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Knowledge of our past is our inheritance. What we do with that knowledge will shape our destinies...

Monday, October 1, 2012

Nine Steps to Better World-Building

In mid-September, I attended Roundup, the annual conference of the League of Utah Writers. It was held in Park City, Utah, and it was awesome! This is the third year I've gone and I continue to love it! There are always such great classes and speakers. I learned a lot about several things,including world building. Please note, many of these ideas came from the speakers and other attendees, so I can’t take credit for all of them.Maxwell Alexander Drake is the biggest contributor.

As you build your fantasy world, you must keep three things in mind: 1) Your world is your most important character. It’s in EVERY scene of your story! 2) Ask yourself, what does this do for my story? If nothing, then it’s not necessary, and probably a burden to your reader. 3) Every story has its own world. Even if it's our world, it's still the world of your story. Historical fiction, while it may have taken place in our world, is its own place, time, and culture. The world of criminal investigations (such as crime drama) is its own world as well. It may be contemporary, but it has its own rules and patterns. YOU MUST DEVELOP IT!

1.     DON’T BREAK YOUR OWN RULES: Your fans are always willing to suspend disbelief. In other words, they’ll always believe what you tell them about your fantasy world. But don’t ever break those rules. It ruins your credibility, pisses off your fans, and loses you your readership. Keep in mind that your readers probably love your characters WAY more than you do.

Photo Credit: pinkcupcake.onsugar.com
      2.     PUT YOUR OWN SPIN ON TROPES! While you can take elements of other fantasy worlds such as elves, orcs, and dwarves, you must make them your own. Don’t make all elves graceful and immortal, or all dwarves have an Irish accent. Do something different to make them your own. People will respect you way more for it and be much more interested in your world. (I hate to bring Twilight into this, but someone at the conference mentioned that the industry professionals at one point in time said that vampire books were on the down-swing. Anne Rice was no longer selling and for the foreseeable future, vampires wouldn't be mainstream. Six months later Twilight came out. Why was it so successful? Because Stephanie Meyer took a tired, old, no-longer-selling trope and did something completely new and different with it. All the way to the bank.)

3.     FLESH OUT YOUR GEOGRAPHY Don’t just describe the terrain and come up with cool maps.Put the geography into your story. Robert Jordan was a master at this. He visits every place on his map and makes it an integral part of the plot. By the end of the series, the fans could draw his WoT map from memory and even give you the major details from each place. He’s that good!

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4.     SPECIAL TERRAIN IS ONLY SPECIAL IF IT’S SPECIAL. In other words, don’t have special terrain just to have it. It has to be part of the story and it has to be special to your world. If you have a river of lava, that’s interesting…unless every river in your world is made of lava. Make the special terrain stand out,even in your fantasy world!

5.     FIGURE OUT YOUR WORLD’S HISTORY. Even if you never use it in the book, understand the history that made your society what it is. Now, I’m kind of a sucker for history (see my other blog) so I’m a big advocate of using the history in the story somehow. Again, I've got to cite how well Robert Jordan does this. Then again, don’t just go into page-long paragraphs of narrative to tell the history. Integrate it bit by bit into the story. If you do this right, your readers won’t be able to pinpoint exactly when or how they learned the history,they’ll just know it.

Whitecloads from WoT
Photo Credit:
a treacherousmemory.wordpress.com
      6.     RELIGION.Religion is unshackled from political correctness, which can be very useful to an author. A religion can be specific to a group of people bound by blood, or geography, or both, or neither. Fiction is all about building tension and drama.What better way to do that than through religion and/or politics. Also remember that religion and politics shape society by choice. People will always do a better job if they believe in what they’re doing and want to do it, rather than being forced to do it. This can shape your fictitious society and your characters to a great extent.

7.     GOVERNMENT.The effect of government entities on society is much like religion, except it tends to be more forced and doesn't necessarily have geographical boundaries.

8.     PERCEPTION OF TRUTH. The winner writes the history books, right? As the author, when something happens, you should know what the winners believe, what the losers believe, and what the truth is. Then you’re ready to write your narrative. Never give the reader the truth—only give them what the winners and/or losers believe. Let them figure out the rest.

9.     REMEMBER why you are doing world-building to begin with: to make your world seem more believable. Don’t over burden your reader with it. Just make it part of the story.

Hope that’s helpful for some people! I know it definitelywas for me! If you want more of Maxwell Drake’s stuff, go to his website. He has in-depth presentations you can download for free! Maxwellalexanderdrake.com

Happy Monday! :D


  1. Wow, what helpful advice! I want to write a fantasy novel now. :)

    1. You totally should! They're so much fun! Thanks Meredith! :D

  2. Big thumbs up on a great list of reminders! You only forgot step #10: There's always room enough for dragons! :)

    1. You're right! Dragons always make a world better! Thanks, Jeff! :D

  3. Loved this one, such great advice :)

  4. I always love reading your articles, Liesel! This one was great. Good advice even for genres other than fantasy. Enjoyed it!