It's world building time.
Congratulations on making it this far in the NaNoWriMo planning process! If you have no idea what I’m talking about, start from the beginning!
Ready for world building? Strap on your safari hats, ‘cause we’re going exploring!
Today, we’ll cover the four basic components of creating your very own fantasy world:
Location, Resources, Rules, and Culture
It’s always good to understand your surroundings. That’s why these tips are also beneficial for writing about an existing location!
Let’s get started with a freebie! Consider this free downloadable worksheet a great way to brainstorm and take your world building to the next level. You can use it to take notes and explore key components of your world while you read this article.
For me, step one in world building is to pick a physical setting. You may already have a culture or story in mind that you want to build your world around and that’s totally okay. This is just where I start and here’s why it’s important.
Your story’s physical location determines what kind of terrain your characters will have to endure, as well as their physical attributes. Living on a mountain means collecting firewood and hiking long distances before running into neighbors. Someone who lives in the mountains will be accustom to the thinner air, while a character who is just visiting would become easily out of breath at higher altitudes. Your mountain dweller would be used to the cold dry weather. They may wear thick layers and have cracked hands and always carry Chapstick in their pocket.
I always view my settings as characters. They can actively influence the plot by causing problems and creating barriers. Your characters should interact with the setting in a way that would make sense in the real world. Even in fantasy settings.
You can pick a few details you want to distort, like the color of the sky, while neglecting other details, like gravity. By not directly addressing that something is different, we as readers will automatically default to our own understanding of the world. If you don’t talk about gravity, then we assume it works the same in your story as it does on earth.
When picking a physical setting, consider what it would be like to live there and how you would feel in that situation? What is the weather like? Is the terrain easy or hard to travers? Are their lots of people or is it isolated? What else lives there? What can you smell?
I’d recommend picking a landscape and taking 30 minutes to google random facts about it. Wikipedia is a great place to explore different aspects of a location through all the available links. Just make sure you set a timer so you don’t get lost down the rabbit hole.
Something else the land dictates is the availability of resources. Ask yourself what the land has to offer. Does your protagonist live on the coast? Does that mean it’s a fishing town or a trading post? Is it small and rural or a bustling cosmopolitan city? Made up of little fishing skiffs or huge cargo ships?
These resources will also determine the kinds of jobs that are available. Continuing with our coastal example, a small fishing village would consist mainly of fishers, bait shops, and boat repairs. Whereas a trade post would have an assortment of different shops and restaurants, inns and bars, and street side merchants.
When world building, don’t be afraid to put your characters in locations they hate. Let them have bigger dreams than running the family business. Let their surroundings pummel them with allergies and mosquitoes.
Your setting is just as much a source of conflict as your characters’ choices. Take a few minutes to determine your locations level of wealth, job types, and tourist attraction.
If you need more direction, check out the free worksheet I've included up top.
Next up are the rules and why your characters should break them! Every society is going to have rules no matter how primitive and they set the stage for what is expected of your protagonist.
Pick your authority figure:
government, police, monarch, villain, corporation, parents, tribe elders, etc
Set some rules:
no stealing, no killing, no bad mouthing the people in charge, no pants on Tuesdays…
Get creative when word building, now is your chance to dream big, but make sure the rules make sense with your theme. They should impede your characters from achieving their goals.
The authorities in my story tell the protagonist what job she can take, what to wear, and that she must be escorted by a man at all times. In order to obtain her freedom, she’ll have to go through her bodyguard first.
It’s great when your characters break the rules, but it’s even better when the rules hinder their progress. It increases suspense, adds a sense of hopelessness, and requires resourcefulness. Where there are rules, there should also be consequences. Let your characters be rebels, but don’t forget to hold them accountable every now and then.
Another great question to ask yourself is:
“What are the moral and internal laws that guide my characters?”
That brings me to social norms and the role they play as unofficial law. This is where culture comes in.
This is my favorite part of world building!
Culture isn’t just about the latest fashion trends and what’s good on the menu. Although these are great things to consider, and generally influenced by the landscape and available resources, culture extends far beyond material things. Culture consists of holidays, religious practices, and major milestones. What do they celebrate? Is there a rite of passage when they turn a certain age? These smaller everyday occurrences lead to social norms.
Social norms are less strict, sometimes undefined rules set by the majority. Examples would be things like baby girls wearing pink, holding the door open for strangers, and respecting your elders. While you may not end up in jail for breaking them, they can have serious social consequences like: rejection, ridicule and criticism, isolation, bullying, denial of resources, even threats to your safety.
So, what does your society consider normal? Is it a patriarchy or a matriarchy? Or are genders equal? Maybe there are no genders, or more than two. Do they help the poor or hoard their wealth? Are they strict about following rules or do they encourage learning from mistakes?
It’s important to consider how your character fits into their society, whether they follow its customs, and the norms they abide by. Make a list of accepted and rejected norms for your society and mark all the ones your character agrees with and the ones that they don’t. This will give you an idea of how well they fit in or how much trouble they might get into.
Some assembly required…
Now’s the time to pull everything together and make sure it all ties in seamlessly. Your jobs should make sense with your terrain. The customs should reflect the setting. The norms need to accurately portray the local population. And the authorities should have reasons behind their rules.
Take a few minutes to write a brief travel brochure about your new world. Pretend you’re a travel agent trying to sell someone on a once in a lifetime adventure. Once you’ve done that, write it again as a warning to keep people away. This will give you a better idea of what your world has to offer and what it might be hiding. Remember, your world shouldn’t be perfect. If you can’t write both scenarios then you need to go back to the drawing board.
That’s it for today! Sign up for email notifications because next week we outline!
Pick your favorite custom or holiday from your story world and leave it in the comments below!