World Building Basics

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As a science fiction writer, I spend a lot of time thinking about the worlds my characters inhabit. It’s part of the fun of writing in this genre! Solid world building is essential to the story. When it’s done well, readers become immersed in the tale, but when it’s done poorly, they notice. Here are some tips to help create believable worlds in unbelievable settings:

Rules and Consistency

If you are writing fantasy, you’ll likely have magic in your story, and in sci-fi, some super-cool technology. Here are some things to consider when building these elements into your world:

  • Know how the magic and technology works, who can wield it, and what it can do. Equally as important, understand its limits, or the cost of using it. Do only some people have access to it? What are the repercussions if that’s the case?
  • Consider its impact on people and society. Once you’ve introduced magic or futuristic technology into your world, it is now quite different from our world. You’ll need to think through the effects it will have on the people and the culture.
  • Death must be real, or only reversed with dire cost. No amount of magic or fancy technology should easily combat death, because if death has no meaning, the stakes for your characters aren’t high enough.
  • Be consistent with applying the rules. Readers will catch it if you aren’t!

Physical Geography and Climate

You should have a good sense of the physical world you’ve created for your characters to navigate. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Create a map, even if this map is just for your own reference.
  • Think through how geography informs society. Does a mountain range serve as protection from a neighboring army? Do coastal cultures use the waterways for trading?
  • Understand the climate. How do people have to adapt to their climate? How does the climate in different regions impact how society functions in those areas? Does it affect food production, clothing needs, travel conditions?

Social and Economic Constructs

Unless your character has crash landed on an uninhabited world, you’ll need to think about culture and society. Here are some things to consider:

  • How does the government function? Who holds power? Who are the disenfranchised? Are there different forms of government in different regions?
  • Does religion play a role in the society? If so, how? What are the tenants of that faith? Are there consequences for non-believers? Are there different interpretations of the same religion?
  • How important is an origin story to your culture? Is that origin story based on real history or mythology?
  • What does the infrastructure look like? People communicate, travel, use water, eat, etc. How are these things managed?

By thinking through the physical terrain you’ve created and the important pieces of culture, science, or magic that exist there, you will have created a consistent, believably unbelievable world in which readers can experience the story alongside your characters.

But creating an imaginative backdrop is only one part of crafting a speculative story, and good world-building will only take you so far. Next week we’ll go beyond the basics to discuss problems and pitfalls with world-building, ideas on revealing the world through our characters, and tips on creating depth through complexity. Stay tuned!


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About Author

Tabitha Lord is the award-winning author of the HORIZON series. She lives in Rhode Island with her husband, four kids, two spoiled cats, and lovable black lab.

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