A 4-Step Guide To World Building: Not Just For Sci-Fi/Fantasy Authors

World Building has long been associated with thousand-page epic fantasy novels and off-world sci-fi books in which the setting and rules of that world directly affect what happens in the story and why it happens. I’m here to tell you that world building does not just have to be for sci-fi/fantasy novels. I’m going to present you with a few reasons you might want to take a second look at the practice regardless of your genre of choosing.

Many assume that world building exists because the author wants to set their fictional world apart from the world we live in, and for the most part, they would be right. However, I’m going to argue that world building exists to set up expectations for the reader. The human mind loves to make patterns, and putting everything into their own sorted boxes is not just for the OCD among us. Humans subconsciously do this all the time whether they admit to it or not. The practice of world building, in my option, exists to feed into the reader’s subconscious desire to categorize everything, only to shatter those expectations at a later time. Notice that I haven’t mentioned sci-fi or fantasy at all in my description, which will come into play later. Getting too heady for you yet? Let’s break it down into a few steps that will get you started.

World Building in 4 Steps:

1. Fysiks (Not just for Newton)
Generally speaking, the concept of physics from world to world varies only minimally between novels because most of us have a notion that there is gravity on Earth and differing amounts on other planets/planetoids/moons and none at all in outer space. This goes beyond gravity, but it’s important that if you’re going to mess with this whole physics thing, you should do it early in your novel. Nothing will throw off a reader more than finding out halfway through a novel that all of the previous action took place in half gravity. Can you have a different set of physics in a non-sci-fi/fantasy world? Maybe. What if one of your characters believes physics acts differently for him than for everyone else. Maybe he has a psychological disorder. Does the reader know he’s crazy? What if it was from the perspective of the delusional man? Is he actually delusional, or is everyone else crazy? Something to think about.

2. Back Story
This is definitely something that applies to stories outside the sci-fi/fantasy realm. In your novel, are historical events exactly as they happened in the real world, where your fictional characters fit in precisely somehow, or is something different? If you’re going to create alternate histories or detailed back stories for your characters I have a few suggestions that could help. As a reader, I find long descriptions that last for pages talking about someone’s ancestry boring. I just don’t have that kind of attention span. What I suggest is that you introduce a few factoids early that introduce this history as it relates to your character, and then keep putting in bits and pieces as you go along that add depth to your character. One of my favorite things to do is to give a reader very little information about a character upfront, such that they form their own opinion about that character. Then, as I introduce more information about that character, the reader starts to realize that their initial opinions were dreadfully wrong. Maybe that good guy isn’t so good. Maybe that bad guy isn’t so bad. Or, maybe that rogue is exactly what you initially thought and they can seldom be trusted. The point is that every novel needs a history, a back story, somewhere. How you implement it is key. I’m a fan of sprinkling details throughout the novel to add depth at the least expected times.

3. Rule Systems
This extends beyond the systems of magic, power, and more that you might find in a sci-fi/fantasy novel. In those types of novels, it’s important to show that certain characters hold certain levels of power or influence, especially early on, because then your reader knows what to expect going forward. For instance, in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, what is the first thing Darth Vader does? He kills a guy. He uses the Force to strangle someone who displeased him. This set him up as a powerful villain who possesses some kind of supernatural powers. Even though he doesn’t do a whole lot until much later in the series and we don’t yet understand what he was able to do with his powers, we as viewers still see him as dangerous and evil. But now I’m going down the sci-fi rabbit hole. I digress…

Rule systems don’t have to be just for sci-fi/fantasy. Let me give you an example. What if your novel took place in a concentration camp during World War II. There are certainly lots of rules there, right? The commander of that camp could be introduced as evil, or perhaps even likable but in an unfortunate situation. The guards could enforce certain rules early on that give your characters reason to be afraid. In each of these situations, it’s important to set it up early. If it were me, I would set up my readers’ expectations in the first three chapters or so. That way, they know what to expect and I will have them in my clutches.

4. You’ve got me, what now?
So, you’ve set up your reader’s expectations, defined the physics, back stories, and rule systems for your world, now what do you do? This is when you exercise every sadistic muscle in your body. If you’ve done your job correctly, your reader will manifest these expectations with little argument, after all, they want to put everything in little boxes. However, not many books ‘make it’ that don’t shatter these expectations in some way. This doesn’t have to be done by killing off a beloved character, but there are times when this could certainly help. What does have to happen is a moment in the book that makes the reader stop, backtrack a few sentences, and read again. If you make your reader stumble because you’ve added a surprise twist or shattered their expectations in some way, you’re doing your readers a service. Readers will remember your work, if only for that moment, and that is half the battle in this sea of new authors.

For some examples of World Building, I suggest you check out The Azure Key, the first in my science fiction series The Corsair Uprising! It’s just 99 cents!

How about it gang? What are your thoughts on world building, expectations, and Earth-shattering revelations? Leave a comment below and your argument could be addressed in a future post!

UPDATE (4/3/2015): Read Devan Stormont’s article that uses my steps listed above and applies them to writing code. When World’s Collide: How Writing Fiction Intersects with Writing Code. Note: Devan is the creator of the popular app Weather Route, who I interviewed in an earlier post.

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