World building

Someone else asked me how I go about world building when writing fantasy or science fiction or historical fiction. (I’ve written all three.) Once again the question made me go all inarticulate and respond randomly and lamely: “How do I breathe?” “How does a butterfly flap its wings?”

Clearly I need to figure out how I go about world building. I’m fascinated by writing process and this is a large part of mine. I have to quit it with the inarticulate spluttering.

So those of you have written novels not set in this world—how did you go about your world building? Or, to refer to a recent discussion on Gwenda’s blog, what story do you tell yourself about your world building?


  1. Kadie-Wa on #

    different world building, it came to me from a dream. a really cool dream. and i kept having the same one over and over again, but each time it got longer, and longer and so I kept writing down what the dream was about. then, i just added characters a climax and a couple months later i have my book.

    hope that answered your question!

  2. Lizzy-wa on #

    hhmmm…i see sompthing. think it looks cool. say sompthing totally random like: “i wonder whats under there” or “i cant believe that! its just like…” or “if everything we said came true, do you think we would end up…” and then i just am silent for like 15 seconds. which is longer than i ever am. and im like “ohmygosh!” and then i run away and start riting on my hand.

    -Lizzy-wa OUT! 😛

  3. Chris Howard on #

    I begin with details, sometimes weird obscure details that have little to do with defining the world. I also love making up genealogies, city plans, accepted art forms, political settings. I have written fictional scientific journal articles for stories. I love the research part of writing, but tend to go overboard with it, and I always have to remind myself that the purpose of world building and all the research is not to dump it on the reader, but to make me so comfortable in this world that it becomes second nature to tell stories about what goes on inside it. If I were writing about Boston or San Francisco I wouldn’t have to build a world. Or the worlds would be much smaller at any rate.

  4. Dawn on #

    I’m currently co-writing a series about vampires and a new vampire-esque species called Ferradi (kinda like super vampires) but I think for us the way that we could set up a new kind of world was we kind of just threw in magical elements and then asked ourselves questions about it. Like, the reason our vampires drink blood is because blood is a conduit for emotions, which is their actual source of energy. We made that up because we wondered ourselves WHY Vampires drink blood. Often we throw in weird things and then ask why. In asking why, we’ve set up a new world, a new language…everything. I think having a system of mechanics for things, even made up things, makes it far more believable for the reader. Why is a powerful word.

  5. sylvia_rachel on #

    the series i’m writing (one book down, one and nine-tenths to go…) is set in a world where it’s the early nineteenth century, but the tudors are still on the throne, henry v didn’t die of dysentery, england never gave back its angevin conquests, there was never a queen elizabeth, and the act of union with scotland never happened. oh, and also christianity never took over the world. and also people have magic.

    the worldbuilding was long and research-intensive but also, as you say, just sort of happened: i wondered about things, about how idea x or y would be handled in this world, and went looking for the answers, which led me to other questions and then to answers to those questions …

    i don’t think i could do months of research and world-building before starting to write; the characters’ voices in my head would either become overwhelming and drive me nuts, or become disgusted with my failure to deal with them and go away to pester someone else, and either way i’d lose momentum.

  6. Justine on #

    Thanks everyone. Fascinating!

    I think Dawn and Sylvia-Rachel are doing what I think I do: asking questions in order to figure out what works and how to make it work.

  7. Jedi Ninja on #

    Basically… I don’t do much worldbuilding.

    I am working on a trilogy of fantasy novels, all with very little worldbuilding. I focus on the characters, not the world. The world is in the background and the characters are in the foreground, not the other way around.

    Sure, the characters do end up traveling to all different places, but the overall map of the world is pretty simple, definitely not anything of middle earth proportion. I have a couple major places, and the characters keep returning to those places over and over, but it doesn’t get boring because the story isn’t about the places.

    World building is a good thing, it’s just not one of my strong points in writing. All of the major fantasy epics out there have tons of worldbuilding, but I think it can actually get boring for the reader. When I read Lord of the Rings, I didn’t care about the world, I cared about the characters. But most of the time, Tolkein’s focus was on describing the world.

    In my humble opinion, everything you describe in the world you create should be relevant to the plot and to the characters. If it’s not, then it’s good filler material to make the book longer, but it’s not good for anything more than that.

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