World Building 101

So, I ran a little workshop at my University on Wednesday about World Building.  I’m going to blog about that for my next few posts.  Firstly, I’m going to put up the handout I made for my students.  Then I’ll blog a reaction piece that talks about what happened/what I learned from doing the workshop.  I think it went really well, not least for me, as I’m still sorting out what I “do” when I write and learning how to articulate that in a classroom setting.  Anyway, here’s the handout!


What is World Building?

World building is a term coined in science-fiction writer’s workshops in the 1970’s. In its original sense, world building refers to the act of creating an entirely new (either futuristic or fantastical) world. Such worlds must be coherent, and the writer must articulate every nuance of his or her world, including history, geography, physical and natural laws, culture, society, religion, etc.

That said, every writer world builds. As an urban fantasy writer, I take our world and I give it a little supernatural twist. But even writers who write “realistic” fiction world build. After all, each individual has his or her own unique perspective on life. If I attended a party with a goth, a cheerleader, and a hipster, they would all describe that scene to me from their own particular perspective. 

Therefore, the first thing to focus on is what your world looks like.  In order to do so, I’d like you each to take five minutes looking through magazines to find a picture that, for whatever reason, represents an aspect of your world. If you’re working on a project, use that. If you’ve never even thought of writing a novel, let alone have an idea of what your world would look like, think of your favorite book and imagine you’re directing the movie of that book.

*** Remember, this is JUST AN EXERCISE. Don’t go crazy looking for the perfect picture.

Now take a moment to figure out why that image spoke to you. What are you focusing on? You’ll discover that discussing what you highlight in the photo will be very different from what other people would have focused on. Now try to latch onto an aspect of that photo that you can riff on, or twist, or use as a symbol.

Things you want “embodied” in your novel:

What is the tone of your book?

What is the twist of your book?

What is the nature of your protagonist/antagonist?

Where do they live?

How do they dress?

What might the soundtrack to your world be?

What do you HAVE to have in your book?

I find that getting the tone is the most important thing in building my world. Then I build upward, looking for images that inspire me. Because I write urban fantasy, half of my world (our half) is already built, but I have to establish Jane’s (my protag’s) perspective on that world. Then I have to make-up the second half (the supernatural). And figure out how these two synch.

If you’re NOT writing sc-fi/fantasy, you still want to establish what your book “looks” like.  

Then you build a board, like a storyboard, that has images that inspire you. You can refer back to these images as you write, giving yourself something tangible to focus on and describe. Think of it like painting a still life, but with words. 

Things to include on your board:

Models who look like your characters

Outfits they might wear

Things they may own: cars, weapons, clothes, etc.

Houses/buildings that inspire you

Art that inspires you


Pull these images as you come across them. You don’t have to sit down and search, necessarily, but as you find images you can add them to a pile or add them to a board. You never know when you’ll use them. Then paste them together on story boards or if you use your computer, as I tend to, put them in files together. Some people organize my book, by character, by chapter, by scene, by setting . . . do whatever works for you.

Establish the look of your world goes a long way to establishing everything else. If you are a sci-fi/fantasy/paranormal romance/historical romance/etc. writer, you’ll have to do a lot more AFTER this initial step to really define your world. A lot of work goes into such development, and you want to make sure you do it BEFORE you start writing.

If you are writing more “realistic” (yes, I’m THAT po-mo that all traces of the “real” go in quotation marks), than these visual cue boards may be all you need to make before you start writing. But you’ll be surprised at how much they can help you ground your world. Sensory language, an integral part of writing that many writers struggle with, comes very easily if you have an image in front of you waiting to be described. You can imagine stroking your hands over it, smelling it, wearing it, bumping your head against it, and then you can describe how these things would feel/taste/smell, etc. 

In other words, these boards make you remember that, no matter what kind of writer you are, the world surrounding your characters matters. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the thoughts and actions of our characters so that we forget they’re supposed to be “real,” doing “real” things in a “real” world. That’s when we lose our anchors and, therefore, lose our readers.

2 thoughts on “World Building 101”

  1. This is a useful post to keep around! I'm good at remembering some things and not others (aren't we all?).

    Here's my two cents on using images (which I love/need because I'm a visually motivated person – I even write in 'scenes'). I like to do collages if I have time – it makes a new picture out of other pictures and makes them more your own, plus putting them together makes for interesting discoveries of theme, plot points etc and that's so much fun!

    Re magazines it's often hard to find good image content when world building. I recommend National Geographic (old ones you already have a copy or CD of so you don't feel awful about cutting them up!) for landscape, interesting people, scenarios etc. I also recommend those stupid 'gift' catalogs in which the show gifts displayed in 'room types' – from goth to western to french country. not being very french country myself I forget the sorts of details those people like. Catalogs I'd normally throw out are great for this. 🙂

    Also I use google-image-search and build a little folder full of novel related images for my desktop. I can set them into a little slideshow program to have going in the background or as my screensaver to help get me back in the right mood/frame of mind etc to write.

    I don't outline. I HAVE to write fresh otherwise I kill the story and it becomes dictation and flat dictation at that but if I allow myself a little research diversion from time to time while writing I can keep pace with what I need and build my world as I go. Plus I get a lot of lovely plot options along the way that give me different routes I hadn't yet thought of to reach the end. 🙂

  2. InkGypsy: Thanks for the great comment! I love hearing how other writer's "do it," as I'm still trying to figure out how to do it myself

    So thanks a lot!!! 🙂

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