From Fiction University: Enabling third party cookies on your browser could help if you have trouble leaving a comment.

Friday, January 27

It's Their World: World Building From the Ground Up

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

One of the traps a writer can fall into is spending so much time developing a world they feel the need to put as much of that world into the story as possible. While it's good to know a lot about your world, the reader usually doesn't need to know everything you came up with. They just want to know what's relevant to the story. It's your job to find that balance.

Understanding your protagonist's place in that world can go a long way to figuring how much to share. How your protagonist moves through this world is how you're going to describe it to the reader. It's also a good way to avoid "world builders disease," or the urge to put it all in there.

I like to start my world building by figuring out what a normal day is for my character. That makes it easier to know what I can do to push them out of their comfort zone and what constitutes a bad day for them. Bear in mind that these questions are designed solely to get you thinking. They're not a checklist to fill out, so pick and choose what fits the world you're trying to create. Not all of them will apply to your world or story, but hopefully they'll spark other questions that are more relevant to your world.

1. What's the climate like?

How does this affect your protagonist's daily life? Do they have to worry about it, or is it something that never troubles them? Do they own clothes or gear to protect them from the elements? Is this something that could cause them problems on a regular basis? Are there any ways they can use the weather to their advantage? Could it put them at a disadvantage at any point?

2. What about agriculture and food?

How does your protagonist get food? Do they need to worry about starving or are meals always provided without a thought? Do they have any experience dealing with farming or animals? Are they comfortable around them, or is it a lowly profession? Do they work in this profession? Do they know people who do? Does eating or food play an important role in their life, such as a ritual or an escape, or even a reward? Do they have any attitudes or beliefs about food?

3. What kinds of plants and animals are there?

Is nature a problem for the protagonist in any way? Do they know anything about living on the land? Would they know poisonous plants or animals?  Do they use it to their advantage? Are they comfortable outdoors? Are they good with animals? Do they fear any animals? Do they have any pets? Does a particular plant or animal hold any significance for them?

4. What's the economy, industry, and resources like?

Where in the overall economic environment does the protagonist fit? Do they have a job in any particular industry? Do they know the value of important resources? Do they have access to any of it? Does industry or the economy cause them troubles? Does it aid them? Do they have money or are they always broke? Do they have enough of the basic necessities? Do they have luxuries? What do they consider basic needs and luxuries? How do they see the economic or social structure? Does knowledge of any of these gain them an advantage to the conflict? A disadvantage?

5. What do people do for entertainment?

What does the protagonist do for fun? What do they like to do in their spare time? What do they find boring? Offensive? Exciting? What activities do they like? Do they participate in any group activities? What do their friends do for fun? Do they approve or disapprove? What do they think is normal vs risky vs boring fun? Does their recreation provide them with a skill that they can use in their conflict?

6. How does education work?

What's the protagonist's educational background? Do they feel smart or dumb compared to other people? Are they book smart or street smart? What about their friends? Their colleagues? Do they try to continue their education in some way or just deal with situations as they always have? Do they have any biases toward people with different educations? How do they feel about education in general? Can this be a source for conflict? Can it provide a resource to overcoming a conflict?

7. How does religion work?

Does the protagonist follow any particular religion? How devout are they? What about their friends? Do they have any biases toward those of other faiths? How do they feel about the extremes of their religion? Does religion cause them any problems? Can it be a source for conflict? Can it be a source for aid? How much do they think about religion? Participate in region or rituals?

8. What does the art and architecture look like?

What kind of style does the protagonist have? What do they like? Dislike? Do they have any biases toward a particular look or style? Do they aspire to a particular look or style? Why or why not? Can this play any role in their conflict? Can they use it to aid them in any problems? Does it cause any problems or conflicts?

Now, ask yourself a few basic questions and think about how it relates to your world.
  • What is a normal day like for your protagonist? Your other characters?
  • Who are your protagonist's enemies? (not just the antagonist, but people who don't like them) What social or economic group do they belong to?
  • Who are their friends? What social or economic group do they belong to?
  • What are the things your protagonist tries to avoid on a regular basis?
  • What are things they try to get on a regular basis?
  • Where do they fit on the social and economic ladder?
  • Where do they live?
  • Where do they work or go to school?
  • What are some challenges living in that world present?
  • What are some advantages living in that world present?

By now, you should (hopefully) have a good sense of the world your protagonist lives in and their role in it. You have enough information to see potential obstacles and ways you can start weaving your plot elements together with your world building elements.

Do your characters help build your world or do you let your world build your characters? Do you have a preference? Which do you do first?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series (and Amazon bestseller), Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, the Amazon bestseller, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. Such an awesome post!! I can't wait for tomorrows! This is such great information! Right at the time I'm needing it as well!

  2. Ooo! I like the 'normal day' thing. :-) And this is loose enough that it might actually work for me to organize my world and characters.

    As an example of an innocuous way that religion can cause conflict: in my UF, the narrator's Christian and is haunted by "Thou shalt not lie" every time she realizes she's obfuscating.

    Thanks for taking the time and effort to give such good advice!

  3. Good post! When I write the rough draft, I tend to put everything about my world in there. Later on when I revise, I know what stays, what needs to be worded differently and what needs to just be cut altogether. But I so desperately want to put EVERYthing in there! lol

  4. I love how tiny details (like having mango rice for lunch) can tell you buckets about the world. As readers, we pick up on these. I think there can also be the problem of worldbuilding poorly, though. I read a book once where the author smashed a tropical lowland within a day's walk of the climate equivalent of Scandanavia. I kept looking and hoping there'd be some kind of magical explanation.

  5. I normally come up with a rough idea of how my worlds work before starting. Then I try to see how much of that I can show in the first draft. When I'm editing, a lot will be taken out because it's just not relevant.

    In my first book, I never even go into much detail about how magic works. My protagonist doesn't use it, so what's more important is what is done with magic, rather than the mechanics.

  6. Great post! Unnecessary detail about landscape, climate, buildings, etc. is a big turn off for me. Like you said, it's important to edit out what doesn't serve a purpose. Let the reader use their imaginations too.

  7. Paul, magic mechanics has got to be one of the tougher aspects of fantasy. If it's normal, characters won't think about it (like we don't think about how technology works, we just use it).

    Jennifer, I try to use just enough to get the idea across and let the reader picture it from there.

  8. Great post, great questions! Definitely bookmarking this one :)

  9. Excellent post: stories spontaneously start to erupt from the questions themselves.