World Building in Fiction

World building is a complex element to fiction writing and if you’re new to it just remember the key word right there in the title – building.

We build. We start small and we build something big. Something enormous sometimes – in tone, in breadth, in detail, in realism, in wonder and magic.

But how does a writer actually world-build and balance plot, character and action?

Here’s one way to do it:

Stick Your World Building Detail to a Character (or Plot)

By that we don’t mean reduce your character to a walking encyclopaedia but to align world building detail, detail that expands your world for the reader, to your Point of View character.

As an example, you may have a deadly plant species (let’s call it ‘moonshade’) that the reader needs to understand for maximum tension in a particular scene. If your POV character is a simple solider, he or she may not focus on the plant beyond knowing that ‘moonshade’ is dangerous because the petals are poison to touch.

Upon seeing it, your soldier may not consider the root words for ‘moonshade’ nor the plant’s regular living conditions nor the speed with which it kills or the exact properties of a cure. And if you as the writer unload all that information onto the reader at that point, your world-building is going to feel ham-fisted.

However – let’s change your simple soldier to a botanist. Or even a botanist-soldier.

Now maybe your POV character would notice such details. The world building detail sticks to the character. The botanist-soldier would naturally be aware of and consider the properties of the moonshade plant and know exactly why it would be unusual to see one blooming in the middle of the day, and understand that something is amiss. They’d know the antidote and they’d take a mental inventory, just in case another character in the story was poisoned.

(And of course, at that point, you have to poison the botanist instead, so they can’t share the antidote right away – and now you’re also sticking the detail to Plot and raising tension too.)

More on world building in a future post!

Body Language ‘Cheat Sheet’

Writers Write have put together some advice and a great table of body language/physical cues you can use to reveal emotion.

For instance, if you were attempting to show awe you might consider showing your character:

slack-jawed, unable to move, stare etc

Of course, try not to overuse such cues, otherwise your characters will start looking like flailing cartoons.

Most importantly, context will do most of the work. For example, a shrug might suggest: confusion, disinterest or disregard, the same way a frown might show a variety of emotions.

What will really sell a scene to the reader is the whole picture.


Writing Quote

By now, it is probably very late at night, and you have stayed up to read this book when you should have gone to sleep. If this is the case, then I commend you for falling into my trap. It is a writer’s greatest pleasure to hear that someone was kept up until the unholy hours of the morning reading one of his books. It goes back to authors being terrible people who delight in the suffering of others. Plus, we get a kickback from the caffeine industry…
-Brandon Sanderson