Crafting Universes in Your Head
Updated: Jan 31
There are three kinds of people in the world: people who make rules, people who follow rules, and people who don’t care about the rules. The reason why world building is such a tough thing for most authors is because you have to force yourself to be all three of these. Now, it’s important to recognize that world building does not just mean the physical world. While it’s great to have the names of places and locations, as well as an idea of their appearance, no world is complete without a societal form.
That being said, when it comes to world building, the most important thing to look at is character interactions in regards to the world as well as perspective. For example, if your entire world is a barren desert wasteland that is constantly upwards of a hundred degrees, it wouldn’t make much sense for the people who have lived there for all of history to complain about it being hot. For them, that’s just another Tuesday. However, if someone from an ice planet were to step foot on it, they might never stop complaining about the temperature. It just depends on perspective.
When building your world, try to come up with a list of questions about what is similar and what is different from the world we live in. Things like:
What is technology like in relation to our world?
What sort of political turmoils are present?
Does magic exist? If so, is it common place, somewhat unusual, or is it rare?
How do the cultures of your world interact?
How strict are the laws in your world?
What sort of food do the people eat?
Now comes the tricky part: putting it into your story. One of the biggest mistakes that can be made when world building is the infodump. Keep the details subtle. If your world is one where magic is common, then show it by the fact that when your main character is casting fireballs, no one really seems shocked by his ability to do so. Introduce elements as they arise, not all at the beginning. Dialogue is a great place to put in exposition, so long as you don’t have someone being too detailed about it. You want it to feel natural to your readers.
For example, in my book Warren High, a few things about the world are evident without having to expressly state them outright. We know that the world is full of anthropomorphic animals, capable of speech, reading, writing, and walking on two legs. We see they have technology similar to ours (as most of the students own a cellphone). The supernatural is uncommon, and like in our world, some are skeptical and others are believers. None of this is told, but it is shown throughout the book.
A master of world building was Sir Terry Pratchet (may he rest in peace). Every book in his discworld series starts out with a small info dump: The story takes place in discworld, which as its name implies is a disk, on the back of four elephants, standing on the back of a giant turtle flying through space. They have night and day caused by a strange and intricate path of the sun that requires one of the elephants to lift its leg to allow it to pass. After that though, everything you learn about the world as well as the main city of Ankh-Morpork comes from character interactions, well done exposition, and plot driven narrative.
The key thing to remember is that once you’ve made your world building questions, you don’t have to answer them in the book all at the same time. Your readers will be intelligent enough to piece some things together on their own, so remain subtle and natural. There’s no reason to outright tell the audience details of the world when you can show it.