Thursday, May 12, 2011

On Building Worlds

I hate worldbuilding.

That's pretty awful, considering I write science fiction and fantasy.  I mean, all genres need strong worldbuilding, but if one is creating a world from scratch, it's definitely more work.  The rules of the world have to work.

In fact, there have to be rules to begin with, or the world won't be consistent.

And, yeah.  I hate the time and energy it takes to think these things through.

I can say with some authority that it is vastly easier to write in a world that already exists.  My WIP, which is currently undergoing post-beta revisions, is set in two worlds:  the real one (on the Jersey shore), and an alternate reality (in my brain).

Guess which chapters are stronger.

To be fair, I've been to this particular beach town a dozen times.  It's my Favorite Place On Earth.  Mr. A and I honeymooned there.  We've fantasized about moving there (too expensive).

In short, I know the place.  And other than changing a few names and Googling the main drag to double check the names of cross streets, it wasn't hard to plunk my characters in the middle of a place that already exists.

Now, you'd think I would also know a place I've created myself.  In fact, you'd think a place like this would reveal its intimate details to me in such a way that I start believing it's a REAL PLACE.  And, naturally, this would be reflected with ease in the unfolding of my story.

Um, nope.

Because--and I'll bet many of you will relate to this--I see bits of my world and I understand them, and then I make the (deadly) assumption that everyone else will understand them, too.  I describe just enough to create the setting and hint at facts I feel may be important, and I go on my merry way.

And then the beta readers come back with a big, fat HUH???

Oh.  My partially-developed-and-not-well-explained world doesn't make sense?

WELL, WHY NOT?? It makes sense to me!

Okay, I don't say that.  I mean, I used to say that, back when I was writing Novel One (*shudder*) and Novel Two (*groan*).  But not anymore.  I really do understand the mechanics of worldbuilding now.  And the importance of clarity.

I still hate it, though.  And I still consistently fall short.

Which admittedly makes me feel incompetent.

It's funny.  I'm a visual-spatial learner, which means I have to SEE things to truly understand them.  And I think that works against me when I worldbuild, because you can't exactly SEE what's in your imagination.

You might think drawing a map would help someone like me, yes?  But I hate drawing maps and actually suck at it.  Which is probably directly related to the fact that I am irreparably directionally challenged.

It's true.  I hold up the thumb and index finger of my left hand to make the letter "L" in order to know which way is left.

So, yeah.  That makes things even worse.

Anyway.  I know there's hope for my WIP, because my YA dystopian moved from "Huh?" to repeated compliments on my worldbuilding.  I can do this thing.

I just hate it.

Some of you love worldbuilding.  I WISH I COULD BE LIKE YOU.  Maybe if you tell me WHY you love it, I'll catch some of your enthusiasm.  And maybe if you tell me HOW you do it, I'll learn something new that just might lessen my struggle a bit.

I'm ready to take notes...


  1. I have an academic background in Folklore and Anthropology, so I have a lot of fun imagining one difference and then seeing how the rest of the world changes.

    Example: A story I have on the market now presumes a two-sex but three-gender society with triadic marriages. I started with the idea of three-person marriages, then filled out the rest of that society.

    The big trick for me is going from world-building to story-building. Once I have a setting, I need to find a personal story inside that setting which highlights the ways that the social difference creates a dramatic problem. Without character, setting is neat, but ultimately empty.

    What I don't care as much about is geographical world-building -- lake goes here, mountains there, and so on.

  2. I have no advice, but I have to say...I'm so glad I'm not the only one. I have the same problem when I create new worlds and rules. If everyone could just see what I was thinking...writing would be so much easier...

    I cheat. My spouse is an amazing world builder, so I throw out the idea, watch it grow in front of me, and then steal back the bits I like and try and make sure I write them down.

  3. The only HOW for me is constant immersion in the world. Kind of like how going to another country will help you learn the language faster. I spend HOURS in the worlds I build. While doing chores, while driving, while showering, while working. Anytime that I have a moment where I don't have to think of anything else I'm there. I'm watching the minor characters. I'm going back in time to find out how things came to be the way they were. I'm listening to whispered secrets in the middle of the night.

    I love it :) Except when I get in trouble for not paying attention to my husband cause I'm in another world while he talks about his day ;P

  4. I'm not a reader that gets super obsessed with the world I'm reading about, so this is one of my struggles as a writer as well. I'm always focused on the characters and what they're up to and what their motivations are as both a reader and a writer. A lot of my rewwriting/revision time goes to clarifying world details.

    I'm also not the type of reader who needs everything handed to me. In fact, over description will get me to abandon a book perhaps more than some other things. Once again, this causes me problems as a writer in regards to world building.

    However, the part I do like about world building is stealing something that I find interesting or intriguing in my own world and building the fictional world around that. I like to think of it as a twist on reality, not a completely new reality.:)

  5. I tend to write "worlds" that are set in our world, but unknown, so it's easier to make comparisons or contrast what's different, especially since there's usually some sort of pov character who is new to the "world", and needs things explained. This is the challenging part, though, because you don't want to infodumnp.

    Like In Harry Potter's classes, we learn a little about magic but mostly we learn how he suspects Snape or how Malfoy is being a jerk. There's always something else going on in addition to the world-building, so characterization and world-building go together.

    Hope that helps!

  6. I'm unfortunately addicted to worldbuilding, as a hobby.

    I made a big universe to play in, years ago, and I'm still learning new things about it. Faced with a gigantic fantasy epic that was drowning in too many plotlines, I backed off and looked at another part of my universe's made-up history. Now I have a smaller, leaner, much more fun space opera. Because I already established a cosmology, history, and series of cultures, I know the basic setting. The characters and plot just grew out of that.

    Worldbuilding is great, if you're the kind of person who gets lost in Wikipedia, and thinks that research is its own reward. The rest of humanity, of course, will call you insane.

  7. I love world building because you have complete control of your environment. Working through the "if this, then that" stuff can be taxing. I like to do a little historical research on ancient myths for inspiration and then plot forward from there. Obscure legends, myths, missing persons or mysterious circumstances that were never explained usually provide a good jumping off point.
    I also like to write "laws" for my worlds to help me keep things straight, and to keep special abilities or "powers" in balance. This keeps me from running into the Superman conundrum. It's not fun to watch Supe go after "normals" because you just really want to see him punch somebody, and he'd kill a regular mortal.
    Lastly, don't try to make the world perfect. When people say "that doesn't make sense", consider that our world doesn't make a lot of sense all the time either. Sometimes the answer for "Why is it like that?" is just because leaders don't always make perfect plans or think everything through. So don't be afraid to have some of those twists in there. Your world should be shaped by the characters who live in it - characters who are flawed and real make a world believable - whether it has three suns or just SPF 50 wearing vampires. :)

  8. If you're going to go to the lengths of creating a place for the heroes, rather than using the convenient one right outside your door, then I feel you HAVE to love it as much as the humanoid characters. I mean, that world means as much to them as this one does to you. That world gave them life, that world affects them. They're probably going to view it as either adversary, parent or ally, not a 2D backdrop to critique. It deserves every bit as much attention as the people. Awesomeness is in the details and the more you (and your narrator) know about those details (and which ones to pick and choose from), the more memorable the story is.

    And anyway, world-building is the best puzzle out there! I imagine it's similar to what an animatronics engineer feels like (wondering, who will see the hinges? Am I good enough to fool them?). I peruse my world as a warm-up before continuing the story. It helps me figure out what the characters are dealing with and while people are basically the same the world over, the natural things they have to survive are not. You get a feel for the characters' personalities, what they notice, how they respond, their skills, how even the culture was shaped. On 1+ occasion the quirks of my world have rescued a scene. SFF is a great genre for taking emotions we recognize and age old stories we can recite in our sleep and throwing them into a fresh situation.

    As a visual-spatial kid myself, I understand the necessity of pictures and videos. And, really, there are only two solutions: you either make it or you find it. I've scoured the local library,, youtube, travel shows, educational movies, the CG Society, searched for old-old maps of cities, filled sketchbooks, and ransacked google images. I've sat in the forest, watched animals, visited caverns and stood in the rain. You do what it takes.

  9. It's hard for me to make nonexistent things feel tangible. I agree with Anonymous in that finding visual cues is super helpful. If I can't see it, no one else will be able to.

  10. Since I practice meditation and shamanic trance journeys, I find being in the other world and operating under a different set of rules, possibilities and limits very comfortable. What is difficult for me is being in ordinary reality where gravity holds on for dear life! And as I age I more and more understand gravity is not our friend.

  11. What I do, is I just write the book, and every time I put something in which is a reflection of the special "world", I mark it with a sqyare bracket [. When I get to the end of darft 1 I will go back and make sure all these marked bits add and are consistent. I also use square brackets on bits of text about what my charcaters are wearing, any references to backstory and so on. I'm hoping this will work!

  12. I'm glad I'm not the only adult who is directionally challenged. Left? Right? When in doubt I just point. My DH thinks it's hilarious.

    For wordbuilding I either draw pictures of important places that I know I'm going to have to go back to over and over again, or if I see a picture online or in a magazine that strikes a chord, I save it and make it a part of my WIP.

  13. I love world building, but you're right it's tons of work. For me diving into a new place of my own creation is fun and exciting and one of my favorite parts of writing. But if I don't keep meticulous notes and draw maps for my locations I get hopelessly turned around.

  14. Some really nice ideas in the comments, by the way. I do enjoy worldbuilding, but when I sat down to do it, I found a reason for why it was so important.

    I'm not degreed in history, anthropology or any related such things. My closest affiliation is that I tracked hurricanes as a kid, and was fascinated by their patterns.

    But what I know of history, the universal truths, is that cultures are always influenced by their geography. The Vikings, for instance, were just farmers and fishermen who needed more land for their growing population. The Mongols relied on horses because their lands were too harsh and spread out to rely on walking.

    So, when I have a vision for a tribe in my fantasy writing, I take their traits and figure out the geographical context that would suit their general outlook.

    The Elves live in trees. Why? Because their enemies can't climb trees. The Humans on the coast are religious and superstitious. Why? Because great storms come off of the ocean and follow the currents and tend to just barely miss them (most of the time). Northerners, in almost all tales, are harsh and cruel and wear furs - because they live in a cold and barren icy environment.

    Instead of creating fantasy monsters, I just look at some of the weird creatures on our own planet. Truly, a rhinocerous is a fantastically scary beast. Armored with a horn? Who needs Dragons when there's flying dinosaurs? Etc.

    The short answer is, your world may be easier to build if the basic layout just makes sense to you. Then instead of fretting over it, you can say, "Oh right, because of this and that."

    Hope this helps. :-)

  15. I adored this post. It reminded me of my first book.

  16. I'm right there with you! I love writing in imaginary worlds, but actually creating those worlds, with intelligent details and inner consistency? It's not exactly my greatest strength.

  17. I wish I had some great advice for you, but I'm in the same sinking boat as you are. =(

    If it makes you feel better, I have drawn a map (two in fact) and it hasn't helped that much. Oh sure, it helped me "visualize" the world, but making up the rules and being sure they all work can't be drawn into a map . . . or at least not by me. =)

    I'd be happy to draw you a map if you think it would help you with your world building. Just download your imagination onto a flash drive so I can transfer it into my brain. ;-)

    Seriously though, I'm taking notes on the advice others have posted and will be checking back for more!

  18. Liquid story binder. Go check it out. Pure genius! It has been a life saver for my fantasy.

  19. My imagination is like wild stallion running free. I love worldbuilding. I'm in a fantasy WIP now, and here's how I approached it. I knew there had to be schools, a mian school and a rival. For the main school i drew a map (rough mind you) from main entrance to buildings to pathways to housing to all exits. And I first had my MC walking through it, I was very literal about which direction he went and using the five senses. I had a student give him a tour in which he met other important students along the way, not all at once.
    For the main school I had to come up with teachers, classes, curriculums, days of the week,
    Then I wanted to nail down things like food, transportation, body composition, what they could do, what they couldn't do, how they got they're abilities, limitations of their abilities.
    But really, in terms of making the world come to life, I had to completely inhabit my MC's mind and eyes... and he told me what he saw when he gor there. I exprienced it fresh as he did.

  20. If anyone is interested, I did a blog about world building about a year ago. You can read it at

    It also has another link to a site (not mine) with a free world building tutorial. You give it fifteen minutes a day for 30 days, and at the end, you have your world built. I believe you can do it faster than that if you want, although I'm not positive. It's been a while since I've been there. It might help those who have a hard time with this stuff.

  21. I guess that I'm one of those people you envy. I LOVE worldbuilding. For me, it's a chance to lay everything out without the boundaries of story structure or even language. It's a chance to sit back and allow my imagination to take an abstract idea, and slowly mold it into a setting or character or plot.

    I prefer to go on long, peaceful walks when I am creating. I don't take any notes with me, I just walk, looking at the landscape, listening to nature, without anyone or anything to distract me. When I feel like I have a great new idea, I make my way back home, adding details on the way. THEN I write it down in a notebook, and see how it fits with everything else.

    In my opinion, worldbuilding is like writing; you have to love doing it, and you have to let it come naturally.

  22. World building isn't easy, but it can be fun. I love it, and that doesn't mean I always get it right. I'm a very visual person (I make my living as a graphic artist) so painting pictures with words comes naturally to me. But a world isn't just about its physical appearance.

    I write urban fantasy, so my world has a definite structure when it comes to its species and the realms other than the human one it occupies. Therefore, I have all kinds of rules to contend with: political, social, physical, you name it. The trick is balancing them all and not getting caught up in the minutia that can get readers snoring, you know what I mean? :)

    So for me, the physical part is almost too easy and i go overboard, which my agent and my editor don't hesitate to point out. So some of my settings end up on the cutting room floor. Pacing is important.

    The amount of world building you need on the page may depend on your publisher. I think it's most important that YOU know your world, and let readers in on just enough to avoid any confusion about what's going on. IMO, character and plot come first and the rest gets woven in as needed.

    You can do eeeeet!

  23. Dear MS1stV;

    I experienced this when I wrote a brief prologue that made sense to me, but evoked "duhs" in anyone who read it.

    I didn't 'build' my other world; I used 'show' almost exclusively to paint it in sparse, abstract strokes and expected readers to pick up on my voice and implied meaning despite their having no prior exposure to my writing.

    Exploring the essential psychological, physical, social, or environmental difference between the mundane world and the world you're building might help you to flesh out its details.

    For example: What might have taken place between now and then (if your story is futuristic) that caused this essential difference? What other consequences might have occurred through these events? How would these have shaped your world and characters in other ways?

    The dystopian novel “Anthem” by Ayn Rand presents a good example by opening with its key psychological difference: the equating of an individual's thoughts with a crime/sin (a two-for-one world-building stroke). After her opening paragraphs, the readers are fully prepped for any physical or social details that ring true with the established premise.

    Good luck!


  24. Omg, are you, me? I mean srsly...EVERYTHING you just said is me to a tee. from the anxiety of world building to being a visual-spatial learner, to sucking big time at map reading/making and being directionally impaired. THANK GOD FOR NAVIGATION SYSTEMS!!!!!! Anyway, no advice here because i'm in the same boat and the timing of this post couldn't be any more perfect as I have just hit the section of my current WIP in which the character has hit a future Manhattan 200 years from now. Oy. HEAD. ACHE. I mean, not only do i have to visualize what it will look like 200 years from now, but i have to imagine the technology advances, automotive transportation and...AND..FASHION. Yes, fashions will definitely be different 200 years from now. I will admit that part is a little fun, but man is it TEE.DEE.OUS.

    Look forward to reading other posts that offer advice on the different processes for dealing with this part of imaginative writing.

    Great post, Miss Snark!!!

  25. I'm getting better too - my first couple of go-rounds, my crit buddies couldn't 'see' anything. Probably 'cause I included almost no description. Heck - I could see it! ... *sigh* I'm getting better though!

  26. I don't like world building either. I have to write a history book for my world--starting at the time when our real world began, and ending in the year that I finish with the book. Of course, I can split it into many books. But right now? I'm working on a game called Save the Cave, am enjoying writing music with Logic, and then I want to write this big history thing down to have a world. Hmm.

  27. I have a background in scenic design, so I love the physical construction of the new world. I play a "what if" game to fill in the rules-politics-society, etc. and fit the pieces together. It's a rush to be the puppet master of a whole world.

  28. World building is hard but fun. I write SF/F too, so I am right there with you! I actually look to see what makes worlds, countries, cities work. There has to be some type of business, main source of economy, a firm location, even if it's CRAZY, customs, traditions, histories blah, blah. It really helped me to look at acient or classical era societies. Personally, I sway from too much detail to not enough. AARGH!

  29. My trick to worldbuilding... write down words. Yeah, I stick w/ simple & easy. Here's what I do - and it's not like drawing a map or anything - really. I get the idea in my head (which is always much more detailed and colorful than on paper), then I jot down words all over the paper ... i.e. in a scene where my MC is seeing something for the first time, I write what I see in my head: massive, white, pine, oak, babbling, brook, humid, blue, musty, sticky, gooey, cottage, mushroom-covered log, tangy, spicy, breeze, etc. I also include any moods or state of mind: scared, confused, seething, relieved ... then you have all these words (standing alone) on paper and you can pick and choose whichever ones fit together, or stand out apart... kind of like a puzzle or word scramble (a thesaurus always helps,too) If you've ever seen the movie Sleepy Hollow, when Johnny Depp is writing clues in his diary & thinking out loud - its like that. Hope this helps ...

  30. SO I've been lurking for a while, but I saw this and thought I should comment, mostly cause the thing that drew me to fantasy in the first place was the world building. I just love it. I have tons of worlds of varying detail logged away in my brain. I have more worlds than stories at this point because I like building worlds so much.

    Usually I start with the basics that I need to get the story sorted out. But then I build from there. I slowly build up everything from landscape and geography to culture and styles of dress. I can't help thinking about the socioeconomics of the world and how the magic systems influence culture and class (I have a couple of worlds that having magic is a major thing in their culture and one where it's commonplace to have some magical ability). Everything about the creation of a world excites me. =) I just can't help it.

  31. I have to admit...I love worldbuilding. For me, it's discovering what's already there. As I write, I include details and then I figure out why they are there. I'm a very visual person, so I tend to 'see' things as I write. And, yes, I draw maps, too!

    Social, political, geographical, geological. Things just are the way they are and I have to figure out why by asking questions. Sometimes it requires me to stop and do a little back-story, but I'm not the type to write exhaustively on that, either.

    I just know enough--or maybe I know the stories and legends that the people in the book know and I pass those along. It ends up being a story within a story. And, sometimes, it creates a whole new springboard of ideas I'd not considered before--either for the current story I'm working on, or a story in the future.