Posted by: Kathy Temean | January 21, 2014

World Building Tips


This perfect January illustration was sent in by Joanne Friar, who was featured on Illustrator Saturday – March 10, 2012. I love how she has built a winter world around her three characters. She is represented by Christina Tugeau.

Your job as a writer is to build a world around your characters to make readers forget they’re reading a book, to convince them that they’re inside a true experience, and that they are witness to a world that exists beyond the page. We tend to think more about world building when writing and fantasy or sci-fi, but this is true for every book. You can’t make your story about life in the 70’s, being lost in the woods, or your novel about protagonist getting hooked on drugs, if your don’t bring that world to life for the reader. The writer who immerses their audience into the world your story lives in will create a lasting impact for their book.

Just like you need to know your characters, you need to do your homework for the world you want your characters to live in, so get out a notebook and jot down your answers to these questions that Lexa Hillyer and Lauren Oliver talked about over at Paper Lantern:

Who: World-building is as much about people as it is about place. All societies are defined by structure and organization, and this is equally true for, say, a country as it is for a high school, a gardening club, or a tight-knit group of friends. Your world—whatever it is—will be at least partially defined by major conflicts between groups of people (rich vs. poor; mean girls vs. geeky girls; boys vs. girls) and by social hierarchy. Who are the authority figures in this world? Are there secret sects or societies? Conspirators? Warring factions? How are these groups intrinsic to the world you’ve chosen?

What: What is this world—a subterranean realm? A posh summer spot? A middle-of-nowhere town? A wealthy suburb, or an impoverished urban area? The what goes beyond a simple name. The what of a place is its essential makeup: big or small, rich or poor, country or city, cage or castle.

When: Deciding when your story takes place will influence every single detail. If it’s a book set in the 19th Century, you’ll steer clear of convertibles and televisions and anachronistic phrases like “dude!” If it’s a book set in the future, you’ll have to think about how technology and social conventions might have evolved. Even if you set the book now, you have an obligation to remain consistent—you can’t just ignore the advent of cell phones, for instance!

Where: Is your book set on Mars? A current Los Angeles? An underground bunker below Paris? The location should be linked to the primary situation. If it’s a story about family conflict, perhaps you want to intensify the drama by having everyone trapped in a small house in a small town, in, say, a blizzard. If your story is about a girl who sees fairies, you’ll need to ask yourself if there are fairies everywhere or just where she lives and if the latter, why there? What about her specific location makes it an ideal spot for fairies to hang out? Which leads us to…

Why: Why is it important that your story occur here, and only here?  What is special about this location? How does it mirror or complicate your main character’s issues?

Follow the Rules. You may not always think about the rules that govern our real lives—that’s because we take them for granted. We don’t sit around everyday going, “this gravity thing totally sucks—I want to levitate!” or “dude, I just don’t get why we only have two eyes!” But the rules are there nonetheless, and they don’t just change one day when you wake up. This is especially important to remember if you’re writing fantasy, paranormal or dystopian novels—the rules in your book may in fact be different from our real-life rules, but they must remain consistent in order to be believable. Can your characters fly after consuming mint oreos? Fine. But that means that they must always fly after eating mint oreos—and never fly after eating milanos. Is gravity less powerful on your fictional planet? Fine, but that has to affect everything from the way people move to the boiling point of water. YOU CANNOT SIMPLY MAKE UP THE RULES AS YOU GO. If you try to change or tweak or adapt your world-rules partway through, what you’re doing is completely undermining the previously-established rules, which in turn completely undermines your readers’ trust in you. And when that happens? They don’t buy it anymore. They no longer care.

Elizabeth Miles, author of Fury, a paranormal series set in a fictional town in Maine, offers some advice on keeping your rules organized:

“I decided to make a ‘Fury cheat sheet,’ a short synopsis of the mythos I was creating. When you’re building something from the ground up, it’s important to have an extremely concrete set of rules, even if some of the minute details don’t make it into the narrative—you still need to know the answers. One of the most important pieces for me was realizing that the Furies had a logic all their own—that their choices didn’t necessarily need to fit into my conceptualization of good/evil, moral/immoral. Once I wrapped my head around that, it was easy to let their particular brand of evil—one that knows few boundaries and wants to wrap its fingers around everything it sees—permeate the books. From there, my ultimate goal was to infuse even the non-paranormal scenes with an undercurrent of darkness.”

Go for full immersion. Ooh, we love Elizabeth’s idea of permeating the book. We love undercurrents of darkness! Remember, you don’t want to tell readers all the rules of your world. Nothing’s worse than a long string of dialogue in which one character says, “the thing about us aliens is that we can only fly when we eat mint oreos,” and the other character says, “but what about mint milanos?” Just because it’s dialogue doesn’t mean it isn’t still a totally obvious shortcut to explaining the rules of your world. What you want to do instead is truly immerse us. And you do that by making all the details show how the world works.

Here’s a tip on immersion from Fiona Paul, author of Venom, a steamy historical mystery set in late Renaissance Venice:

“My imagination is selective. It will embrace the task of describing the love interest’s taut muscles or the glistening tendrils of hair clinging to his forehead after he does battle in the name of honor or justice. However, when I have to describe a house (or a chair or an old lady or a teacup) it shuts down, and what ends up on the page is: ‘The house was empty except for the old lady sipping from a teacup as she sat nestled in a chair.’ Zzzzzzz. Boring. What I do is let my imagination go wild when it wants to, but when it starts to stall out I go looking for things that trigger sensory experiences. Maybe that means interviewing someone or poring over strangers’ vacation photos of Venice on Flickr. Maybe it means spying on old ladies at the grocery store or heading off to the oldest cemetery I can find in the dead of night armed with only my trusty journal. Each setting has its own requirements, and I have done (and/or googled) a lot of unusual things in the name of getting a scene just right.”

Be specific. Real life is extremely specific. Not only do you sleep in a room, you sleep in a room in a bed in, say, the back of a railroad apartment in New York City where you can constantly hear the traffic; or in the attic room your parents converted for you after your older sister went to college. You don’t just drive a car. You drive an Acura you inherited from your Dad, or a Honda you saved up for by babysitting for a super bratty kid who lives down the street and refuses to go to sleep until you let her watch Toddlers and Tiaras. You don’t eat dinner. You eat chili at Applebee’s and then you have heartburn. Novels should have just as much specificity as real life.

NOTE: This does not mean that you should clutter your novels with useless or excess details. A few key specific ones will allow your readers to fill in the blanks. Try to see every detail as an opportunity. It can (and should!) tell us more about what kind of world we’re in. Do all the kids in high school drive Beamers? Or run-down Buicks patched together with duct tape? Or personal space ships? Specific, well-chosen details inform the reader about what world we’re in, and relieve the author from explicating everything. Specific details are a form of showing, not telling!

This doesn’t mean you should simply list details, either. You want the details to appear organically amid the action and dialogue. Don’t tell us she’s walking into her childhood home and that there’s a hand-knitted blanket thrown over the back of the couch, sewn by her grandmother in 1936, and then launch into dialogue. Instead have the character walk in, flop down on the couch, and absentmindedly play with the worn fringe on the old blanket grandma knitted, all while she’s talking. Immediately we’ll have a deeper sense of the world and the character’s role within it, without noticing how this information was given to us.

Remember: World-building happens as much off the page as on. It happens in the mind, in dreams, in conversations. Talk to people about your book’s world, as much as possible. Let them ask those glaring logic questions you’ve been avoiding.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Reblogged this on Isabella Stines and commented:
    Great tips for building your story-world, no matter what genre your writing in!


  2. Great post, Kathy!!! Thank you!


  3. Terrific post, Kathy. Thanks so much. I will be posting the link on my blog.


  4. I completely agree with what you have written. I hope this post could reach more people as this was truly an interesting post.


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