Worldbuilding 101: An Exercise

If you're a writer, you're a worldbuilder. Here are some tips and a starter exercise for writers of every genre.

Photo by sergio souza on Unsplash

World building is a term coined in science-fiction 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 that’s pertinent to the plot, including (but not limited to) history, geography, physical and natural laws, culture, society, religion, etc.

That said, every writer world builds. Even writers who write “realistic” fiction build their world. Think about it: each individual has his or her own unique perspective on life. If I attend a party with a goth, a cheerleader, and a hipster, they would all describe that scene to me from their own particular perspective.

Another way to understand this is to think of the Paris of a Noir film:

versus the Paris of the film Amelie:

Both are set in a real city, Paris. But their versions of Paris couldn’t be more different.

Therefore, the first thing to focus on is what I call the “tone” or your world, or what your world looks like, whether it’s invented or a real place. In order to do so, take five minutes looking through magazines, or pinterest, or Google images 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’re starting at square one, just find something that reverberates with you and use that.

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

Now take a moment to figure out why that image speaks to you. What are you focusing on? If you show this photo to someone else, you may discover that what caught your eye will be very different from what other people see. Use this photo to help you answer the following, which are things you (eventually) want “embodied” in your novel:

  • What is the tone of your book? (light, dark, fun, serious, scary, etc.)

  • What is the twist of your book? (For example, my UF character Jane Ture was a non-kickass heroine in an age of kickass heroines. This helped me decide she was a selkie, etc.)

  • What is the nature of your protagonist/antagonist? (fiery, peaceful, pushed to her limits, etc).

  • Where do they live? (in a city? A town? a hovel? Then you can start asking *why* they live there, why these places exist, etc. You want to go real deep on this if you’re building a sf/f world, but do some thinking if it’s “our” world.)

  • How do they dress? (start big—expensively, cheaply, etc—and then look for pictures to inspire you)

  • What might the soundtrack to your world be? (actually pick some songs. I know this sounds weird, but it can really help.)

  • What do you HAVE to have in your book? (think of your audience and your genre, specifically. What are the expectations of your genre? Then think about what *you* want to do with those expectations. So, like, when I wrote my first series, love triangles were all the rage in urban fantasy. But I wanted my character to have the good sense to *avoid* a love triangle. So she ditched the bad boy and went for the guy who respected her.)

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. When I write fantasy, I have to remember I’m not only creating a world, I’m thinking through my protagonist’s perspective on that world. When I write my creative nonfiction essays, I’m aware of myself as a character in the piece, and I use that to question the world I’m creating on the page. Is it the world I’m intending? Sometime it’s not (it’s too self-indulgent, or childishly optimistic, or too cynical) and I have to balance my tone.

Once I’ve got some ideas for my tone and I’m starting to hold a version of my world in my mind, I begin to build a board, like a storyboard, that has images that inspire me. 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.

To make this board, I’ve done physical ones with magazine pictures, Pinterest boards, and right now I’m using a Jamboard on Google Drive for my current project.

Things to include on your board:

  • People 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

  • Furniture

You don’t have to sit down and search, necessarily, but as you come across images you can add them to a pile or add them to a board. You never know when (or if) you’ll use them.

Establishing the look of your world goes a long way to establishing everything else. If you’re writing imagination- or research-heavy genres (spec fic, historical, etc.), you’ll have to do a lot more after these initial steps 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. But not so much that you’re using “research” as an excuse to procrastinate starting the actual project.

If you are writing in “our” world, then basic visual cue boards may be all you need to start writing. But you’ll be surprised at how much these visuals can help you ground your world. Sensory language, an integral part of writing that many writers struggle with, comes more 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.

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 doing real things in a real world. When we lose touch with reality, even a created one, we lose our anchors and, ultimately, our readers.

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