How to Begin Fictional World Building
By: Elizabeth Carlton
World building is a crucial element in the writing process. It defines the playground for your characters; the stage in which your entire plot takes place. But how do go about creating a whole new realm out of thin air?
When you create a new setting for your readers, you can’t afford to cut corners by making the stage generic. Readers become invested only when you immerse them, and the only way to do that is to immerse yourself first.
This process may seem fairly straightforward if you’re writing about an existing location. You can visit the area, familiarize yourself with the local stops, the culture, the demographics, and the weather. However, creating a fictional realm from scratch is an entirely different beast. You are working with a blank canvas, which is both liberating and terrifying.
Before we dive in, let me throw out the usual disclaimer you find with many writing tips: there is no “one” right way to go about doing this. It’s a creative process, which is unique to every person. However, what I can do is tell you my process and let you try it for yourself as you embark on the exciting journey of world building.
CHOOSE WHERE TO BEGIN YOUR JOURNEY
Some people start macro. They begin with a map or a blueprint of the realm as a whole. I start with feeling. A single place where I can sense the beginnings of a story. This can be at the iron gates of a city, within the bustle of a city market, amidst the trees of an enchanted forest, or treading precariously through a chilly mountain pass. Something that evokes excitement and kickstarts my imagination.
At this early stage, I don’t get caught up in cementing details. If you’re going to give this practice a go, you have to view it as an exploration of a brand new place you’ve never been before. Forget perfectionism for now—just have fun!
Close your eyes and envision yourself or your character standing in this place. Experience it using your senses:
- What do you see in front of you?
Explore not only what your environment looks like, but also your reaction. How does it make you feel? Having a connection with your environment is key to immersion.
- What can you feel?
Is the ground beneath your feet paved, uneven, soft, stable? Can you reach out and touch your surroundings? If so, what is the texture?
- Identify the overall ambiance of the setting.
Does it feel calm, busy, comfortable, eerie?
- What’s the weather like?
Is it warm, windy, wet?
- What can you hear?
Even a solitary forest has sounds such as a slight rustle of a small creature or wind howling between the branches. Really reach with your senses here.
- Sniff around.
Are there any smells that come to mind? Perhaps the scent of a nearby bakery or the off-putting scent of stale ale.
GET TO KNOW ITS PEOPLE
This is often my favorite part: getting to know the people and its culture. Don’t skimp on this process when it comes to primary settings. The dialect and culture you create here may very well lead into your character development. Ask yourself:
- How do people dress here?
Does it align with the setting (IE: those who live in a snowy climate may bundle themselves in thick, fur clothing)
- Do they have a specific accent or dialect?
Most places have their own way of speaking based on the region, native language, and origins. Age and education plays a large factor in how people communicate.
- What are their cultural values?
Do they have certain customs or defined ethics? What is their primary religion, if any? This may have a large influence in the way they behave.
- What do they eat?
What’s on their plate? Is food scarce and cooked for necessity or do the people here in general like to indulge?
- What if there are no people?
Explore the creatures, wildlife, or even the barrenness of your chosen setting. Are there dried bones that linger in the sand; a nod to what was, but is no more? Even empty places have a story to tell.
NOW MAP IT OUT
Whether your world is small or expansive, you’ll want to keep track of it. Even if this is just a sketch on a loose sheet of paper, know the size of your setting in relation to the surrounding area. You can save this and leave room for growth as your characters explore the realm you’ve built.
Remember, when it comes to world building, you don’t have to construct an entire world all at once. Your world can grow with your story. The key is to be able to envision it to the point where you feel immersed. After all, you cannot share a world you cannot see yourself.