Blog 102: How To Build Any World Believably And Quickly.

June 15, 2020

Back in March I had the opportunity to launch my debut novel Folked Up with the assistance of the Centre for Childhood Cultures at Queen Mary University of London. Part of this involved running a creative writing workshop based around world building for YA audiences, where we discussed some of the things to bear in mind while writing.

We began the workshop by naming some of the fictional worlds we were familiar with. Participants suggested Neverland, Ankh Morpork, Hogwarts and Narnia, and the one thing they had in common was that they were all fantasy worlds. It is useful to note that worlds we can build as writers do not necessarily have to be fantastic or ‘out there’ – rather, it is useful to view the word ‘world’ as a synonym for an environment or setting that characters interact with. For this reason, there are infinite worlds available to writers – the world of the circus, the world of academia, the world of 1700s Spain, the world of space, and the real world, among others. All of these worlds are very different, but all can be easily built by bearing four Cs in mind:

  • Clarity: Being specific and keeping your writing tight will help the reader understand the world you are trying to portray. Precise sensory detail can be particularly useful – if something smells like cherries, or your character can hear the rats running around the ship they’re on, tell the reader.
  • Credibility: Although readers are suspending their disbelief, you should include details that will make them feel that they are actually there. This doesn’t have to mean descriptions, as mentioned above, as it can also be achieved by exploring various systems if your world has them. References to political systems, class systems, magic systems and even sewage systems, if you are so inclined, will all add depth to your story and can help to inform your characters’ personalities.
  • Consistency: This helps to maintain the credibility of your world for the length of the story. Do not mention that your world has no water in the first chapter, only for your main character to find an oasis in chapter 13!
  • Character: How a character interacts with their surroundings is usually more interesting than the world itself. Ensure that their interactions are realistic and match their personality – if your assassin character suddenly balks at the sight of blood, they had better have a good reason for doing so.

How can we put these four C’s into practice? Here are some exercises that may help you with your world building, whether you are just starting to find your way around it or whether you just need to add in some extra detail to bring it to life.

  • Take time to think about the world you want to write before you start writing it. List everything you can think of to do with this world – time period, sights, smells, sounds, taste, climate, people, food, class hierarchy, rules, terrain… Keep this list as a reference guide for any time you feel you might be losing your way.
  • If your world is a completely new, original creation and your characters travel to distant countries, it can help to draw a basic map and list the above for every individual place they go to. This can be a handy reference to keep (along with the list above) during your writing process and particularly during editing. It will also serve as a lovely keepsake for you to look back on when you’ve finished writing!
  • Write two sentences in which two characters describe the same place in this world. One should be from the perspective of a native, and one should be from someone who is just visiting from another world. For example:
  1. As I made my way towards the bow for the morning’s briefing, I stopped to adjust my life-pack and I noticed that the aviary was full.
  2. The further into the ship I went, the more it began to smell like digestive biscuits and bleach, and it sounded like a load of birds were upset about something – but what would birds be doing in space?

I hope this has been helpful and has inspired you to progress with your chosen story, or indeed start a new one! Check out my novel Folked Up to see how I have put these tricks into practice and created the world of Old England. Further examples of good world building can be found in these YA titles, which I thoroughly recommend:

Scott Westerfeld – The Leviathan Trilogy

JP Smythe – The Australia Trilogy

Renée Ahdieh – Flame In The Mist

Christina Diaz Gonzalez – A Thunderous Whisper

Philip Reeve – Railhead

Happy writing!