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Even though it's been years since I've been in school, with two kids at home, I always feel like my year starts in September with the back-to-school rush. That means that I'm noodling a brand-new story idea with hopes of participating once again in NaNoWriMo this November. If you're planning a new story, whether you're participating in NaNoWriMo or not, you may enjoy my free email course: 12 Weeks to a NaNo Win, which begins next week!
So I've chosen world building as my theme for September, because it's one of the first steps in my prewriting process. But what even is world building? And is it even necessary if you're writing something other than sci-fi/fantasy? Read on to learn the answers to these questions and more...
What is world building?
First, a definition. World building is the act of creating a fictional story world. It often involves thinking about the physical landscape, plants, animals, and inhabitants of the world, its history, religion, technology, and the cultures of the different races that live there, including power structures, social customs, languages, leisure activities, and work.
Isn't it only for sci-fi/fantasy?
No! This is a common myth that I'd like to dispel up-front. Although world building is often associated with fantasy and science fiction, writers of all genres should think about their story worlds in this way. Yes, even contemporary writers.
Think about it. The physical landscape, culture, and religion of a book set in Finland are not the same as a book set in Colorado in the US, which is not the same as a book set in central Australia. See what I mean? If you want people who are unfamiliar with the place you’re writing about to understand, to really feel and experience your story world, that takes world building.
When should I plan my story world?
Given that I already mentioned world building as part of my prewriting activities, you won't be surprised to hear that you should start thinking about world building as part of your planning process. A lot of tired tropes, cliches, and stereotypes crop up due to under-developed world building as well. So that makes it even more crucial to flesh out your world--and make sure it avoids those pitfalls--in the beginning of your process.
But how? I break world building down into steps so I don't get overwhelmed.
Step 1: Research what's out there.
The first thing I do after I get an idea for a new world is read every comparable title I can get my hands on so I know what the tropes are and can either avoid or subvert. The genre tropes section of the TV Tropes Wiki is a great place to get ideas for what’s already out there.
A common pitfall of world building is to think that your world is absolutely unique and is something that has never been done before. This can create a false sense of security that you don’t need to do any research to avoid tropes, cliches and stereotypes.
But if your world includes a four-legged creature with a single horn, even if it’s not the traditional white horse and you don’t call it a unicorn, you need to understand the mythos around the unicorn to write this into your story world? Why? Because the second I said ‘four legged creature with a single horn,’ you conjured up an image. It might have been the slender, mystical figure from the animated version of The Last Unicorn or your kid’s sassy My Little Pony unicorn, but it still popped into your head, and some image will pop into your readers’ heads as well. Since you cannot control which unicorn they are thinking of, you have to do some world building to ensure that they’re seeing exactly the type of creature you want to see.
Step 2: Brainstorming
Then comes the fun part: brainstorming. I brainstorm both how my story is different from what’s out there AND how it’s the same. If I'm setting out to subvert a specific trope (for example, the damsel in distress or the knight in shining armor), I will brainstorm ways that readers will identify my characters are a damsel or a knight and then lay out ways that those characters do not conform to expectations.
This kind of work helps you not only surprise the reader and keep your story fresh, but build in themes and/or social commentary if that's your jam (it's definitely mine!).
Step 3: Research
Once I've written down everything I know so far about my world, I dive in to primary research. For a mythology-based world (which many of mine are), I read the original epic poems or stories looking for themes. I often take something from the original that I find sexist or racist or otherwise irritating and subvert it in my story. China Mieville’s brilliant UnLunDun is a great example of subverting the typical Chosen One trope, for example, because the Chosen One doesn’t actually end up saving the day.
I also love fantasy world building that includes unexpected mash-ups. Finnish epic poems meet Star Wars. Ugly Duckling plus dragons. Goonies plus sea turtles. Building a world at the intersection of two things you love can give lots of room for creativity and help you bring that something special that Anna Quindlen is talking about in the quote above.
But that’s all pre-writing. What does the actual writing look like? Tune in next week for more! And, as always, if you have specific world building questions, hit reply and send them my way.
PS - In case you missed it above, I'm running the FREE 12 Weeks to a NaNo Win email course again this fall. It starts next week, so subscribe today!