World building, as a term, is more often used when discussing the fantasy or science fiction genres. However, I like to use the term for all fiction.
If you think back to elementary or even high school, what is the definition of setting? I’m guessing you have the words “time and place” memorized. The issue, though, is setting is so much more than time and place. It’s the entire world you build around your character. I want you all to think about setting as such - world building - so that you push yourselves to develop worlds that are rich beyond simply time and place.
For instance, my debut novel series, which I’ve mentioned a few times in this book already, was set at a fictional high school called Iron Valley. Although the protagonists are not the same for each of the four books, the main characters know each other. When I wrote their stories, I had to build a world around them. The world included the places the characters spent their time, the traditions they had for sporting events, their team colors and rivals, etc. Some of the stories are set at a summer camp, so I had to build the camp map and the schedule of events.
The setting in these books isn't even that prominent in the story, but I still had to build a world for my readers.
In my second series, the setting is a mardi-gras-like carnival for teens. The teens wear masquerade masks, dress up, and do fun things like ropes courses, mazes, and glow-in-the-dark bumper cars. The setting in these books is like a character itself. My first readers had lots of questions: why do they do this? Who pays for it? What is the point? I had to take all of those comments into consideration and build the answers into the story, so the world was realistic.
These books are contemporary stories. They are not fantasy or sci-fi, but world-building was still necessary.
A World Bible
A word bible for a novel is meticulously crafted to capture the essence of the fictional universe for your story. You can include intricate details about the world’s geography, history, cultures, societies, languages, technology, magic systems, and unique aspects of daily life. As a writer builds their series, the bible becomes a comprehensive guide that ensures consistency and continuity! It is also an author’s saving grace, especially if they are like me and tend to forget and overlook details!
What world building is necessary in your book? Where does the character live and work? Who are they around? What colors do they love to wear? What does their home look like? What does their town look like? Are they in a city or a small town? Do they have lots of friends around them all the time or just a few close friends? How do they spend their weekends? Their mornings? What do they like to drink and eat? Some of this may seem like character traits, and you'd be right, but these traits are built into the world around them.
Nevertheless, the point is that details make a story. They make a world. They make a showing moment. They make a character. Yes, plots tend to be recycled, but the details in the stories change, and that's where stories are made new. Think about that as you build your world and as you show instead of tell (more on that, soon!).
As you develop your worlds, keep these tips in mind:
- Maintain consistency: The world must follow its own rules, whether those rules are magical, technological, or contemporary societal norms. You must understand the rules of your world, so that you can ensure consistency. It takes some critical thinking to assess your story from all angles to ensure there are not violations of the world in what you develop.
- Include rich details: Our lives are rich with history, major events, wars, geography, culture, climate, economics, class systems, and political hierarchies. You do not have to develop all of these for your world, but you should develop several that are impactful to your character or plot.
- Incorporate conflict: Just as character development and plotting create opportunities for conflict, so does the world building for your story. Develop political structures, alliances, and power struggles that impact the dynamics of your characters, and therefore, the conflict in your story.
- Show perceptions: How do your characters view their world? Are they sarcastic about the politics? Do they honor the religious and society systems without question? How do the world’s elements affect your characters’ beliefs, values, and daily lives?
- Avoid dumping: Introduce your world to readers gradually. Avoid overwhelming readers with information dumps - large chunks of information all at once. Show the world through the character’s actions, experiences, and dialogue rather than exposition.
- Look around you right now. Find three things in the room that say something about you. I have a laundry basket in my room filled with clean laundry. The fact it's sitting there might show someone I don't love doing housework, and that would be correct. But also, as I'm writing this in 2022, my daughter just had surgery, so my house is messier than usual. I'm working to get by. If you show a character that keeps a near perfect house suddenly have a mess around them, that SHOWS the reader something. Something is off in that character's world.
- Create a map of your fictional world. Use a fun software program if you’d like, but the key is to include all of the landmarks relevant to your story. Consider how the geography of your place influences the culture, story, and interactions between characters? Where do they spend their time? As a result, what does that say about how they spend their time? How can your world become an impactful aspect of the story, both in terms of your characters and your plot?
- Write a list of the daily life and traditions in your world. What are the common rituals, ceremonies, festivals, and traditions? Why are these impactful to your character’s community? How are the social norms, gender roles, and traditions relevant to your characters and your plot?
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"Chapter 6: Building a World Beyond Time and Place" was created by Tamara Girardi and was licensed as CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 in October of 2023.