The 4 Facets of World-Building
By Rachelle Clifford
As a reader and writer of other world genres (i.e. fantasy, sci-fi, magical realism), I am all too aware of the pain and pleasure that goes into world- building. For writers, it is the first building block that everything else rests on. For readers, it is the world we fall in love with and become lost within. We have read stories of worlds so masterfully crafted, we believe them and fall into them without hesitation (e.g. The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, Red Rising, The Lightbringer Series). The pieces of these worlds tie so seamlessly in with one another, I want to raise my fist at the authors and demand, “How do you make it look so easy?”
We cannot look at the end product of these worlds and assume that the process was easy. Even with all the inspiration a writer can contain, the process requires work and careful planning. Take the concept of culture, for example. Have you ever been asked to define culture? It’s not an easy task. Culture encompasses a plethora of concepts and is so variant and fluid from one group to another that it’s impossible to slap a clear cut definition onto it. I was asked this question in many of my classes in college, and often students answered by throwing out examples of culture—beliefs, food, history, language—but that list may as well go on infinitely. So when tasked with developing a culture as part of the world-building process, we writers may end up throwing our computers out the window, especially if we’re feeling desperate to focus our attention on the plot aspect of the story instead. However, the details constructed into the world may propel that plot even further, and it would impede our progress to neglect them.
To help wrap our minds around the overwhelming concept of world-building, I have broken the process down into four facets that must be included in order for the world to be complete. I also want to emphasize that while it may be our responsibility as writers to know the answers to these questions, it doesn’t mean each and every feature must be stated explicitly in the story. There is a lot to be said for subtext, insinuated details, and ideas that the readers can fill in the blanks for or create themselves.
1. Physical World
Of course, we need to know the various landscapes of the world we’re creating: forest, jungle, desert, mountain, plain, cave, island, ocean, outer space? How about all of the above? What about the climate? Does it always rain where the protagonist lives or could there be a drought? Is it windy, cold, hot, humid? Are there tornados or earthquakes? What about the seasons? Does the world model the four seasons of Earth? Are there many worlds? What about the months? Are there twelve months in a year? How many days are in a month? Are there different names for the months and days of the week? When do the seasons start?
Is that something you’ve ever considered that you could have thirteen months instead of twelve? We’re very comfortable with the rules of our world, and sometimes that’s for the best. We have to make a decision about how to balance recycling. How much should we copy from the real world or other widely read stories to keep our readers grounded in something they can comprehend and how much can we invent? We can totally make a world with a pink sky where people walk upside down and the trees are on fire and there’s only one hour in a day, but will people read it? (Put your hand down, Dr. Seuss. You’re the exception here.) It is helpful to give your readers a sense of familiarity. The more comfortable they are with the world, the more willing they will be to see what new concepts we have to offer. We shouldn’t be afraid to push the limits a little.
Next, we must consider the people in the world. Now the task is exponentially more complicated. It’s hard enough to fill a world with humans and provide them a culture, but what about creating a world with five different races of people. That’s five different cultures to differentiate and think through. Fun stuff. I secretly love it.
Physically, what do these different groups of people look like? Are they tall, average, or short? Do they have common traits? Skin, hair and eye color? Are they not humanoid at all but creatures of some sort? Now for the cultural piece. What do they wear? Do they speak different languages? Do they have their own religion and if so, what is it? What is their history? What is their level of knowledge and education? What do they do for fun? What are their jobs? What do they eat? Do they have music, art, poetry, theater? Do they have stories, myths, or legends? Do they have traditions? What do they value? Are they more collectivist or individualistic? What do they expect of each other? How do they greet each other? What do they consider rude?
We know that culture is complex, and as exhaustive as this list is, it is in no way complete. As an added resource, you may already be familiar with the iceberg concept of culture . This is a great image for guidance in developing our characters’ cultures. There are many varieties of this image, so feel free to do an online search to find one that jives best with you.
Now that we’ve established the physical world and the people, we now have to think about the different systems that these people have put into place. What does their government look like? What are their laws and the punishments for breaking them? Do they have a military? Is there a “police force?” What are the social hierarchies? What is their form of currency and economy? What does the criminal world look like? Are their rebellions? Wars? Alliances? Do you have a headache yet?
This is related to the concept of how educated the people are. What have they accomplished technologically? What is their knowledge of medicine? Is there magic? (I am not going over the other headache-worthy topic of magic systems in this blog). What about time? Does your world follow the concept of minutes, seconds, hours? Does that mean they have clocks? Or do they base time off of the position of the sun? If you’re writing a science fiction piece, then this category is critical. What have these people accomplished, and what are they capable of?
I’m not pretending that the task of world-building is suddenly easy with this guide. It will require a lot of creativity, work, and innumerable cups of coffee, but at the very least I hope this provides a place to start. If you’ve already completed a draft of your book, consider how some of these points could be added to your story in edits and revisions to provide more depth.