BUT (that’s in capitals because what follows is very important) …all the details of the world you create don’t need to be included in your story. I know it’s tempting to include it all that gritty minutia you spent hours, days and even weeks researching and thinking about, but just don’t. Only include enough to provide a scaffold for your reader’s imagination, context for your characters, and to move the plot forward.
Because I’m a discovery writer (I discover the story as I write it), I don’t do a great deal of world building before I start writing. I’ll just do enough to get me going. My typical approach for developing a world is very organic. I start with the main character. Once I understand who they are and what drives them, I can start to write the plot around them. The final step is to construct the world in which the character and the plot exist. This means my writing is often interrupted by periods of research.
For The Grotesque Wars (novelette in Letters From Elsewhere), I spent a lot of time researching castles. The final story only carries a glimpse of all that research. I’ve included just enough so the reader can picture a castle, but not be bogged down and distracted by in-depth descriptions. I know the exact layout of the castle and even details of the materials used in its construction, but these have no bearing on the story. Specifics, where needed, are woven into the story, rather than dumped in as a chunk of exposition.
In my novella, Rose Moon, the story moves between three realms: a fantasy realm; a human realm; and the realm of the seasons. Each needed sufficient depth and vibrancy to make them real. Most of the action occurs in the human realm, so that’s where I needed the most detail. I had to consider politics, religion, laws, technology, magic and the setting. Then, determine how the realms interacted.
In the above examples, the worlds were built on an earth or earth-like reality, but that’s not always the case. I’m working on a series of space opera novella’s, Ghost Assassins of Bijou, where almost nothing about the series universe is familiar. I’ve had to build almost everything from scratch, but I start with the known.
- The assassins and their targets are human, but different races.
- Societies are versions of democracy or autocracy.
- Religions have distorted to fundamentalism and misogyny.
After that, and because I’m not bound by hard science, I can let my imagination riot.
- Spacecraft are mechanically enhanced, sentient cuttlefish-like creatures.
- Intergalactic travel is possible via ‘Punch Flight’.
- There are multitudes of sentient species other than humans.
- Universal translators are glitchy, but exist.
Worlds don’t need to be based in reality, but they do need elements of fundamental truths. Readers need to have something or someone they can identify with or understand.
There’s a whole bunch of stuff I have high confidence writing about: women; sexuality; animals; habitats; politics; and the logistics involved in managing large-scale international projects. There’s a much larger list of things I have less confidence about, including: technology; physics; strategies of war; legal systems; and medical procedures. Those differing levels of confidence will dictate how much research I may need to do, which facets of a world will be more important to my story, and whose perspective the story is being told from. For example, if I have a scene set in a hospital, it will be told from the perspective of a visitor or patient, not from that of a surgeon or staff nurse.
Setting is a critical component of world-building. All too often it’s one dimensional – visual. Add richness with the other senses. The stench of rancid milk evokes an almost involuntary gag reflex in most of us. That first mouthful of rich, bitter coffee in the morning is nirvana to some of us, and repulsive to others. Aromas and flavours are powerful drivers of emotion, as is sound. The mewl of a kitten, the screech of brakes, the scream as you plunge a knife into someone’s stomach. Don’t forget the feel of the warm blood as it splatters on your face, the silk smoothness of the dress you wear, and the irritation of the sand in your eyes. Use all the senses to draw your reader deep into your world.
Finally, it's important to remember that no world is perfect. There will always be dissent, crime, and inhabitants of societies fringes. Recorded history doesn’t always align with reality, it usually suits those who are in power. The same applies to the interpretation of the tenets of religion, think about the difference between a zealot and someone with faith. We’ve bred thornless varieties of lemon trees but left to themselves, they revert. Animal species aren’t meant to be able to interbreed, yet there are numerous examples of hybrids in nature. Don’t limit your world to one dimension – allow it to be full and rich.
Here are some of my favourite worlds.
- Pern – Ann McCaffrey
- The Dandelion Dynasty – Ken Liu
- The Murderbot Diaries – Martha Wells
- Binti – Nnedi Okorafor
- Discworld – Terry Pratchett