World building is so much more than describing setting. World building is establishing how your fictional world functions, what the rules are, and what life there is like. When properly established, these elements create a foundation for your readers to stand on and allows the reader to submerge in the story instead of seeking to understand where and how it takes place. Let’s look closer at these elements and just how they affect readers.
World building seeks to answer two main questions: What do your characters see (setting), and how do your characters live (era)?
The functionality of a book builds a rule system that maintains consistency throughout the story. For example, if in chapter one your characters are using a standard Beretta M9 that fires ordinary bullets, it’d be quite a shock if chapter 9 reads that those bullets become high-tech futuristic ammunition that can penetrate bulletproof glass. That defies the rules you’ve put into place for eight chapters now. Consistency is key to understanding; and without first understanding, your readers cannot imagine and enjoy.
One of the most successful ways to establish how your fictional world functions is through era. If your characters are set in the prehistoric era, readers expect there to be no modern technology, and for your characters to exhibit primitive behavior and most likely a lack of verbal communication skills. However, if your characters are set in the renaissance era, readers understand the rules of the world to function with horse drawn carriages, exotic costumes bursting with color, and most likely a kingdom of sorts as the established government.
Era can also define society’s acceptance of your creatures. For instance, back in the early 2000’s, ghosts were still scrapped in the “hoax” category and shows like Ghost Hunters sought to disprove their existence. However, in today’s society, ghosts have become more widely accepted and even sought out. Here’s another example: witches in the nineteenth century were burned at the stake; but witches in modern society are considered heroes.
Common eras I encounter:
- Middle Ages
- Dystopian (this is a common enough “time” to include here)
Ways to indirectly hint at era:
- Technology: cars/buggies, computers/letters, humans/robots, guns/swords
- Housing: huts (past), houses (present), no gravity spheres (future)
- Medicine: inferior to present, modern, advanced
- Wardrobe: tunic, trousers and tees, armor and chainmail
Often times, a story’s foundation is not in the “when” or “how” but in the “where.” The most common occurrence of this is when the fantasy world differs from earth. Some characters rely on portals to jump between places instead of traveling by train, plane, or car. Some fantasy stories rely heavily on terrain to play part as the antagonist (raging sea storms with sea monsters, abandoned towns in dystopian novels, etc.). Sometimes the theme of a fantasy novel is a kingdom, and the hierarchy or interaction of regions (wealthy/poor, sustainable/uninhabitable, etc.).
Ways to describe your fantasy setting:
- Location: mountains, island, rural/urban
- Weather: sky is purple, never rains, naturally cold/hot
- Resembles: England, Russia, America
- Planet: gravity, breathable air, blue sky/green grass/clear water
Sometimes it Matters, Sometimes it Doesn’t
In the case that the book is a character-focused story, the author focuses on characters’:
- Rank: socially, politically, and militarily
- Species: dwarf, elf, werewolf, ghost, vampire, or just plain human
- Supernatural powers: telekinesis, teleportation, psychic visions, rapid healing
- Relevance in furthering the plot
Only Describe What You Need
Overloading readers with descriptive language can distract from the plot. If the details aren’t necessary to further the story, further develop the characters, or to prevent ambiguity, leave the details out.
Consistency is key in understanding. But world building is the key to imagination.
Thanks for reading!
(Cover photo credit: Pexels)