Whether you’re writing commercial fiction, an epic fantasy, or a space opera, realistic world building is an absolute must. (Yes, even if it’s set on Earth.) In order for a reader to connect with the characters you create, they need to understand how your world made your characters who they are—because character goals and plot stakes heavily rely on the world your story is set in.
We’ve written before on this blog about how plot, character, and setting are all intricately related—there is a cause and effect relationship between all three. What happens to one influences the others, even if only in a small way. This is why it’s so important to have a vivd, real world in your novel.
With that in mind, here are four ways you can make your world building stand out from the crowd.
1. Define the Roles of Politics and Religion
Most of us were taught as kids to avoid talking about politics and religion (whether we should continue to teach our kids that is a different matter entirely) because, well, they can cause tension. The thing about tension is that you need a lot of it in your novel. And at the heart of this tension is something politics and religion have had in common for thousands of years: power and control.
No matter what kind of story you’re telling, the politics and religions of the world will influence your characters significantly—from kingdoms to communism, every political atmosphere offers unique challenges and obstacles that inform the setting and shape the plot of your work. Take, for example, Game of Thrones (if you want to discuss the ending then find me on Twitter)—the entire story revolves around the politicking and plotting to get control of the Iron Throne—or freedom from it. And everything from gods (i.e. religion) to dragons plays a role in fighting for or against it.
On the other end of the spectrum is a fun book called The Last Kids on Earth—the zombie apocalypse has already wiped out the entire population, and so a type of hysterical anarchy ensues where kids get to make their own rules while they fight to survive. The complete absence of organized government and religion is glaring, and that’s part of what makes it fun.
2. Know the Education System
Lots of middle grade books like Harry Potter and Wonder use education systems as the story’s main setting. Whether it’s Hogwarts or public school, many books have benefitted from a detailed, working school. How you work this into your novel will depend largely on the market and the genre—an epic fantasy might not have many scenes actually set in a school building, but the overall education available to the characters in that epic fantasy will determine what they know, what their perceptions and biases are, what histories they’re taught (even if those histories are false), and a number of other small aspects that determine who a character is. If your book is set in a school, develop everything about that school. If you never see a school in your whole novel, determine how schools or education in general shaped the characters and their desires.
3. Develop the Landscape, Flora, and Fauna
A book I read recently that used landscape and wildlife extremely well was The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill. The way the author presents the world that she created is just magical. Swamp monster poets, Perfectly Tiny Dragons, witches that feed children starlight, a dormant volcano come to life—there are so many elements that make this story great.
When you sit down to write, make sure you can answer the following questions:
- What area of the world is my story set in, and what landmarks and wildlife are around that area?
- If you’re creating a new world: what kinds of new creatures exist there?
- If you’re in space: what intricacies of a spaceship can you describe? What lifeforms are aboard the ship?
- If you’re writing historical fiction: what kinds of plants and animals existed back then that are now extinct?
Once you have these answers, fill your story with them. Even better, weave them into your narrative, and give them the breath of life. Fill your world with this, and it will feel so real to your reader that they’ll think they are there.
4. Have Precise Magic Systems or Tech (or Both)
Always remember that you must use the technology of the time period you are writing in insofar as it is relevant to the plot and characters. Historical, sci-fi, fantasy, etc.—if the technology you use doesn’t fit the time period, the reader will know. And this doesn’t necessarily mean electronic technology—e.g. the Ancient Greeks had different ways of doing things than the Byzantines. And if you set your story in some future earth with new technology, said technology must make sense (and, bonus points, it’ll read so much better if you research the theories of that unmade technology before you write about it).
I will forever and always defer to Brandon Sanderson’s laws of magic when discussing world building and magic systems. The concept is fascinating and complex, but it essentially boils down to this: “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.” Essentially, if you have a complex magic system that your reader doesn’t understand, resolving conflict with that magic will feel cheap. On the reverse, if your reader understands the magic and its limitations, then resolving conflict with magic becomes a challenge the reader anticipates and reacts to. In the end, if you use magic in your story, your reader has to understand how it works if you want to use it to resolve conflict. But then again, if you just want to use magic for spectacle, then you can be as vague about it as you want.