What do we mean when we talk about world-building in fiction writing?

Source: Athena available on Pexel

World-building is a fanciful idea that we often talk about in fiction writing, but many people aren’t sure what it entails. Well, I’m here to break it down for you.

World-building is the act of writing a world that is consistent with your fictional story. World-building is typically thought to be reserved for fantasy and sci-fi writing, but every novel is set in its own world. Even when that world is closely adjacent to the “real world,” it needs to be treated as a world within and of itself.

Whether the world you are building is AstroNebula or Kansas City, Nebraska your reader needs a conception of how your world is special. I’ve found that the novels I become the most engrossed in are the ones that are set in a vibrant and immersive world.

World-building is a necessary part of the planning process in fiction and it’s helpful to write down an outline. While there are many ways to approach world-building, I find it important to have intentional goals. So, here is a comprehensive formula I use when I build the world my characters inhabit.

Step 1: Leave the World you are in.

I know what you’re thinking, “Haha, very funny. Stand by while I grab my spacesuit.” I’m speaking, of course, metaphorically. But you have to enter the world you are writing. This might be hard because most likely you are attached to the world you live in–it makes sense to you. But–since you are hoping to build a new world–you are aware of its flaws and you feel the need to make adjustments. Recognize the world you are writing is distinct from the world you live in. This doesn’t always mean writing a world on a new planet with its own language. The world you’re writing could be set in Miami, but in your world the bus always runs on time. Or this may mean a different period of history or a town/country you don’t know. The first example that comes to mind of a slightly-adjacent-but-still-very-nuanced-world is Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka’s latest novel Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth. The novel is set in a fictional Nigeria where characters discuss ideas of “wokeism,” but there is a secret society that trades stolen human body parts. Soyinka writes the world this way as an allegory of governmental corruption.

Step 2: Determine what you want to accomplish in your world that you can’t accomplish in the real world.

You make the rules. The reason writers write fiction is to be able to write on their own terms. They write characters that act in a certain way in order to convey a specific idea or ethos. This might also mean inventing your own political structure or giving your characters the ability to defy gravity. If, for example, you want to write a character who, over the course of the book, is moved to political activism, you have to show the injustice or exploitation they are acting out against. This is something Richard Powers did beautifully in The Overstory. At the end of the book I was crying over a tree being cut down because Powers wrote a world where trees are enchanting and lovable. And a world where trees are exploited for economic gain (not entirely fiction, I know).

Step 3: Finding your characters.

Creating characters is a lot like giving birth to an infant. You name them, you bring them into the world, you obsess over their development and well-being, until finally they leave you and you’re left to wonder what’s next. Experienced fiction writers submit to this process in order to birth well-rounded characters. Be aware of your character’s place in their world. How are they going to respond to the rules you created? As a writer, fully inhabiting the world you create means being aware of how that world will have a unique impact on the characters. Finding your characters extends further than the characters you write. It includes the community they live in, and the political and social structures that shape their lives. The best example of robust characters that come to mind are the characters in Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Many of the characters aren’t acting characters in the book, but are spoken of in the context of Dalloway’s recollections of the past. Woolf uses characters to show the impact they had on Dalloway and their sole purpose is in service to the development of Dalloway’s character.

Step 4: All things go.

Does an idea seem far-fetched and too other-worldly? Go for it! The most improbable ideas make for a more evolved world. That is to say, ideas that are consistent and plausible in your world. Every colorful imaging serves as a brick in your world’s facade. This is a lesson I learned from reading the work of the master world-builder, the late David Foster Wallace. Wallace was known for going to extremes in building his zany worlds. Take for example, Broom of the System. Who but DFW could have thought of building a town in Ohio that looked like the profile of Jane Mansfield from an airplane? Or an expansive man-made desert with black sand named the G.O.D. (great Ohio desert)? No one. DFW’s world-building is second to none because he embraced and fully embodied the philosophy that “all things go.” And Broom of the System is unforgettable because of his warm embrace.

Step 5: Have a Napoleonic sense of conquest.

It’s your world to subdue and have dominion over. So take advantage of it. If you didn’t want your own world you’d be a non-fiction writer (the horror). Go to whatever extent necessary to build a compelling world. Look at the lengths Leo Tolstoy went to in explaining the economic structure of agrarian trade in the 19th century in Anna Karenina. If it takes 14 pages to explain how your characters operate economically in your world, take 14 pages. You might fear losing your reader, but, in this example, the ways that money motivated the characters is incredibly important and thus worthy of the space.

I am by no means a master world builder, but practice makes progress. I’ve found that this guide helps me in the planning process. And much of what I’ve learned has been from observing the choices other authors made in the worlds they created. Novels are the best teachers.

Thanks for reading. Hope you find it helpful! I’d be interested to know your approach to world-building, so drop me a note in the comments!

A Guide for Successful World-Building in Fiction was originally published in The Writing Cooperative on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Author: Sarah Frances Hicks | MFA, MA