongue? Do you need to make up your own language? Have you considered giving a character a speech affectation (eg. a stutter, a lisp, an accent)?

Depending on your genre your choice of vocabulary and the grammatical structure of the sentences your characters speak may vary (eg. think of Yoda from Star Wars). Language isn’t just confined to verbal communication. Gestures, sign, sounds, and mannerisms are all facets of language.

In one of my stories I have a young character who’s mute as a result of a childhood trauma. He communicates using sign and I indicate this through the use of gesture and italics. In the same book I have an alien who has a sibilant hiss in her speech. In another, the colour of my heroines eyes change with the moods she’s experiencing.

Sex – Does culture affect your characters views on this subject? What practices are acceptable? Frowned upon? Are there any taboos or restrictions? Do your characters have relationships, love or is it just for the purpose of reproduction? What sexual preferences are the norm in your world? Will marriage be a pre-requisite to having sex? What slang words do your characters use associated with sex?

(eg.Nalini Singh uses the term “skin privileges” in her Changeling series. It refers to who has the right to touch one another in their Packs. Here’s how she explains it – “Because touch is such an intimate thing, it depends on each individual as to what level and to whom, they will accede the right to skin privileges.” **)

By no means are these the only categories you should consider when world building. They’re just a starting point. Many of the sub-categories mentioned within the larger ones can be teased out as well. It all depends on each writer’s needs.

Play the “What If…” game when you ask questions about the categories. Dig deep on the who, what, where, when, why or how this affects or influences your world and characters. One of the benefits is that you’ll discover conflicts, plot twists & sub-plots for your characters coming from the answers.
Now, once you’ve built this world, do you include every little detail?

No. Not if you want to bore your readers to death. Details are good for the likes of writing for Encyclopedia Britannica or Lonely Planet.

Details, in this instant, provide you with knowledge. The confidence of this knowledge will come through in the tone of your writing. You’ll write the story from the inside out.

Join me next week for the final post when I summarise the points I've made over the last few weeks about world-building.

Quotes used in the posts:
* “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto” article by Maree Anderson from her website (www.mareeanderson.com)
** Nalini Singh website – web-link called Behind the Scenes re: “skin privileges” (www.nalinisingh.com/psy.html)
*** Worlds of Wonder – How to write science fiction & fantasy – David Gerrold (Titan Books 2001)


  1. Excellent post, Kylie.

    As I read it, I couldn't help thinking the very same principles apply even when you're writing in everyday life here and now. Writers like Bron Parry are creating a world in an environment most of us just drive through in the blink of an eye. The people, places and language may be similar, but it's drawing out the differences and giving them context that shows the writer's skill.

    Thanks for a couple of 'light bulb' moments :-)

  2. Totally agree with you here, Helene. They're a versatile bunch of questions easily skewed to suit any genre.

    And glad this was helpful to you.