Hello everyone! Today’s post comes from my friend, Julia Witmer. Make sure to check out her bio at the bottom of the page. Enjoy!
Worldbuilding is, undoubtedly, an integral part of any story.
Whether the story takes place in Arkansas or Narnia, readers want a world that’s well developed, unique, enticing, and easily understandable. Without it, reading can easily go from an enjoyable experience to a confusing one. And nobody wants to be so confused while they’re reading that they can’t enjoy the characters or story.
But how are you supposed to do it? What makes worldbuilding good? Or bad, for that matter? What makes a reader want to pick up a book, and what makes them want to put it right back down? And how am I supposed to actually apply that to my story?
I think the best way of worldbuilding is starting out with a few basic questions long before you move onto the difficult ones. Questions about the overall concept, how it applies to your world, and what can make your world more conceptually attractive.
Then, once you’ve got those down, you can get to asking yourself some of those nitty gritty details—which I’ll get into a bit at the end, too!
So, what are the main questions?
- Is it believable?
- How much detail do you want to go into?
- Is it confusing?
- What is it similar to?
- What makes it unique or memorable?
Is It Believable?
This is perhaps the most important question to ask yourself.
Readers—especially fantasy readers—are willing to stretch their imagination to a certain extent. Yeah, sure, it doesn’t make sense in this world, but it works in that one. After all, it’s supposed to be different from ours.
That’s why fantasy readers read fantasy in the first place: they want something different.
The problem comes, however, when the world is too different. When it doesn’t matter how well you describe it and explain the reasoning behind it, the readers simply cannot stretch their imagination that far.
Even if your explanations are fairly decent ones, it feels as if you’re reaching a little bit in your attempts to make it work. This is right when the reader will set your story down and won’t come back.
I had this problem a lot when I was a beginning writer.
I remember a story of mine which I wrote at no older than twelve, in which magic had no limits. At all. You could do anything you wanted with it, and it didn’t have any negative consequences whatsoever.
It didn’t matter if you were a dog, or a human, or some sort of fantastical creature, you could use magic.
At the time, I just thought, “Why not? I need the main character to have magic, and it’s not fair if nobody else can. Plus, I need her to learn it quickly, and if it’s easy then that makes my job easier, too.”
I think you can probably already see the flaws in this thought process.
Building up how your magic system works is incredibly important to building how the rest of your world works. It affects every other area of society and how it functions, and for the most part, people like it when there’s some kind of limit, or negative side, or struggle within that.
This goes for pretty much everything. When you’re developing magical creatures, the way people in society work together, how families relate to each other, or even what kind of transportation people use, you have to be careful to make it believable.
How Much Detail Do You Want to Go Into?
Not every novel—fantasy or otherwise—needs to be 250k words. Most people won’t actually read a novel that long, and especially not if that’s an author’s first novel. However, going into detail doesn’t necessarily mean your story is going to be a huge book. It’s important to sit down and decide what needs the detail and what doesn’t.
You might be wondering, “How do I know when I need to add detail? How do I know when it’s too much detail? Not enough?”
The answers may vary depending on what type of book you’re aiming to write.
So ask yourself: “How long do I want this book to be? What’s the book’s audience? What world building in this case would bore me as a reader?”
For instance, if your story has a character who actively uses magic, you probably want to detail how she does that, enough that the reader can understand and go from there. But if you know magic exists in your world and isn’t important to any of the main characters, then you don’t need to go into any real detail.
Focus on description, detail, and development for things that are important to your main characters and plot. Feel free to bend your world to fit your plot and your character’s needs.
It’s okay not to tell your reader everything about every corner of your universe, and it’s okay to tailor your world to your plot!
Is It Confusing?
This ties in a little to the last two points. After all, just because your world is confusing doesn’t mean it’s unbelievable.
If it’s unbelievable, you likely need to do a lot of reworking on how that particular thing functions, but if it’s confusing, the fix might be simpler.
If something is confusing as far as how the world works, usually that just means you need to give more detail—even if you said you didn’t want to put in that much.
Add some backstory. Give some context. Show the reader what you mean when you say something—don’t just say it.
What is it Similar To?
Are we thinking more Narnia or Middle Earth? Oz or Wonderland? Nottingham or King Arthur’s Court? California or small-town Kentucky?
I’m not saying you should plagiarize, nor am I saying you’re only allowed to write retellings (although retellings can be pretty epic).
But often, if you have a jumping-off point—a world or location or system that you enjoy, and you think is similar to what you want to write—you’ve got a head start.
This was how I learned to write, really. I read novels and history books and I learned about cultures all over the world, and I started from there, developing it into something unique and fun to me and my characters.
This helps to make it believable, too. People recognize Narnia. They know small-town Kentucky. Even if they’ve never been there, never experienced it, never even seen pictures, they can pick something out that’s familiar to them. Something that they can identify with. And that’s important to writing a world that people will love.
What Makes it Unique or Memorable?
Alright, so you have something that you want to make it like. Let’s say…Middle Earth. So you want a medieval-style world, with elves and dwarves…and a twist.
What is your twist? What makes yours different from Tolkien’s, but makes it so it’s still recognizable to readers who love his work?
Perhaps you create a creature of your own. Maybe you change the way the different nations interact, or the way well-known fantasy races look. (Though don’t change too much, or it could be confusing. You can’t give a human the head of a fly and call it an elf. That isn’t an elf, that’s…kind of weird, honestly, but to each his own. As long as you don’t call it an elf!)
Whatever you do, make it your own. Create something recognizable but unique.
And remember: if your world is at the very least understandable and fun, it’ll work.
It doesn’t have to be mind-blowing, especially if it’s your first time creating a world, and it doesn’t have to knock your socks off. It has to compliment the characters, add obstacles to the plot, and keep a reader involved in your story. That’s what it’s really there for.
World Building Questions for Your Fantasy/Sci-Fi Countries:
- Do they have easy access to water? Where do they get it? Can they get it?
- If they can’t, what do they drink?
- What do they eat? Where do they get said food?
- How are their relationships with surrounding countries? Good? Kind of iffy? Hostile?
- What’s the government like? Who’s in charge?
- How do the people feel about it? Are they allowed to openly express negative opinions about the government, or is that dangerous?
- What do people wear? Is there a historical significance to it? Has it been influenced by any surrounding countries, or does this country remain mostly untainted by other nations?
- What’s their religion? Do they have one? If not, why? If they do, where did the religion originate? How does that religion affect the country as a whole?
- How do they entertain themselves? What games do they play?
- When they think of “bedtime stories,” what types of stories do they think of? Stories similar to ours (“Little Red Riding Hood,” “Cinderella,” etc.), or something completely different? Do these stories have any religious significance, or are they simply old stories?
- What’s the architecture like? Is it the same as or very similar to something we have here on earth, or is it entirely unique?
- What is the family unit like? Is it patriarchal? Matriarchal? Something else?
- Is there a class system? If so, what determines that class system?
- What’s transportation like? How can this help or hinder your characters?
- Do people purchase things with money? If so, what’s that money called, and what is it made of? What does it look like? If not, how do they get things they need? Do they barter? Do something else entirely?
- What’s the temperature like? Does it change, or is it fairly stagnant?
- How do people communicate across long distances? Can they? If not, how does this affect society as a whole? How could this hinder your characters and their goal?
- What does the moral compass of the society look like? Is this because of religion (or lack thereof)?
- Would society be seen by the reader as “primarily good” or “primarily bad”? (This wouldn’t necessarily depend on where the main character came from. Just because the main character is good, doesn’t mean his society is, and vice versa!) Why?
- Is there magic? If so, how does it work? How does it affect society?
- How does schooling work? Is it primarily public schooling (or something like it)? Primarily homeschooling? Something else entirely? How does this affect the family unit and society?
- Are there groups of people that tend to be at odds (for instance, two political parties, social groups, or religious organizations)?
You may not need to know the answer to all of these questions, but hopefully they can help you get started and get your brain working to figure out what your world really looks like!
About the Author: Julia Witmer is a seventeen-year-old Christian writer with a passion for all things imaginative and creative. Her creativity usually expresses itself in the form of YA fantasy. When she isn’t typing away at her computer, Julia enjoys devouring the advice of other authors on blogs, listening to music, and nursing her unhealthy obsession with Doctor Who, Sherlock and The Mentalist. Making her home in Chiang Mai, Thailand, she enjoys the advantages of homeschooling and the extra time spent with her parents, siblings, favorite cat, Layla, and her sweet Shih Tzu puppy, Mercy. Her latest novel, A Wilted Willow: Revised & Updated Edition, is available for preorder at https://www.amazon.com/Wilted-Willow-Revised-Updated-ebook/. For more information, go to: https://juliawitmerblog.wordpress.com/
Please be sure to check out Julia’s new book! I happen to know that she’s a really good author. 🙂
I hope this post was helpful to you. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back soon!
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