Monday, August 12, 2013

World Building 101: The Foundation

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Building a world is a lot like building a house, and like a house, one of the first things we want to do is lay the foundation. A strong world foundation allows us to build our worlds from the ground up, making them feel more real and solid. For fantasy or science fiction writers this is critical, but a strong world applies even to those writing in the real world. The setting is the world in which the novel takes place.

I've found using an actual place as a jumping off point saves a lot of time. I don't have to make up every detail, and I have some reference guides for the basics. The climate and geography of a place determines what that culture does to survive. The food they eat, the clothes they wear, where they work, etc. Knowing those details makes it easier to adjust them to my world, picking and choosing the details that fit what I want to do.

Some things to consider when building a world:

1. Climate

What's the weather like? It is wet or dry? Are there seasons? People living in the cold lead different lives from those who live in the tropics. And it's not just what they wear, but morals can also be affected. If a culture is used to always being covered up, there could be a taboo against bare skin, or it might be considered risque. Rain may play a role in the plot, or snow, or a particular season.

Real World Writers: Where the protagonist lives plays a role in real world stories as well. A gal living in Seattle might not go anywhere without an umbrella, while a gal in Tuscon might not even own one. While these details are small, the setting does affect what's normal for the characters and may be great plot devices (like if that Seattle gal needs to fend off a mugger by using her umbrella)

2. Agriculture

What grows in the area? How do these people feed themselves? What do they eat? An agriculturally dominant culture will likely be more spread out to accommodate farms, while a culture that imports food might be more city based. Food might be a way to designate social classes, as hard to get items illustrate wealth or indulgence.

Real World Writers: Food can say a lot about a character. Are they a risk taker by trying exotic meals, or do they always stick to meat and potatoes? Certain places also have unique cuisine that reflects the culture, and we can add local flavor by using that.

3. Plants and Animals

What grows in this world? What kind of animals live there? What woods might be used to make furniture and houses? Why types of animal skins might be used? What are the common food or industry, crops or herds? People use what's available to them, so we can get some interesting details using plants and animals that are common to a particular region.

Real World Writers: Animals can add a fun layer to real world settings as well. Imagine finding an alligator under the car for Florida settings, or dealing with migrating crabs. Animals and weird animal behavior could add just the right touch to spice up a plot and provide something unusual to set the story apart.

4. Economy, Industry and Resources

How do people make a living? What are the primary "cash crops," or the products that make money? What is the job structure like? What industries are there? What's considered low class vs high class work? Is there a middle class? How do people get their goods? What kind of money or trade system do they work off of? The rich need to make their money somewhere, and the poor have to survive somehow. It's easy to have a general store where everything is sold, but where do those goods come from?

Real World Writers: Jobs can also vary by area. If the protagonist lives in a small town, everyone might work at the same plant or factory, or an area might all be heavily employed by a certain industry, like steel in Pennsylvania or cars in Michigan. A big city could have jobs unique to that area.

5. Entertainment

What do people do for fun? What types of entertainment are available for the different classes of people, both socially or economically? What's appropriate entertainment vs inappropriate? Are there group events like gladiatorial fights or smaller games? What's considered fun is often tied in to the morality and ethics of a culture, and we can show right and wrong behaviors by what the characters do in the off hours.

Real World Writers: Different cities can also have different activities. Local festival or events can add as much color as food or a job. Instead of sending the protagonist on a date to dinner and a movie, maybe they go to the annual wine tasting or strawberry festival. Or maybe the entertainment can also show values of that city, like strip clubs that cause a stir in the community, or one that's just a normal and accepted part of the town.

6. Education

Do people go to school? Is there higher education? Trade schools or apprenticeships? How do people learn the skills they need to survive? Is it different depending on the societal class? Education might even be used to separate classes or genders or show those roles and the attitudes about gender or class.

Real World Writers: Different areas have different expectations about education, so how far along your protagonist might be scholastically may depend on where they're from. This might cause conflict or embarrassment for them if they're from a vastly different background than their friends, co-workers or love interests.

7. Religion

What's the deital structure like? What do these people believe in? What's considered devout? What's secular? What's the average level of belief? Are the gods real and participating or just passive observers? Or are they simply myths? Is there religious tolerance? Multiple gods? Contradicting belief systems? Remember that no culture has a population that all believes exactly the same thing, so there will be ranges of belief and even some radical thinkers.

Real World Writers: Is religion or faith something that plays a role in the protagonist's life, or is it something that no one ever talks about? We may not mention religion at all, but our protagonist might wear a cross or a Star of David, given to them by a favorite grandmother. Religion is all around us, so it could provide an answer to a plot problem. Or it could be used to show the ethics or morality of a character, especially if they're going to be facing any ethical dilemmas.

8. Art and Architecture

How do these people decorate? How do they express themselves? Is art used by the common folk or is it just for the noble class? Is it religious in nature? How much does the culture value artistic expression? Music, dance, art, sculpture, bead work, whatever it is, it'll evolve because of where they live and what they believe.

Real World Writers: Skyscrapers vs stucco, glass vs adobe brick. Different regions have their own look and can provide the right style for the story, and also add realism to the setting to make a reader feel like they're there.

No matter what kind of world we're building, the more solid our foundation is, the better the world will stand up to scrutiny. It'll also give us lots of options when developing plot problems and creating obstacles.

What are some of your favorite worlds? 

Find out more about setting and description in my book, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems.
Go step-by-step through setting and description-related issues, such as weak world building, heavy infodumping, told prose, awkward stage direction, inconsistent tone and mood, and overwritten descriptions. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Choose the right details to bring your setting and world to life
  • Craft strong descriptions without overwriting
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Create compelling emotional layers that reflect the tone and mood of your scenes
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Fixing Setting & Description Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting immersive settings and worlds that draw readers into your story and keep them there.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Great post. I like the additions for real world writers. A lot of people think world-building is limited to speculative fiction, but I think it's a matter of degree. Both types of story like to rely on familiarity and similarity when possible, but are perfectly happy to make things up when necessary.

  2. I really like your idea of picking a place in the real world to help set up your fantasy world. I didn't think of that when I started my book. But I'm going to try it next time.

  3. What a wonderful post!!! I love that you also included the real world view as well, it's nice!!!

    Foundation is key and I'm thankful I have mine done! I am so excited to have my first draft almost complete!!!

  4. ...That last part of this post just inspired me for the architecture style of a kingdom in a story. I'll have to research its feasibility, but thank you!

  5. That's awesome! I love hearing something I've said helps someone. That's the whole point of the blog.

  6. I like having this broke down for me. And even more impotantly I think I have followed all of them pretty accurately for my story. Wahoo, finally a pat on my back.

  7. Entertainment...huh, it never crossed my mind! And I live near New Orleans, too, which is the Land of Entertainment. (Street performers, especially the ones who dress up as statues, run all over Jackson Square.)

    Thank you! I'll be referring back to this post!

  8. With my new series in the works, this has been on my mind in a big way. I actually started with religion. I worked out that the classical elements are worshipped as divine forces, and the Empire where the series starts off worships the sky and the Highers who dwell there. So they build tall towers out of steel and stone, to reach for the heavens. I suppose if I were to take any real-world inspiration for the capital city, Greyspire, it would be if London's cramped, foggy sprawl was to stretch up and down the side of a mountain.

  9. Rachel, you'd have a ton of great examples right outside your door.

    Paul, ooo sounds delightfully spooky. Religion can work so well when it's integrated into the world and story like that.

  10. I don't do a lot of fantasy, but I still create new towns/cities/locations for my action to take place in. Great ideas!

  11. Everything I wanted in a writer's retreat, I gave to one character. Everything I wanted in a California mansion, I gave to another character.

    And everything I wanted in permanence, and a family home, I gave to the third character.

    I love the process. And I love adding the gardens. And the animals. Setting says so much about its occupier.

  12. Entertainment and religion - two things I've overlooked. Time to add some more notes to my revision list. :)

  13. P Workman, thanks! World building works for real life settings as well.

    Liebjabberings, sounds like fun! You get to live vicariously through characters :)

    Swati, have fun!