By Julie Artz
One of my favorite parts of being an obsessive reader is the feeling of picking up a book and instantly being immersed in the world. A few of my favorites include Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, any book by Taylor Jenkins Reid or Kristin Hannah, The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells, everything that N.K. Jemisin has ever written, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, Sarah MacLean’s sweeping feminist romances, and Chad Lucas’s perfect spooky voice in Let the Monster Out. Across genre, across age category, this feeling of being pulled right into the story denotes fantastic world-building.
If we know good world-building when we see it, why is it so hard to do it in our own work? World-building, perhaps more than any other aspect of craft, instills fear in the hearts of writers. And unlike the countless books, blogs, and podcasts on character, plot, and voice, there’s relatively little out there on how one actually goes about building a world (although there are some great posts right here on Writers Helping Writers).
What Even is World-Building?
First, a definition. World-building is the act of creating a fictional story world. It often involves thinking about the physical landscape, plants, animals, and inhabitants of the world, its history, religion, technology, and the cultures of the different races that live there, including power structures, social customs, languages, leisure activities, and work.
The Top Three World-Building Pitfalls
The most common pitfalls I see in my clients’ novels when it comes to world-building are:
- Relying on tired tropes/cliches
- Random world-building
And all three of these can be avoided with a little planning. That’s why I recommend including world-building in your planning/pre-writing process even if you’re mostly a pantser.
Avoiding Tropes and Cliches
Every writer wants to create a world that is absolutely unique and is something that has never been done before. But to do that, you can’t write in a vacuum. Doing so creates a false sense of security that you don’t need to do any research to avoid tropes, cliches and stereotypes.
That’s why the first thing I do after I get an idea for a new world is read every comparable title I can get my hands on so I know what the tropes are and can either avoid or subvert them. The genre tropes section of the TV Tropes Wiki is a great place to get ideas for what’s already out there. A lot of tired tropes, cliches, and stereotypes crop up due to under-developed world building, where a writer fills in gaps in their story world from other worlds they’ve read or watched. So that makes it even more crucial to flesh out your world–and make sure it avoids those pitfalls–in the beginning of your process.
For example, if your world includes a four-legged creature with a single horn, even if it’s not the traditional white horse and you don’t call it a unicorn, you need to understand the mythos around the unicorn to write this into your story world. Why? Because the second I said ‘four legged creature with a single horn,’ you conjured up an image. It might have been the slender, mystical figure from the animated version of The Last Unicorn or your kid’s sassy My Little Pony unicorn, but it still popped into your head, and some image will pop into your readers’ heads as well. Since you cannot control which unicorn they are thinking of, you have to do some world building to ensure that they’re seeing exactly the type of creature you want to see.
This is also why your research needs to include primary sources in addition to things that have been published in past few years. For a mythology-based world (which many of mine are), I read the original epic poems or stories when I need a little additional inspiration. Of course, it’s important to be aware of the biases and prejudices of the times when you’re looking at source material. I often take something from the original that I find sexist or racist or otherwise irritating and subvert it in my story. China Mieville’s brilliant UnLunDun is a great example of subverting the typical Chosen One trope, for example, because the Chosen One doesn’t actually end up saving the day. Thus a cliché is avoided, giving readers a fresh take on a tired patriarchal trope.
Create a World that Enhances Story Themes
Sometimes the desire for fresh world-building overrides everything else. And that can lead to a world that feels random or disconnected from the themes, plot, and characters of your story. Think of The Hunger Games. Without the socio-economic oppression of The Capitol, the games wouldn’t make sense. Without Katniss’s near-starvation, she wouldn’t have the initial connection to Peeta—when he threw her the loaf of bread–that drives so many of the plot points throughout the trilogy. Even her preferred weapon, the bow and arrow, gives the reader information about this world. It’s one of the most primitive of weapons, used far before the Bronze Age introduced metal weapons, which reinforces the primitive subsistence living that’s been imposed on District Twelve while The Capitol hoards all its high-tech luxuries. So as you’re building out your world, make sure you think about how it will reinforce your story’s themes and character journey.
World-Building Takes a Light Touch
Once you’ve done your planning, you know the tropes, cliches, and genre expectations that are out there, and have ensured that your world-building reinforces the themes you’re writing about, it’s time to write. And, because you’ve created such a fresh, new world, you decide to start by orienting the reader to that world. Do not do this by including three chapters of world-building as your opening pages! Because as important as world-building is, it’s the character who is about to go on an adventure in that world who will draw the reader in. So start with character and give the reader only the bare minimum information required for them to understand what’s going on. (Becca has a great post on this here.)
Weave in details during scenes with forward action. Probably my most-used world building comment to my clients is: BE SPECIFIC. A platter of meat on the table is so much less evocative then roasted hell-boar basted with clarion berry jam. Even better if the main character’s father was gravely injured on a hell-boar hunt years ago or if the seeking out the clarion berries is a right-of-passage that the main character hopes to participate in soon. Then the details become a way to build character, foreshadowing what is to come, recall backstory, and, ultimately, make the world you’re creating on the page come to life.
I’m ready to build a world, now what?
Good world-building takes time and practice. It’s also an iterative process that happens throughout planning, drafting, and revising your story. I hope this post gave you some tips and tricks to use with your own story. But if you’re still struggling to incorporate immersive world-building into your story, join me on Saturday, October 29, 2022 at 1pm Pacific for Plan Now, Play Later—a World-Building Primer. This 90-minute webinar outlines common pitfalls while offering my simple, iterative approach to upping your world-building game.
“The Unicorn Tapestries Room: The Unicorn is Attacked (detail).” by peterjr1961, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.
Julie Artz spent her young life sneaking into wardrobes searching for Narnia. When people started to think that was creepy, she went in search of other ways to go on mystical adventures. Now she finds those long-sought doors to magical story worlds in her work as an author, editor, and book coach. An active member of the writing community, she has volunteered for SCBWI, TeenPit, and Pitch Wars and is a member of EFA, the Authors Guild, and AWP. A social and environmental justice minded story geek, Julie lives in an enchanted forest outside of Redmond, Washington, with her husband, two strong-willed teenagers, and a trio of naughty furry familiars. Connect with Julie on Twitter, Instagram, or subscribe to Julie’s weekly newsletter, Wyrd Words Weekly.
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Raymond Walker says
Great post, thanks. I agree with all that you say, or I did until recently. Re-reading Moorcock’s “Gloriana” and then Peake’s “Gormenghast” as well as Neal Stephenson’s Byzantium trilogy and Mark Hodder’s “Spring-heeled Jack” I began to understand that world building need not be elaborate (LOTR style) but only slightly removed from our own. Lol but I do enjoy the elaborate.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
I love the TV tropes site – it is packed with insight on what people love and what has been overdone. Thanks for all this great advice, Julie! I hope everyone takes advantage of your workshop 🙂
MINDY ALYSE WEISS says
Thanks for this helpful post, Julie! It took me a while to realize how important world building is in contemporary novels, too. I can’t wait to study more about tired tropes and cliches.