A while back I started making world building “advice” posts on my tumblr because some of my followers suggested that it might be helpful but mostly because I think I’m good at world building and I very much wanted to share some of the things I think about that help me flesh out settings. I’ll be writing more but below I thought to just dump/compile them all together here in the case something catastrophic happens because I don’t want to lose them.
*It was really more like 4 years but that doesn’t sound as catchy in a title.
Heyo. It’s me. June. Some of you expressed interest in me talking about how I world build. I just want to preface that this will be less a “how-to” and more “this is just what works for me.” Don’t take my word for gospel. I’m not an expert and I don’t think I have any secret skills but I’ll be going through the steps I take to not only build the world I set my stories in but to make them feel lived in.
My biggest pet peeve with some world building tips is it goes into things that either don’t affect daily life or tells writers to ignore them. Like, of course, don’t insert what building materials are popular in a particular kingdom for three paragraphs and distract from the story. And you probably don’t need to research medieval building techniques either. But even if certain things never make it into the story, it influences the world your characters live in. It influences the experiences they’ve had and leaks down into other parts of life. Knowing these things, even if it’s never explicitly said helps make the world feel full and more realized. But we’ll get into the finer details of that in a later part. I want to start backwards and work my way up so this round we’ll start with things that almost certainly probably won’t have a large impact in your plot. Because I love to suffer! This will likely be obvious to a lot of you but let’s get into it.
Your Characters Live in the Present
Maybe not literally. I write low fantasy settings that are reimaginings of the past. Of Rust and Gold/ The Saints’ Song series takes place in late 18th century inspired world. A lot of what I read and research when I’m looking for inspiration I draw directly from history and it seems silly to mention but it’s important to note that history does not exist for my characters. Nor does the future. At the beginning of ORG, Argus lives in the year 1782. I know what’s gonna happen months from the first day. He doesn’t. He doesn’t know what 1783 looks like any more than I know what 2021 will be like. I like for characters to believe that they’re living in the modern age. Because they are. Unless they’re time travelers or can see the future, for them this is as modern as it’s currently gonna get. It’s important to talk and ground a setting as if it’s modern to them and not something written through the lens of a 21st-century writer looking back on vaguely historical details. But more than that. The point here is that modern worlds have history and history matters.
Give Your World a Past
It’s not always plot-important but for a world not to feel sparkling and new or frozen in time when readers grace the first page a world should be touched. And even if it’s not super crucial to the plot, it’ll influence the characters and lives. (Like I mentioned above.)
In my own series, one of the recent historical events is the downfall of the Republic of Abenland. An instance where lower-class citizens of Abenland pushed out ruling dukes, built a new government, and were later invaded and turned to anarchy until it’s taken over by an imperial power. That’s a whole long, lengthy story on its own. I think it’s mentioned briefly twice because it’s not crucial, but one of the main characters was born when the republic was still in power and raised partially during the anarchy and the take-over. This has a strong impact on the way he sees the world, what he thinks about certain people and laws, and his beliefs. Even if not explicitly said or a crucial plot element.
Historical factors and knowing even big past events that might not have any *strong* hold on what your characters are doing every day will at least still add bits that make things seem more realized than they might me. Like how in ORG, Escan, Nava, and Tadrus all used to be one country, broke apart, and then recently united under one flag again. People from Nava and Tadrus still call themselves Navanese of Tadrune before they ever claim to be from Escan first though, even if they’re all under the same flag and monarch. It’s the history of being a separate state that they still respect in conversation and it’s a small element that adds something to each character who this would be relevant to. And it’s also just an easy way to make it seem like these places and attitudes have been around for longer than the seconds it took me to come up with them.
I’ll also be saying this in literally every part of this, but also your world’s history should not just be black and white. Which is to say, just go up to one of those dudes who’s way too into World War Two and talk to him for more than five minutes and understand we all have very different understandings of the past. Who a character is, where they’re from, how they grew up, will influence how they see their nation’s or a world’s history and how it makes them relate to other people. The Republic of Abenland is remembered very differently by the dukes (who survived) than anyone who would have been part of the rebellions or grew up under it. The Republic of Abenland isn’t thought of at all in Escan because they had nothing to do with it. Just like people outside of Escan do not care that there’s a slight distinction between being Navanese, Tadrune, or Escana. Just like I can’t tell word for word the history of a nation I’ve never heard of (I couldn’t think of anything to name because honestly? I read a lot of history books purposefully from countries I’m not from) most of your characters shouldn’t walk around with textbook knowledge about obscure history that might not be important to their own society and culture. Or interests.
To Cut the Fat
Give the world your story takes place in a history/past. If it’s never brought up in the story it might still influence the factors within it and how certain characters might see each other or what version of historical fact they believe or understand. Having a history exist even if it never graces the page at least makes a setting feel like it’s existed longer than the first page of chapter one.