Building Worlds That Captivate Readers

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world building

World-building stories can transport readers and ignite imaginations — but crafting them is easier said than done. How do you create fresh new worlds that work for both you and your readers?

Robots and zombies, aliens and spirits, benevolent deities and terrible demons, brave hobbits and wise wizards — all have been used to mesmerizing effect in brilliant works of world-building fiction.

Regardless of whether your tastes run closer to J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, Isaac Asimov, or another direction completely, creating new imagined worlds in your writing can be liberating. It can also be a daunting challenge. After all, if you plan to welcome readers into a new world of your creation, it has to be somewhere that you, as a writer, and they, as an audience, will want to live for at least a short time.

Here are some tips for creating your own successful world-building works of fiction.

Go to an extreme

In Seveneves, Neil Stephenson creates a world where the moon explodes and destroys the earth. In the Scythe series, Neil Schusterman builds a reality where technology renders death obsolete, the world is governed by benevolent AI, and a caste of sanctioned assassins periodically “glean” people to keep the population under control. In Flatland, Edwin A. Abbott creates a story in which characters are two-dimensional geometric figures and the narrator is a square.

The list could go on for pages, but the lesson is the same: when you sit down to write your own new world into literary reality, let your imagination go wild and build whatever sort of fantastical world you see fit.

Tweak one thing about reality

World-building does not mean you have to throw everything about your own day-to-day reality out the window, and dragons, ghosts, and spirit animals are by no means required.

Instead of building whole new mythologies, what if you were to create a world that was exactly like the one in which you live, except that one single thing changes? Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers — a story in which millions of people vanish without explanation — is a great example. How does changing a lone aspect of the real world affect the people, places, and events within it? Any such shift could be a great creative spark as you begin crafting your own imagined world.

Keep the characters realistic

Two of my favorite world-building works are The Walking Dead (the comic book series) and World War Z (the book). Writers Robert Kirkman and Max Brooks do a great job in their respective works of creating vivid and bizarre realities in which the dead rise and dumbly devour — yet both creators keep their characters strictly, painfully, and transcendently realistic.

Figures in both imagined worlds rise to unexpected heights and fall to deplorable depths and the reader is with them every step of the way. Once the initial suspension of belief is taken and the alternate worlds where these characters reside is accepted, their actions are poignant, painful, and powerful.

In your own world-building writing, remember that no matter where they are and what their worlds are like, people are people (assuming you’re writing about humans). Building your characters’ stories around a core of realistic and relatable behavior will make your imagined world that much more captivating.

Focus on the details

In the Scythe series, a religion called Tonism plays an interesting role. Tonists believe in the sacred nature of sound, and all of their lore and core beliefs are aurally themed. In one masterful throwaway moment, Schusterman describes how a Tonist character’s robe is decorated with a geometric pattern that is actually visualized audio information representing the song “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

This may seem like a small detail, but attention to microscopic facets like this can make an imagined world seem truly, vividly real.

Keep in mind that every single aspect of your imagined world need not be crafted with such thoughtful design. But the more you can strategically and artistically throw in such content — in ways that elevate the overall story — the more real and engrossing your world will feel to readers.

Stay consistent

Few things can turn a reader off faster than an imaginary world that doesn’t make sense or refuses to play by its own rules. After all, readers give authors the benefit of the doubt when they suspend disbelief and allow themselves to live within an imaginary world. Making those imagined worlds internally consistent is a responsibility authors owe them in return.

Though it’s not a story in book form, Pacific Rim offers a single, prime example of what not to do when world-building. If you’re not familiar, Pacific Rim is a big, noisy, largely entertaining movie about giant robots saving humanity by battling monsters from under the sea. The film does a great job of creating an imaginary world in which these improbable events seem perfectly reasonable — until that single moment when it doesn’t anymore.

In this scene, two protagonists battle a tough monster and one suggests that they deploy a powerful weapon that helps them butcher their opponent with ease. This is all well and good — but where was that weapon during every single previous battle in which heroes were almost destroyed? Clearly the protagonists are not stupid to the point of forgetting its existence, and no explanation is given as to why that weapon may have been previously unavailable. It’s simply a moment of internal inconsistency that takes the audience out of the story in an abrupt and unpleasant way.

In your own world-building stories, don’t have sun-allergic vampires suddenly walk on the beach mid-day with no consequence or explanation; similarly, if your main character possesses the power to levitate, don’t have her freak out because she’s fallen into a hole and doesn’t know how to escape. Logical consistency within your imagined world, no matter how fantastical it may be, will help you keep your readers coming along for your entire storytelling journey.

Don’t rush the process

Don’t expect yourself to sit down, start writing, and suddenly create something as rich and detailed as Hogwarts, Middle Earth, or Westeros. World building takes time, revision, and reflection. Give yourself space to explore and discover your new world in the same way your readers will when it’s their turn to experience it.

How do you approach world-building in your own writing? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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5 COMMENTS

  1. The following is a commentary on my world-building. I take particular pride in this, since it was submitted by a published sci-fi author.

    Lucy-Thea-Ramsay
    A young adult sf adventure with wit and depth
    Reviewed in the United States on September 2, 2018
    Verified Purchase
    In Andorpha, Thea Ramsay has created an alien world that is simultaneously real, intriguing, alluring, whimsical, and unsettling. This is the world Lucy is suddenly thrust into and where she has to deal with grief, anger, physical maturity, and an overwhelming alien love that seems vaguely menacing. Readers will be drawn to Lucy’s struggle and the hinted-at mysteries of her new world. I’m looking forward to the next installment.

    That’s what came of looking for, and not finding, a world where romance wasn’t something that happened between two people, but a way of life. Andorpha’s currency, naming conventions, and even the Andorphians’ brain chemistry are all based on romance, to say nothing of their religion and even their politics. As a sci-fi and fantasy reader, I merely filled a void.

  2. Super and brief. Great ideas brought to our attention in a nutshell. Just one wee thing Michael did you realise all of your examples bar J.K. are guys?

    • Thank you – and yes, you’re quite right. Shoot. Who are some of the great female world-building writers that you would like to see added to the mix? Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood immediately come to mind (and probably should have been included in the article to begin with).

  3. In “The Mourning After,” I plant suggestions and mild twists very slowly and often subtly. Readers can figure out the boy (and then young man) is reincarnated and troubled by past life memories long before the character himself can. He still thinks these may be ghosts around him (and some of them probably are), and he doesn’t believe in reincarnation. As an adult then, others around him are pulled into these bizarre sidesteps from reality.

  4. I like to approach world building in a two step method: first, I love making maps and in making a map one begins to ask questions about the inhabitants of various parts of the geography. The naming of various points of interest often triggers a story or subplot. Other times, such as in the Left Hand of Light, I let my imagination go wherever the heck it wants (in that case to the astral plane and the underworld) and in future drafts I begin applying rules to make the world adhere to the principles necessary for the reader to suspend their disbelief. Storytelling is such a journey!

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