World Building – A writer’s foray into godhood

At a casual glance, world-building would appear to belong exclusively to the science fiction and fantasy genres. It doesn’t. Successful writers of every genre are concerned with world-building.

  • Historical romance demands not only believable chemistry between the would-be lovers, but also accuracy in the details of world they inhabit.
  • How successful would a detective story be if the author bungled the descriptions of police procedure?
  • Even contemporary literary fiction depends on the often unconscious world building of its author.

What is world-building? It is the details of setting that an author chooses to include which flavor the narrative and make it possible for the reader to understand the place and time in which the story takes place.

If you’re writing a story in contemporary America, you may not think you are world-building, but you are. You are making conscious and unconscious decisions regarding your setting. Choosing which details to reveal and which to ignore, relying instead on your common experience with your assumed reader.

Think about it. How does your reader know your story is set in the Pacific Northwest and not smack in the middle of the Great Plains? What setting details do you write automatically which place your characters in the United States rather than in China, Russia, or even Canada?

World-building is the concern of every writer. It’s just that some of us have a head start because we’re relying on the common understanding of our readers when we write in a contemporary American setting.

Now, when we set that common understanding aside, world-building becomes not only necessary, but exciting…your opportunity to be the god/dess of a new world!

Before I get into the specifics of world-building, I’d like to take a minute to discuss record keeping. Once you decide on elements of your world, how will you keep track of them? And you must keep track in order to maintain consistency, especially if you end up writing more than one book in a given world. Here are a few possibilities:

  • Spreadsheets: great if you’re a spreadsheet kind of person, I know many who aren’t.
  • Looseleaf notebook: wonderful if you write by hand; I don’t.
  • Jeannie Ruesch’s WIP NoteBook
  • Liquid Story Binder
  • Scrivener: My personal favorite! (LOVE this program :D)

All right. Now that you know where you’re going to keep track of your ideas, what are the elements of world-building that need to be addressed when you set out to create a unique and new universe for your characters to inhabit?

SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America) has an excellent article on the subject by Patricia Wrede. She breaks her article down into the following segments:

  • The world: basics like laws of nature and physics, whether the planet is earth-like or not
  • Physical and historical features:
    • Climate & geography (terrain and map)
    • Natural resources
    • World history
    • Specific history of the country
  • Peoples and customs:
    • Customs
    • Eating
    • Greeting and meeting
    • Gestures
    • Visits (rules of hospitality and what they entail)
    • Language
    • Ethics and values
    • Religion and gods
    • Population
  • Social organization:
    • Government
    • Politics
    • Crime and legal system
    • Foreign relations
    • Systems of war
    • Weapons
  • Commerce, Trade, and Public Life:
    • Business & industry
    • Science & technology
    • Medicine
    • Arts & entertainment
    • Architecture
    • Urban factors
    • Rural factors
  • Daily life:
    • Fashion & dress
    • Manners
    • Diet
    • Education
    • Calendar

Finally, if you’re writing fantasy, you have an extra dimension of world-building to explore—magic. Stephanie Cottrell Bryant has posted an excellent article, Magical World Builder’s Guide on her website. I recommend reading it.

As you’re designing your world, you’ll need to consider the source of magic, the system that supports it—does it require an education in spells and potions ala Harry Potter, or is it an inborn gift that each user must learn to control individually? What is the cost of the magic? Are there species of magical creatures? Decide on your rules—they can be anything—and be internally consistent.

Consistency is key with all world-building elements.

Now, when you start thinking about all of these areas, you might have a tendency to throw up your hands and say, “But I’m just writing a love story here! A simple boy-meets-girl tale that happens to take place on a spaceship. Surely I don’t need to explain the technology and political climate that allowed that ship to exist!”

And you’d be right…to a certain extent. You won’t put all your world-building in your story—that would be an info dump of gigantic proportions! But the fact that you’ve taken the time to think about these issues and make some rudimentary decisions will influence the details you do choose to include. Your world-building will inform your word choices and will give your work a solidity that will pull your reader in and allow them to settle in your world.

So, the next question is one that Holly Lisle asks, “How Much of My World Do I Build?” Holly’s answer is, “Build only what you need; imply the rest.” Her summation is a great close to this conversation:

“Do the best you can with it, research when you have to, but remember that the point of worldbuilding is not to build a world — it’s to create interesting, consistent backdrops in front of which your characters can play out their tale. Your aim is primarily to entertain, secondarily (and not always) to instruct, and as long as you can do that without your readers stumbling over gross inconsistencies or errors of fact, you’ll be okay. So have some fun with it, and don’t sweat the small stuff.”

Enjoy your foray into godhood! Create an intriguing, internally consistent world and we’ll all be reading your novels.


About Debbie Mumford

Debbie Mumford specializes in fantasy and paranormal romance. She loves mythology and is especially fond of Celtic and Native American lore. She writes about faeries, dragons, and other fantasy creatures for adults as herself and for tweens and young adults as Deb Logan. Visit to learn more about her currently available work.

Posted on November 21, 2011, in about writing, Authors - Debbie Mumford and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Often, with contemporary books, I’m disappointed with how little the writer pays attention to the setting. I read a book that was set in Washington, DC, where I live. Save for the fact the author had a murder in the Supreme Court, it honestly had so little setting that it could have been the California Supreme Court or the Georgia Supreme Court, not the Supreme Court of the Untied States.

    Yet, I read a book that was set in Hawaii, and it had such a wonderful flavor of the culture there that it was fun to read! There was no way to imagine it as being anywhere else but where it was. So it can really make a difference.

    >> Once you decide on elements of your world, how will you keep track of them? And you must keep track in order to maintain consistency, >>

    I guess I’m the maverick here. I don’t keep any written records. I’m not detail-oriented, and a spreadsheet or a notebook is one of the worst things for me to do. Because I’m so bad with details, it’s hard for me to even figure out what goes on a spreadsheet (what’s a detail to me, I’ve learned, is very different for someone who isn’t bad with them).

    Instead, I have the following standard operating procedure:

    No nitnoid details at all. I lop off all the details at the bottom level. Those are the ones that often get me in trouble because I cannot tell if I’m doing too much.

    Everything else that’s in the book has to connect with the big picture of the story. If I can connect it in my head, I don’t need to track it.

  2. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Linda!

    I used to just write and not worry about keeping track of the details…until I found myself writing a series. I’d never intended for Sorcha to be more than a novella, but my editor saw additional books. *Yay* When I started the 2nd book I kept having to scour the novella to remind myself of what I’d said about my dragons and their society *headdesk*

    Now I make notes as I’m writing, just in case I want to revisit that world in a future volume 😀

  3. Excellent introduction to world building, Debbie. I agree with you, Linda, that it is more fun to read books with a definite setting, and if a writer doesn’t know that setting and doesn’t want to bother researching it, maybe that shouldn’t be the setting of the book.

  4. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been looking at Indie. If everyone else is supposed to do something, I’m the one person who isn’t able to do it like that. A fast reread of the book, plus a check of my research notes would be so much more helpful for me than trying to figure out what should even go on a spreadsheet.

  5. And that’s the cool thing about a writer’s process…there is no right or wrong way, only what works for you! I love checking out the tools other writers use, but only a few of them fit my hand. The ones that fit, I keep and use; the ones that don’t, I discard. But it’s always interesting to glimpse another’s process 😀

  6. My rant about world-building, filled with self-pity other-annoyance, is already a matter of record on this blog. So I won’t harumph too much more here. I note that some of the organizational systems you pointed to such as Scrivener (which is indeed awesome for the digital age) are of less use when you are the only witness to a world. You can’t go to the wikis and copy-paste over any notes, etc.
    And I think that creates a tendency for me to over-dump. I had to do more work to take down my observations and naturally I’m proud of them so I put in a lot- and I get ticked when some beta readers automatically call out any of it no matter how hard I try to integrate! That was the key advice you quoted- build what you need, imply the rest.
    One final note came to me as I read about the Hawaii tale. In lots of contemp-fiction, you can have an exotic setting and a good excuse to introduce it by the vehicle of a visitor or tourist. The reader doesn’t likely know much about Hawaii either and thus is more willing to read. But once again, in a full-fantasy setting there are no tourists! Everyone you write about is already comfortable with their strange and alien country, so any attempt to inform the reader takes you away from the characters.

  7. “But once again, in a full-fantasy setting there are no tourists!”

    I disagree. Read Dianny Wynne Jones “Dark Lord of Derkholm” (it’s humorous Middle Grade stuff) to see tourists in fantasy. 😉

    But you’re right in a way that also applies to writers of historical fiction, and contemp too, of course. The hardest thing to do is to integrate everyday facts about people who have lived with that sort of situation all their life. No character would say, “Oh, isn’t it lovely that we can use a water toilet” if he’s using it every morning and evening. So it is really difficult to get these things into your novel when you’re writing about a time or place that existed.

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