World building—a skill all writers must have, not just writers of fantasy or sci-fi. I don’t believe there is a magic formula. ALL world building comprises the ability to visualize yourself existing in an environment you currently don’t occupy, be it Seattle, Mars, or The Shire.
First, you need to know where you are.
Close your eyes. What does the world around you look like? Are you sitting in a lounger on a quiet back porch, drinking your morning coffee while you scroll through your favorite blogs? Perhaps you regret purchasing the blue and white patterned outdoor carpet. It jars the eye, clashes against the red-stained cedar decking.
Even more annoying, Stellar’s jays and crows are quarreling over something, which means no other birds will come until they have settled their dispute. Meanwhile, the neighbor’s garishly colored cat stalks through the rhododendrons toward the broken garden lamp, vainly searching for songbirds to bully. Who would want a cat so hideously colored, black, orange white and beige all in large patches? And why do they let it roam? What if it gets injured or killed?
While I visualize that scene, I am sitting in my frequently described Room of Shame, pecking away at a blog post like a good author. For that scene, I am only describing what is important to my alter ego at the moment she exists, a framework to hang your imagination onto. But I know that environment because it is one step away, out my back door.
If you can’t write what you know, how can you write what you don’t know but wish you did?
For your first exercise, write two paragraphs describing your personal environment, where you are in this time and space, what you see, hear, and smell. With that done, you have created the known world.
So how do we translate the known into the unknown?
For this exercise, we will imagine a setting, a world blasted by a global catastrophe. Not sure exactly of what happened, our protagonist, Jane, walks through the wreckage of the city, trailed by a large group of young children and several other teachers. In an overcrowded, under-funded urban school, they had been relegated to a classroom in the school’s basement at the time and may be the only survivors, but Jane believes that if they are alive, some others must be too. They are walking out of the city, hoping that some patches are still undamaged, that some plants and animals must have survived.
Jane walked, pretending a confidence she didn’t feel. Random piles of debris that once were shops and homes lined the broken street. Was that where the café had been? No, it had been a little further on, but with no familiar landmarks, it was hard to tell.
No birds sang, no cats prowled, and no dogs barked. Twisted metal, destroyed, burned-out cars lined the broken street. No rescuers combed through the tumbled ruins looking for survivors, and no voices called for help. The only sounds were the wind sighing through the ruins, the noise of their plodding steps, and occasional whimpers of the children who followed her.
They passed places where the smell of rotting flesh and other unpleasant odors triggered her gag reflex. Some children cried. Who could blame them? The charred, shattered ruins they now walked past had been their homes. Did they know? Could they recognize small details?
How does her environment affect her movements and emotional state?
She came to a large, long pile of wreckage in the middle of the street, cars that had been moving when it happened. She didn’t want to think of the bodies that remained trapped inside the twisted, melted metal, of the last moments they had experienced. The way between was narrow, but they could do it. She turned to her group. “Walk carefully, single file. No one is to touch anything. We have no way of treating injuries.”
“Yes, Miss Jane,” said Jason, the teacher shepherding the middle of the group.
“Yes, Miss Jane,” dutifully echoed the students, all the way back to Dave, the teacher bringing up the rear.
The world around you is complex. It is made up of what you interact with, things you see, hear, smell, and touch.
The world you want to create is the same. Visualize each scene. Trees, randomly placed furniture, doors, any obstacle that affects your protagonists’ movements becomes part of that world.
Your next assignment is to take one of these scenarios and write a scene that places your protagonist squarely in their environment. You can make these settings in a real world, sci-fi, or fantasy environment.
- A policewoman/man having lunch at the corner deli.
- A barista in a popular coffee shop.
- A woman watching her suspicious-acting neighbors.
- A soldier, preparing for a raid.
- A politician reading an exposé about their self.
I can make my back porch into a fantasy setting.
This is a passage from Edna’s Garden, a short story I wrote several years ago.
This morning I noticed there were fairies in the back garden. I was a little shocked, wondering if they were a side effect of my heart medication. At first, I couldn’t see them well, and wasn’t sure if they were bugs or birds, but no… when I looked closer, I could see they were definitely fairies.
It seems odd to me, to think that after all these years of wishing for a fairytale ending in my life, I should finally have a garden full of fairies. But life is what it is, and sometimes the things you want elude you until you no longer need them.
World building is like cooking (or alchemy, which is the same thing). Writers start with basic ingredients found in the world they know. Cooks begin with common ingredients and add spices, the flavors they like that make their food unique to them. Writers do the same: we take the familiar world and reshape it until it is our creation.
If the world has some familiar elements the reader can relate to, they will suspend their disbelief when you casually place an alien element in the setting. We bend what is familiar, shaping it into something that feels new and unfamiliar. That unfamiliarity to the reader adds the mystery, the intrigue, lets them experience a sense of discovery.
At the outset, you plant the seeds of the world in the opening scene. As the story progresses, the world grows, building itself. This happens because the protagonist interacts with the environment. Fulfilling the needs of the protagonist also contributes to the world you build. Logic comes into play—you may have to go back and change things up a bit when new needs emerge.
We will talk more about how need shapes the fantasy world in my next blog post. In the meantime, go to your personal library and re-read one of the fantasy books (or whatever genre you are writing) that fired your imagination, a book you fell in love with. How did that author show the world? How did they take the real world and merge it with fantasy elements?
How can you apply that lesson to your own work?
Credits and Attributions:
Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Martinus Rørbye – View from the Artist’s Window – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Martinus_R%C3%B8rbye_-_View_from_the_Artist%27s_Window_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=326761582 (accessed May 17, 2019).
Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:An architectural capriccio with figures amongst ruins under a stormy night sky, oil on canvas painting by Leonardo Coccorante.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:An_architectural_capriccio_with_figures_amongst_ruins_under_a_stormy_night_sky,_oil_on_canvas_painting_by_Leonardo_Coccorante.jpg&oldid=291488853 (accessed May 19, 2019).
Hunter in Winter Wood, by George Henry Durrie 1860 [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons