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March 11, 2012

I can promise you a post, sometime in the future, possibly next post, about writing short stories.

It was going to be this post, but I’ve just started reading a book on the subject, so I’ll wait until I finish it. I’m instead going to talk about one of my very, very favorite parts of writing: worldbuilding.

This is a topic I’ve been saving for a rainy day, because it puts a smile on my face to think about. Today has been rainy, I’ve been stuck at home sick for the past four days, and my homework is stubbornly refusing to cooperate, so now’s a good time to whip it out.

(I’d like to take a moment to point out, too, that my Writing Resources page has been updated.)

Part I: Creating the World

Now, if you don’t write fantasy or science fiction or horror (or sub-genres thereof), this may not be of a lot of interest to you. Though I’d like to remind you that even if you are writing in modern day, set in the town you live in, with no changes whatsoever, you are still faced with the challenge of portraying a realistic setting to your readers.

Worldbuilding, for me, is all about research. I’ve said in the past that research is hard; well, it is. But it still needs to be done. Especially because those tiny bits and pieces of your world, those details that you researched, can make the difference between a generic fictional setting and a world that takes readers’ breaths away.

The Physical World

When I was a kid and I wrote “fantasy stories,” I didn’t think about this part very much. Oh, I thought I did. I had kingdoms and whatnot, and there were mountains and rivers, and it was always sunny.


But a real planet, a true, believable planet, is a much more complex machine than that.

A planet has continents. It has islands. It has currents. It has tides. It has climates. It has weather patterns. And not only are all these things present, they are all interconnected.

If you’re going to play God and create something unusual, I urge you to research how a real planet with those particular features would behave. The world I created in The Gray Regions does not spin on its axis. I have had to compile a lot of information about what the climates would be like, how the tides would be affected, etc. This is all material collected post-first draft and pre-second draft, so I haven’t gotten to use a lot of it yet, but already my created world feels much richer. Not only that, but the physical attributes of the planet itself has given me tons of plot material.  The article Worldbuilding with Real Worlds goes into more detail about this.

Magic, I suppose, also goes into this category. If your world uses magic, I suggest building a consistent magic system, a particular way that magic works.  It’s so much more interesting to see a unique take on magic, or a traditional take with some restrictions and rules, than a willy-nilly, unplanned, literary blob of magic. I don’t know if that makes sense, but I hope you get my meaning. If you want some examples, I suggest checking out The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (a book I admit, I did not enjoy, but it has gotten some positive reviews and the magic system is pretty awesome). Territory by Emma Bull is another good resource (and one of my favorite books).

The Inhabitants

One of my personal pet peeves in both fantasy and science fiction is lack of variety within a world. Look at Earth. Different types of flora and fauna can be found in different regions of the planet. Even if your world is entirely something new, it would be strange for the entire planet to have a homogenous spread of life forms, unless that’s part of what makes your world unique.

This also applies to the sort of people that inhabit your planet. Again, I draw your attention to Earth. From country to country, continent to continent, Earth boasts a wide variety of cultures. Japan, China, the Pacific Islands, The U.S., Germany, France, South Africa, Egypt, Greece, India, Australia, Brazil, Russia, Mexico… We are a world of many peoples, with different technologies, different beliefs, different values. Why would your world not be the same?

I’d like to throw in a little note about character names and language here. When I write in fantasy or sci-fi worlds, I try to keep some consistency in the local names and words that are used. Names from a particular region should all feel like they come from the same language. I’ve talked about names a lot previously, so I’ll end that comment there.

The Details

It’s up to you how much detail you want to put into your world, and how much research you want to do. And bogging a story down with details can be overwhelming for the reader. But at the same time, a richly-developed setting can make a huge difference in your story’s approachability and flavor.

For The Gray Regions, I’ve done a lot of worldbuilding, but I’ve had to. My character travels all over a country, to foreign countries, to another continent, and the world is on the brink of my planet’s first world war. You may not need to do as much research or planning as I have. In fact, you may need to do very little at all. How Much of My World Do I Build? is a great article on this.


Rivers in the USA

This is the most important thing for you to keep in mind. Everything in your world has a reason. Every culture has a history: wars, oppression, famine, prosperity, expansion, colonization, and so on. Mountains, canyons, rivers, islands, etc., are all formed as part of natural processes. Don’t just stick a mountain range in somewhere where it doesn’t make sense. Okay, bad example. Rivers, though. I’ve read so many rants about writers not handling rivers correctly. All rivers flow into bodies of water, like oceans or lakes. Apparently, people really nitpick over this.

Speaking of nitpicking, a lot of this probably sounds like way more work than you were planning on doing, unless you’re like me and worldbuilding is one of your favorite things to do. Well, you don’t have to do it. You might not need to do it. No one’s asking you to be the next Neal Stephenson. But I know that as a reader, I’m always impressed by little tidbits here and there where the author’s research really shines through. And really, you only need a couple of them.

At some point, I’ll post a follow-up post about Creating a Universe, where I talk about my process of worldbuilding (universebuilding? galaxybuilding?) for Exemplary, my sci fi project which, sadly, currently shelved (but not abandoned). But I had a ton of fun doing research for it, and I think I learned a lot just by doing that.

Link Summary
Links within my blog:
Writing Resources
Research is Hard
Realistic Character Naming

Links outside of my blog:
Worldbuilding with Real Worlds
How Much of My World Do I Build?

Books mentioned:
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Territory by Emma Bull

Note: According to my research, all images are public domain. Please contact me in case of any disputes.

  1. This is great! 🙂

  2. Nice post!

    By the way, I nominated you for The Versatile Blogger Award! Check it out:

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