Five Tips For Successful World Building

So you’ve got a great story, and/or a good cast of characters and you think you might have enough for a book, or at least a good short story. What’s next? It’s time to world build. While I don’t claim to by any kind of an expert on the subject, here are five suggestions for building the sandbox for your character(s) to play in.

Start small

While it might seem counter-intuitive, I have always found that starting in a small section or area of the world and building outward is the way to go. I tend to look at one area of the world as a puzzle piece, and by detailing the first piece I can figure out how it fits into a large picture and slowly build outward. Whenever I have tried to start building from the top down, I always get lost in the details and it becomes a mess.

Make sure your characters fit your world

This might seem like it doesn’t have much to do with world building, but it does. Whether you start with your characters, or build your world first, just make sure you’ve built the right world for them to exist in. If you’re writing a grim medieval novel, having a bunch of happy, hopeful people running around will throw your readers off (unless it’s on purpose or course).

Write more than what goes in your book

When creating a convincing world you should always remember that your readers are only ever going to see a portion of it, and that’s great. One of the best things about discovering a new world in a book as a reader (for me anyway) is the feeling that there’s something else out there, that the world is bigger than the story. With that in mind, I like to adhere to a 60/40 rule. There’s always about 60% of the world still living somewhere else, beyond the pages of the story I’m writing. This is also good as it gives you more details to expand your world in later novels (if you’re writing a series anyway).

Details, details, details

This one is pretty straight forward, but the world is in the details. I will caution you that it’s very easy to drown your reader in too many details about every last corner or facet of the world you’ve built, but not giving them enough is worse. As the author, the world lives in your head, so share that as much as you can with your readers. The more details you can provide, even about innocuous things that aren’t the least bit involved in your plot, the more the reader is going to live in the world with you, and that’s a good thing.

Give it a wrinkle

I think there is a bad tendency of fiction writers to assume that every world they build needs to be as original as possible. While I’m not advocating copying and pasting anything, it’s entirely possible to build a great world without needing to reinvent too many wheels in the process. Just give it a wrinkle. You’ll be surprised how just a few differences make a tired setting feel clever and original. Amazon’s fantasy series Carnival Row is a great example of this. Adding the wrinkle of faeries and supernatural creatures to a very familiar setting gives it a whole new feel. You don’t always have to build a whole new world, just give it enough wrinkles to make it yours.

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