Authentic World Building

world buildingThe topic of World Building is vast and varied, far too complex to cover in a single blog post. Not unless you want to be reading it the entire day, and I’m assuming you don’t! So in this post, I want to pick out two related aspects of the topic and concentrate on them.

How to create an authentic fictional world is a question that exercises every writer of fantasy, as well as writers of other genres, at some point or another. Hardly surprising, you might say, and you would be right. After all, you can create the most wonderfully complex characters and involve them in the most fascinating and compelling plot, but if the world they inhabit doesn’t feel real, it all falls apart.

The thing about world building is that it is part cerebral and part visual. For the cerebral part, the writer has to decide what form this brave new world should take. Will it be completely different, unrecognizable from our own world, with new systems of government and fantastical life forms, or will it be based upon the familiar – some ancient civilization of Earth, say, or a well known region or society?

Whichever a writer chooses, it is vital that he or she can clearly visualize every aspect of this new creation, down to the tiniest detail. This will be trickier if the world is to be something entirely new, but in my opinion having a clear mental image is even more important for such worlds. A world based on the familiar will immediately connect with the images readers already have in their minds, and this will allow them to enter that world and inhabit it through the eyes of the characters without disorientation. Creators of a completely unfamiliar world, however, risk leaving their readers floundering for a few scenes, or maybe even chapters, until they find or learn new reference points. This is where clear visualization really counts.

The good news is that the majority of writers are good at visualization. After all, we create these stories in our heads and put ourselves in the shoes of our characters all the time. For many, writing is a visceral and vicarious process. The problems only start if the writer is not as good at transferring these visions to the page. My own style of writing has often been described as ‘cinematic’. I didn’t design it that way – it’s the natural way I write – but I did my best to bring it out once I realized it was there. The scenes in my head are like images on a TV or cinema screen, and I write what I see. However, I also happen to have a good eye for detail and I like to include some of these smaller details in my writing, even down to the ordinary, everyday aspects of life.

I believe that these smaller details are what help make your fictional world feel real to your readers. It doesn’t matter what type of world you have decided to create, there will still be those humdrum activities common to life forms everywhere. If you can immerse yourself in the society you have created, and can clearly imagine yourself living your daily life there, you should be able to communicate this to your readers.

Some writers meticulously plot out every nuance of their world or society down to the smallest law, tiniest insect, or microscopic plant form, writing pages of reference notes so they don’t forget. There’s nothing wrong with that if it works for you. However, it is not always necessary to be that thorough. If none of your characters has religious beliefs, why worry about creating a religion? If your action takes place within a small part of your world, why worry about whether there are mountain ranges further away? Provided you have a clear visualization of where the action is taking place, you can add further details as or if they become necessary.

So – clear visualization on the part of the creator of the world is vital, but don’t get so caught up in your plot and characters that you lose sight of the everyday aspects of life. To give examples, I often find myself irritated or frustrated by writers (mainly of fantasy, but not always) who forget or ignore things like feeding and caring for the animals their characters ride or use. Many times I have read of characters making unrealistically long journeys on horseback at speed, with no thought on the author’s part as to how far or how long a horse can actually go before it founders or dies. Rarely do you read even the smallest reference to supplies of feed for such beasts. In fact, sometimes there is no mention of the characters themselves carrying their own food, yet the author has them sitting by a roaring campfire each night tucking into rabbit stew that has somehow, magically, appeared.

These, of course, are not tiny details at all, but they are ordinary. I’m not suggesting that writers should devote entire passages to such things, but mentioning them adds depth and authenticity. If you want your readers to identify quickly with your created world and its characters then include, early on, some of the small and ordinary aspects of their lives. Even if your opening scene is full of tension and danger, such details can earth your reader and draw them into your writing. A bit like the saying ‘take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves’, you could say, ‘make mention of the small details and your world will take care of itself.’

About Bonnie Gwyn Johnson

Bonnie Gwyn handles all guest bloggers on this website. Contact her if you would like to volunteer your time to share writing advice for The Authors' Think Tank.

Alice Beesley
Alice Beesley

Thanks for the tips. I love the small details and sometimes add too many, especially food and have to take them out.