Writing: World Building, not just for genre writers


Writing: World Building, not just for genre writers

By Will Greenway


When we see the term “world building”, many writers tend to associate this concept with genre fiction, specifically science fiction, fantasy, and often horror as well.  However, building a world is something that all fiction writers must do. Simply because your world is closer to the “real world” in terms of conventions does not mean that there isn’t still work to be done.

When we take the idea of building a “world” it’s easy to leap at the extreme cases.  Every fiction story except for the most mundane has some element that differs from what we take to be reality—otherwise it wouldn’t be fiction.  The very first elements are the characters.  Unless you are writing about living breathing people, your characters are part of the world building process—these people don’t exist in real life and it’s your job to convince the reader that they do.

World building is about the suspension of disbelief, or put another way, getting reader buy-in. Each genre, be it horror, romance, fantasy or science fiction, has general conventions associated with it. These conventions are essentially a set of guidelines that say, “reader X expects Y and is willing to accept these ideas as givens”.  The simplest example of this is in the fantasy genre.  If you’re a reader of fantasy, you expect there to be some kind of magic.  In fact, if you are a fantasy reader, you might even feel a little cheated if there wasn’t some kind of magic in the story.  Magic being in the story is generally what makes it fantasy. (There are other things that can make it fantasy but for terms of this argument, let’s not muddy the water.)

Know The Subject

A core component of world building and suspension of disbelief is the reader’s expectations.  Each sub-genre sets its own expectations, whether it’s detective fiction, action/adventure, techno-thriller, or legal drama.  Each one has its own particular boundaries, stereotypes, accepted rehashes, queues, and clichés. 

To do a good job it is crucial you know the body of work that comes before yours.  If you don’t know the conventions of the material you’re writing it’s like trying to drive on a winding road while blindfolded. If you plan to write a mystery story, doesn’t it seem logical to have read a least one mystery?  This may seem like a fairly obvious given, but you would be surprised at the number of people who try to write genre fiction without having read any books in that category.  The axiom “write what you know” is well said, and should be taken seriously.

The importance of knowing the conventions is in meeting expectations.  Fulfilled expectations are what make the reader happy and comfortable. When a movie-goer plunks down his or her hard earned cash to see a Bond movie they expect a gun-toting secret agent, action, gadgets, and girls (not necessarily in that order).  The 007 franchise is based loosely on the real world… so, part of the world building necessary is to get the buy-in for the gadgets and whole cloak and dagger super-agent shtick.  The whole ‘shaken not stirred’, the clothing and exotic locales are the familiar anchors that put you in these stories.  The 007 canon is so fixed that it is often parodied (even by itself).

Know The Audience

No matter how close to reality a book or movie might seem there are always fictional elements that require set up.  One of the most popular series in the US right now are the CSI (Crime Scene Investigations) shows.  While much of the conceptual material is based in fact, the dramatization… well, let’s just say that things are stretched a bit.  People love it though (personally, I don’t know why, but that’s just me) and they are willing to accept (and probably don’t think about) the inconsistencies and fabrications.  However, it’s the public’s willingness to overlook the various holes in the story-telling that show the writers are doing their job.  Their job (and yours) is to entertain.

Another example of a show that used to drive me crazy was X-Files.  I could not (and still don’t) understand why anybody liked it.  To me, it was watered-down science fiction and fantasy done really *bad*.  The whole interplay between Scully and Mulder was so trite and worn out after just a few episodes.  Saying ‘monsters don’t exist’ after your face has been eaten by a monster ten times just doesn’t work for me.  For most people I guess it was just an accepted ‘shtick’.  As a fairly hard-core Sci Fi/Fantasy person, my expectations just did not jibe with the audience the writers of the show were catering to.  I cite this example because apparently they knew their viewers—they got the awards to prove it.  So, the thing to take away is that your material will be for a particular group of readers, know who they are.  X-Files did a fair amount of world building. The cases started with the “myth of the week” and as the seasons progressed gradually went further and further a-field.

Build A Little At A Time

A key approach to world creation is introducing its rules and variations gradually. Start with the easily accepted divergences from reality and build up to the ones that are harder to swallow. Sometimes it’s as simple as establishing the rules, then bending them a little at time.

The gradual introduction of elements applies to characters in the same way it does concepts, especially in regards to their abilities.  Sherlock Holmes is a good example of stories that were grounded largely in the probable and plausible except in regard to the almost supernaturally keen Holmes.  In these stories, the detective’s powers of “deduction” are given limits and built upon over the course of some 50 odd stories and 4 novels.  Much of Sherlock’s abilities are attributed to his education as a chemist and his pursuit of scientific thinking and logical inference. 

If when you are looking at your characters you find there is nothing “extraordinary” about them to explain—I would ask yourself why.  Is your reader interested in following a completely ordinary John or Jane Doe?  Good writing predicates that each character have a standout trait. It can be a scar, or the fact that they are stubborn, or they are particularly brave (or foolish).  Establishing these tags are the most important parts of both storytelling and making people believable. Few people are “completely” ordinary.  In fact, a person could be considered extraordinary in the fact that there is nothing out of the ordinary about them.  It’s the spin you put on the trait that makes it a feature worthy of note.

A Little On Believable People

How do you define a believable person? Ask ten writers and you’ll get ten different answers.  One thing for certain is if your reader rolls their eyes, you’ve crossed the line. A strange fact about characterizing people is that sometimes the more weird and quirky a character is the more believable they tend to be.  The perfect flawless person is the most unbelievable character of all.

It might be unflattering but in writing, you will often do what you would never do in the movies… show a beautiful woman and then immediately zoom in on the only blemish on her face. In literature, the character’s flaws are often what makes a person interesting.

In the same vein, characters should never be entirely black or white.  The most powerful and believable villains are the ones with a spark of nobility in them, the ones deluded into believing what they are doing is for a greater good. 

Like the villain, a hero without a dark streak is less of a hero.  That darkness is something for them to overcome, something for them to grapple with and draw inner knowledge from.

The Acceptable Paradox: Justification NOT explanation

Less is more.  It is an especially important axiom for world building. The most effective way to get across the rules and form of your world is to engage the reader, to invite them to use their imaginations and bring their own experiences and knowledge to the story.  To that end, describing things down to the gnat’s feet tends to hurt more than it helps.

Three extremely important words: Justification NOT explanation.

When you put technology, magic, mystery or any yet-to-be-revealed element, your most dependable means of presenting it to the reader is through justification.  Now, listen carefully to the next two words:  resist explaining!

Explanations are exposition.  Justification can be presented through active narrative. Yes, you can explain in narrative, but it most often ends up as reader feeder.

Let’s give an example of an introducing an element in a story.  At some point one of the characters, John, is going to be relied upon as being extremely good with a rifle.  The flat  boring hack way to show it is to simply say John is good with a gun.  However, the creative and sneaky way is to never say it at all. You pick some scenes leading up to crucial revelation.  In one scene, John is putting a rifle away in a closet.  In another, there’s an award certificate on the wall and in another a hunting photo. It’s revealed that John was in the military, and in a couple other scenes identifies guns.  So, when John turns out to be an expert with a rifle, is your reader surprised?  I would hope not.  We did not explain John was good with the gun.  We never said it.  It was merely implied.  The reader draws the conclusion.  That is the process of justification.

The justification process works for practically everything in your stories.  It sometimes is handled in the reverse way you might think.  Sometimes you simply trot out the “element” with no preparation or varnish.  In that case, the shock and disbelief of your characters wondering what-the-heck is going on serves to mirror the readers own disorientation.  Then the character’s own search to figure out what they have seen becomes a justification trail similar to the one used to show John’s skill with the rifle—the main difference is the justification is done afterward.

Either mechanism is valid.  As a writer I tend not to use reverse justification until I’ve earned some of the reader’s trust first.  Once I have that, then I can mix it up and give my audience a roller coaster ride.


There’s more on this topic but I’d like to hear from others, rather than just be a blabber fingers.  What other characterizing and world building techniques do you think are important?

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