Writing Workshop Series: Worldbuilding for Believability

This is the first of my writing workshop posts in coordination with writing workshops at the Art Center at the Old Library in La Grande,, Oregon. 

First up is worldbuilding - the magic of creating believable settings and societies in fiction. Worldbuilding is often used as a specialized term for science fiction and fantasy writers but it's also a crucial craft tool for writers of historical and intercultural fiction. In many genres you will need to develop complex settings, cultures and societies. 

While this may seem like a minor issue in comparison to plot and character development, worldbuilding provides the foundation for two things even more basic to readable fiction - believability and conflict.  

Believability: A writer's portrayal of settings and culture is crucial to the reader's feeling of reality when reading fiction. That feeling of reality is closely tied to the sense of being engrossed in a story and the inability to put a book down.

Conflict: Every story revolves around a conflict of some sort. Often that conflict is rooted in a social, cultural or physical characteristic of the fictional world. In fact, if you need to heighten the conflict in any given story, adding an element of worldbuilding to it can often mean the difference between a mediocre conflict and a real whopper. 

And so... here are the top things to consider when building your world or describing the setting of your story:

1.       Your setting or world should have a purpose in your story. Avoid adding fantastical special effects "just because." That gets old fast. Even the world of Alice in Wonderland is carefully constructed for a purpose, even if it may seem to be a world endless absurd fantasy.

2.       You can start with the general setting or start with the main conflict of the plot or start with a great character. But wherever you start, these things should be tied together. If you start with the setting, your plot should be related to the setting. If you want to write story based in medieval Morocco, choose a problem for your characters to encounter that is integral to that setting. If you start with the plot, figure out which type of setting will serve the plot best. Is the conflict you've chosen best placed in the past, the future or the present? Will it benefit from being seen through a real culture of today or through a made-up culture?

3.       Think about the central conflict of your story and how it is affected by the world of your story. Do social or political factors play a role? Is there a culture clash? Is there a major need or hunger that economic or environmental conditions influence?

4.       A key to plot and character development is determining what your characters want and what stands in their way. Worldbuilding plays a big role here. Consider what social, political, economic, environmental or other factors influence what your characters want and how hard or not it is for them to get what they want.

5.       Ask yourself detailed questions about the setting and society where your story takes place. You won't need to include all of these details in your story but you do need to at least go over them in your head. There are lots of lists online detailing the types of questions you can run through.

6.       Take notes on whatever details you come up with. Keep cheat sheets on locations, characters, cultures and languages for quick reference. Just as it is important to keep notes on the hair and eye color of your minor characters, so that you don't have cousin Fred have gray eyes in Book 1 of your series and blue eyes in Book 3, it is also important to keep a record of places, cultures and languages, so that they stay consistent. You would be amazed at how glaring such mistakes are to people who aren't as wrapped up in the story as you are.

7.       Draw maps and plans of buildings, streets and towns whenever you are going to have characters in a specific location for more than one scene and do it even for one scene if it is an action scene. Draw a map of the whole country or world if you are going to have characters move around much or any sort of major political or economic intrigue.

8.       When describing events keep in mind whether it is night or day, what angle the sun is at, what the weather is like, which direction is east or west. You don't have to include all this but you should know because otherwise you will easily end up with sunlight streaming in a window that you said faced north.

9.       Ponder:

  • The climate: how it smells and feels
  • The food: what is available or popular and what isn't
  • The economy: what portion of the people are well-off or hungry
  • Clothing: don't assume it is the same as yours or Tolkien's, be specific
  • The physics: if there are multiple moons what does that do?
  • Hierarchies: who is in charge and why, who is above and below
  •  Needs: What do the people in your society need most, what is scarce?
  •  Luxuries: What are the signs of wealth and privilege, certain foods, clothes, etc.
  •  Instability vs. stability: what would it take to upset the order of your world?
  • How long have things been the way they are?
  • How has history affected the issues that are important in your society?