World Building: Where to Start, What to Consider, & How to End

17 Jul

I mainly write science fiction and fantasy, and both of those genres tend to come with heavy world building. A few of you have asked me where I begin. How do I start? How do I know when to write? When does world building end? Well, if you read my editing tips series, then you probably know my answer to most of this.

I don’t think it’s that important to have your world building down in your first draft or while you’re outlining. Why? Because you don’t know everything your world needs yet in order to tell your story. All that matters is having your world building down by the end of your drafts. That being said, I tend to spend more time on initial world building than I do with character profiles or plot outlines. Why? Because my world will affect my characters directly—and that tends to be when I start writing.

That’s right. I begin most of my stories with a scene or an idea, and then I world build…and I keep building until the world affects my characters directly. Then I start to write.

So how do I build my worlds?

Extra tip: World build together. Try to explain your world to a friend. If they ask questions you can’t answer, find an answer.

Well, let’s start with the foundation.

Think of the basics. Where are we? What is the climate? Is it temperate, freezing, humid, etc.? What are the seasons like and which season/s is your story taking place in? How does this location relate to the locations around it?

My favorite place to start is clothes. Why? Because clothes tell us about societal structures—like income class, careers, etc.—and also about the land/weather patterns. Are they wearing cotton? If so, where does the cotton come from? Who collects the cotton and uses that cotton to create clothes? How much does it cost, and who would wear it? Example: Throughout history, the upper-class generally wore clothes from far away to emphasize how rich they were; those clothes were expensive because of how far the materials had to travel (and how expensive the upkeep was.)

The next element I consider the most is water. Why? Because water is essential for life, including animal life, which means you’re looking at how people eat, clean up, make medicine, etc. Not to mention that water, like rivers and lakes, have been used as natural borders for a long, long time (along with mountains). So where does the water come from? How were borders decided? Start thinking about other natural materials on your land. What materials are used to make buildings, for instance?

Now time: What year is it, and how does that year in particular define your character/s? I tell new writers to at least understand their main characters and their family structure for three generations back. This information doesn’t have to go into your book, of course, but knowing where your protagonist came from, including how their parents raised them and why, will help you shape their family unit and beliefs. This brings me to my last two topics: Religion and language.

  • With religion, personally, I think the most important part of a person’s religion can be summed up in their burial practices. Start there. Most of the time, burial practices relate to how that person sees life, death, and how both their life and their death is connected to the land. This includes if your characters don’t have a religion at all.
  • When I am building a language, I focus on two elements first: How do people curse and how do people say I love you. Why? Because humans are built on emotion, and hate/love are the two strongest emotions and the biggest umbrellas of emotion out there. By finding out how they express those emotions, both as a culture and as an individual, you can start to shape everything in between.

Please keep in mind that this information—like where materials come from—doesn’t have to be explicitly stated in your book. In fact, I can’t recall a time where I talked about where water came from in most of my books. But it can help to know the simple, basic elements of your world. They are your foundation, after all. And the stronger your foundation, the stronger the rest of your world building will be. In fact, I only covered where I begin. I didn’t even get into magic systems, for instance. (Another favorite topic of mine.)

Build and keep building. Don’t be afraid if you feel intimidated, and don’t get frustrated when your world contradicts itself or doesn’t make sense at all. You have all the time in the world to…well, build your world. Take your time. Take notes. And enjoy the journey of discovering a brand-new place that your characters—and you—will call home.

~SAT

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22 Responses to “World Building: Where to Start, What to Consider, & How to End”

  1. Charles Yallowitz July 17, 2017 at 6:41 am #

    Reblogged this on Legends of Windemere and commented:
    A great post on world-building for anyone struggling. It’s a constant process that doesn’t even end with the first draft.

  2. debyfredericks July 17, 2017 at 8:06 am #

    When I’m world building, I often start with food. As with clothing, food tells you about climate and landscape. Citrus fruit need warm weather. Beef cattle need plains, but goats prefer mountains. One of my pet peeves is when the setting is an island but no one is eating fish.

    • Shannon A Thompson July 17, 2017 at 4:54 pm #

      Oh, yes! FOOD. How could I forget to mention food? Thank you for bringing it up! That is a wonderful place to start. Food could also bring up traditions, too. Great point!
      ~SAT

  3. Don Massenzio July 17, 2017 at 11:17 am #

    Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Here’s a great post from Shannon A. Thompson’s blog on world building.

  4. Elise @ Roaming Reader July 17, 2017 at 12:22 pm #

    These are all such great tips! I’m working on a fantasy project right now and, when working on world building, I found myself looking at fashion, tradition a lot. I feel like I really got to know the characters and world a lot more through that.

    • Shannon A Thompson July 17, 2017 at 4:56 pm #

      Yay! I’m glad you enjoyed it. 😀 World building is sort of funny. I’m, personally, not into fashion…until I’m designing characters. Then I LOVE clothes. But for myself? T-shirt and jeans all day long. lol
      ~SAT

      • Elise @ Roaming Reader July 17, 2017 at 5:59 pm #

        SAME! I’m intrigued by other people’s fashion but I’m very much a t-shirt and shorts person. For some reason tho I LOVE looking up different styles and such to add to my Pinterest boards for stories

      • Shannon A Thompson July 17, 2017 at 6:10 pm #

        OMG yesssss. Pinterest is heaven.
        ~SAT

      • Elise @ Roaming Reader July 17, 2017 at 8:01 pm #

        I waste WAYYY too much time on Pinterest 😂

      • Shannon A Thompson July 17, 2017 at 8:09 pm #

        I was just on there. 😂
        ~SAT

      • Elise @ Roaming Reader July 17, 2017 at 8:43 pm #

        😂 I feel! Lately I’ve actually been spending more time on Twitter than anything but I still love Pinterest

  5. Susannah Ailene Martin July 17, 2017 at 1:37 pm #

    Ugh. I’m in the middle of world building right now for a modern day fantasy series. Obviously, I don’t have to think much about water and stuff like that, but the community aspects of the story and the magical system are immensely complicated. It’s taking forever, but I’m looking forward to having basically a dictionary I can look back at when I actually start writing the book.

    • Shannon A Thompson July 17, 2017 at 4:58 pm #

      Absolutely! I wish I could’ve gotten into building a magical system. I thought about it, but then I realized building those types of details are generally so unique to a story that it would be harder to draw lines on where to begin and end. I often figure those details out while I’m writing, for instance, because that’s when I know what the magic needs in order for the book to make sense. My favorite tip for magic systems to is keep limitations in mind. There has to be limits, even in magic, to make it feel more real. 🙂 I hope you’re having a blast!
      ~SAT

      • Susannah Ailene Martin July 17, 2017 at 8:47 pm #

        Yeah, the limitations pretty much make this magical system interesting. But figuring those out is taking a bit of time.

  6. Nicholas C. Rossis July 18, 2017 at 7:39 am #

    Reblogged this on Nicholas C. Rossis and commented:
    A great post on world building by Shannon Thompson

  7. J.R.Bee July 20, 2017 at 3:50 am #

    I follow a similar process, and it always makes me wonder- all these fantasies where everyone has metal swords, where does the metal come from.
    Great tip about the language too- I try to fit the sound of the words to style of my characters as to whether it there will be a harsher or more lyrical sounds. Never occurred to me to start on an emotional level.

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  1. When Your Writing Issue Is… | Shannon A Thompson - July 24, 2017

    […] again. Eventually, it comes together. Embrace the mess. You can fix it later. Related articles: World Building & Naming Your […]

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