This blog has been edited and transferred from my WriteDemon archive on tumblr.
World-building is one of the most fun and challenging aspects of writing large-scale fantasy or sci-fi novels, and while many people find it fairly easy to make maps, details histories, and even languages, actually making the world thrive on the page is harder than it seems. Here’s one way to bring life to your world;
Giving your world a history is only half the battle; having characters that know and interpret it is the real way to inject the sense that the world you have created exists independently. For example, your main character is travelling with a group through a ruined city, and you want to let your reader know a little about it without info-dumping. Try to tell them the interesting bits, the useful bits, and don’t focus too much on long-winded descriptions of scenery, the politics, and the minutiae. When you weave history into your stories they should stimulate and intrigue your readers, not dictate to them. By leaving the fine details to the readers imagination you invite them to join in the process of creating your world . Most importantly, however, if you want your reader to be close to your characters you should try to ensure that they learn most of what they know about the world and story through the characters. In this way even secondary or one line characters can seem alive and vital.
Here’s what not to do;
“The ancient, ruinous city had once been a hub of trade and wealth long before the attack. All that remained now were the toothless, rubble strewn shells that Darn and his group were sheltering in. The wind tore through the old tunnels, almost sobbing their history in its passage.” – So this sounds ok but what does it actually tell us? Well, nothing really.
- We know the city used to be important
- We know it was attacked
- The use of language implies a sad story
- We know the characters are in the city.
Not all that much, right? And it removes you from the story at hand.
Instead try this;
“Darn eyed the nearest ruin with trepidation; it was so high, so shadowy… there could be an army in there and he’d never now until they were bearing down on him. Lilith bounded ahead; the wilder was as much a part of this landscape as the buildings and she, unlike the rest of them, had no fear of it. He pressed his tongue against his teeth, counting the missing ones and clenched his uninjured hand,
“What’s with this place?” Roger growled under his breath like a frightened war dog, steam rising from the wet cloth clinging to his broad shoulders. A bead of water ran down his crooked nose before he swatted it away with a snarl, his dark skin emphasising the whites of his frightened eyes.
“It used to be the Jewel in the North…. Baraba was the trade hub,” Marnie said quietly and pursed her small, bloodless lips, “Then the Kinna crossed the east sea and attacked,” her eyes flicked to the shimmer of water in the near distance, “they ripped the heart out of the city when they killed the high priestess… the wilder are afraid of this place.”
“Are they?” Darn eyed Lilits impassive back,
“Aye,” Marnie shivered, “They think the battle is still raging, somehow… they believe that when the last building falls the Kinna soldiers will rise again for another battle.” – Whats the difference?
- We now have a host of characters who now have names and the beginnings of personal traits. We also have some information about them physically; Marnie is very pale, perhaps ill? Roger is broad and dark skinned. Darn is missing teeth, perhaps due to age or violence?
- We have a name for the city; Baraba, and we know it was once a great trading centre. It is in the north of this world.
- We know who attacked Baraba and we know what the locals think of the ruined city.
Now there is a sense of a world, or at least a country, around this city. A country with other people not involved in the story.
Secondary and one scene characters are the most underrated resource an author has (in my opinion).
What better way to make a living world that to give every character your M/C encounters a sliver of humanity; a job, a life, a dream? Sometimes it can be as simple as a name or distinguishing feature. There’s nothing worse than a story populated by stock badguy#1s and shopkeep#3s, for example,
The bad (read, boring/lifeless) bad guy.
“Lilit licked her cut lip quickly and glared at the man who stood between her and the door,
“Move.” She hissed and narrowed her eyes but he was unimpressed; a shrug and half a chuckle was all she got before he thundered towards her.
This bad guy seems like a cardboard cut out of every dumb shit bad guy thats graced a screen or page, right? And worse still, he gives your reader the idea that your world is full of such types. He can be redeemed, however;
The good (a.k.a genuinely Bad) bad guy.
“Lilith ran the back of her hand over her face, smearing the blood across her lips. This one could be trouble; his red hair was shorn close to his scalp, doing little to hide the conspicuously non-existent state of his left ear. He grinned at her and licked the gap left by a missing tooth; his sly eyes were still and narrow as if in expectation.
“Move,” she hissed, skin at the back of her ears tightening, “now! Out of my way!” Her barked orders seemed to break against his skin like wooden arrows against steel,
“Nah,” he shrugged, “I think I like watching your mind work, girl… think i’ll enjoy cracking it open more.” He rolled his heavy shoulders,
“Fuck off, prick.” Lilit shook her head and snarled at him, drawing back her lips in warning, his grin was lopsided and strangely pleasant,
“Hell I like you… if you didn’t look so much like my sister I’d fuck you,” his snort of mirth was vulgar and coarse, “I might anyway.”-
So he’s a bit over the top, yes… but he’s bad and he’s good at being bad. And he seems like he’s lived; he’s missing bits and he’s sly and hard; he’s probably had a shitty life, in short, and decided he’s more of a bully than a victim. He’s not smart but he’s not dumb either; it’s that animal, vicious cunning that we see in so many everyday villains. The knowledge of who they can and can’t push. He’s petty and nasty and utterly misogynistic; in short he could be an actual jerk who’s got a chip on his shoulder or a taste for violence.
One scene characters make a world and so you should make them memorable. Make them petty, angry, bitter, cruel or make them righteous, vain, moral but overbearing. Make your reader wonder what happens to them when they leave the story and you’ll have a world that goes on behind the scenes.
The conspicuously blank world is a sure sign you’ve gone wrong somewhere.
Unless your characters are in a desert or a frozen wasteland there will be scenery and wildlife and plants! Even in the former two there will be some non human life.
- Forests that are quiet at night… or ever; either something scared away the animals (a battle, a fire or, even, something demonic?) or it’s not going to feel like a forest. Anyone who’s been camping will tell you that a forest is as noisy as any city at night, especially in places like the Amazon, the Congo and big wild-woods like the Black forest in Germany. Think about what type of woodland you’re setting the reader in e.g a jungle is noisier and more dangerous than a small woodland, a large woodland may hold deer, wolves and miscellaneous mammals but it’s unlikely you’d find a chimpanzee or tiger.
- Lowland hills that are suspiciously devoid of rocks, trees and farms; Even in medieval and pre-medieval times lowland pastures would have had farmsteads dotting them; in fact it’s more likely that they would be devoid of (human) life in a modern setting due to urbanisation. If you’re going for a medieval-esque society/world then you can be certain that there would be lonely farms dotted everywhere on such arable or pasture lands. Likewise, due to the lack of demand for housing, the landscape would be rougher than in modern times as the local would not yet have cleared vast swathes of their vegetation and rubble to make way for farmland or housing.
- ‘Ancient’ ruins that have not been overrun by nature. The very nature of man made ruins that are ‘ancient’ in definition, here meaning that they have been ruined for at the very least a few centuries (perhaps four or five), is that eventually nature will come into its own again. Unless built on a bare rock face the ruins will start to be overrun by ivy, weeds and small animals looking for shelter. Perhaps even bigger animals like wolves or bears using the depths of such places as dens. Even in the case of desert or tundra wastelands the natural world will take over; ice and snow will crack the stone, the sand will reclaim the space, eventually burying untended places.
- Life; Sounds stupid, I know. But we’re not talking about the big picture, theoretical life like that of a drawing or novel. I mean actual life; birds, insects, other people, flora and fauna, make the world you build full of non-essential life and you’re well on your way to making it come alive.
- Detail; think realism or impressionism rather than abstract. If you’re not a hug stickler or exact detail then give enough that the mind of the reader can discern and add itself. In the same way that the mind can see a tree in a bundle of lines in the right basic form it can also spot history in the merest details. An old building says nothing but scattered, worn books, toppled desks and big, light welcoming windows suggest library. These are the kind of implies histories that say “I was something more, I once had purpose. I lived and died before you were conceived of”. In short “The devils in the detail” and the human mind will pick up on it all.
- Empathy; in all senses. Give your reader something to empathise with; a social injustice, an orphaned child, the happiness of a victory. Likewise make your world an empathetic one; there will be some people in your world who strive to make it better and the world will change with the times. Battles ravage the earth as much as industrialisation; prolonged war will leave fields fallow. Your world should react to the events that take place within it.
World-building is truly difficult and implementing it is much harder, so don’t expect that it’s all going to hang together perfectly first-time. Ask the petty, niggling questions of your world and your characters even if they scare you.
You can also check out some of these resource lists;