Posted by: Kathy Temean | July 10, 2012

There’s a Whole Universe Out There: World Building

There’s a Whole Universe Out There:  World Building Workshop

 Given by John Cusick 

Written by Kelly Ann Owens

Hansel released his sister’s hand to check his GPS.   It had been two miles since leaving the sixth village house.  He returned the device to his satchel next to the spoons.  The last preserved palace should be… yup, lacquered licorice and lollipops straight ahead.  I wonder how well this former contest queen has aged, thought Hansel.  He inched toward the gingerbread door to read the faded gold type.  A shellacked blue ribbon identified the house:  First Prize – 1934.   “Just ask to see her golden mixing spoon,” instructed Hansel.  “And remember, don’t eat the sweets!” 

Imagination.  It is the key to world building. Take any familiar tale, such as Hansel and Gretel, add your own twist to it, and transform the texture of the story into something entirely new.   Authors can change the world. 

John Cusick used M.T. Anderson’s Feed to illustrate strong world building techniques.  Authors build worlds that readers can visualize in their minds.  This requires carefully crafting the story’s physical setting, time period, societal norms, and each character’s personal history in that world.    While listening to Anderson’s opening, participants were whisked away with engaging characters to a futuristic world. 

Mr. Cusick modeled fictional world building using two methods.  The outside-in approach begins with a world divided into regions.  For example, humans inhabit one half, wizards the other.  Build the wizards’ world by creating their education system, economy, and living arrangements.  Within the education system, delineate various schools.  Each school can be further subdivided into dormitories.  Living in one is the protagonist – ready to interact with every other part of this world. 

An alternative method takes the opposite approach; build from the inside out.  Begin with a character or incident, and create all of the parts of a society.  Some authors sketch a map to inspire story elements.  Others give the world a sense of history by traveling back in time.  Consider the setting one year ago, five years ago, ten years ago, and even a century ago.  Has the area been repurposed over time?  How do locals feel about it?  Do visitors feel the same?  Characters may look at places with completely different points of view.  Multiple layers of feelings add reality to the world you are creating. 

The setting and its constraints shape a character’s motivation.  Mr. Cusick challenged workshop participants to experiment with this concept during a writing exercise.  Starting with a known tale, Hansel and Gretel, participants built their own societal constructs for the children’s world, including the commerce, culture, and government of the society.  Writers created the established norms for the candy houses and their occupants.  The protagonists’ motivations for venturing into the woods developed.  The result:  as many variations of this timed-honored tale as participants in the workshop.   

World building.  It is more than just an address. It’s your character’s entire universe.

Kelly Ann, thanks for taking the time to share what you learned from John Cusick’s Workshop.  I was in John’s other workshop and he did a great job.  Sounds like he did the same good job with this workshop.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Thanks Kathy for posting these!


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