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World Building Tips for Fiction Writing

Updated on March 16, 2015
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The term “world-building,” when applied to the craft of fiction writing, is typically used to describe the actions of science-fiction or fantasy authors: namely, the creation of an entire world from scratch. While this is certainly a good definition, there is no rule that such activity should be limited to those two genres alone. After all, world building only means the development of the world that your characters call home. Whether that world is a far-flung asteroid mining town, or a penthouse on the Upper East Side, here are a few general tips for making your story’s world feel fresh and fully-realized.

Some Notes on Names

When creating the names of the people and places that inhabit your world, it helps to keep a few things in mind.

  • Pay attention to location—this is especially useful when setting stories in the real world, but in places that you yourself are unfamiliar with. If you are creating your own fictional towns and communities in already existing places, some knowledge of those places is a must. Keep in mind the history of the place you’re writing about. A town in coastal New England is likely to share a name with a British town or city (in keeping with the early settler’s practice of naming their new homes after their old ones), whereas a town in the Southwest might carry a Native American name, or one bestowed by pioneers (Broken Bow, Red Creek, etc.)
  • When creating a fantasy or science fiction-based world, you can use this knowledge too; the only difference is that you will be creating the history yourself. Does your village carry an Elvish name? If so, are Elves the only creatures that live there? Do they get along with the non-Elf residents?
  • Characters that all come from one particular area will likely have similar sounding names. If one of your characters is named Enmuriel and his next door neighbor is named Randy, it won't feel particularly realistic.
  • Draw on the real world for inspiration, even if your story world is the furthest thing from the real world. Pick a location that comes close to the region of your world you are looking to develop, and learn a bit about it. Not only might it help you out with names, but you might also learn something you can plug into your story.
  • Don't be afraid of going over the top, or appearing too "strange." Readers have a high tolerance for names, and after awhile even the most outlandish one will seem commonplace. Just think--it didn't take long for readers to get used to a private school called Hogwarts, or a candy maker named Wonka.

In the end, the setting is cool enough so that the name doesn't matter much.
In the end, the setting is cool enough so that the name doesn't matter much. | Source

Exposition (How Much is Too Much?)

Your world is bound to come with some history attached. When creating an imaginary world where you control said history, some explaining is often required as to why your characters find themselves facing the problems that they have. How do you know what to explain? More importantly, how do you go about explaining it? In truth, there is no right way to go about it--every writer tackles it differently. But it is safe to say that long paragraphs of pure exposition are bad for any book. They bog down the action, break up the flow of the story, and make it all too easy for the suspension of disbelief to be broken. One solution would be to work exposition into dialogue between characters. This can serve to keep the plot moving and the reader's mind on the action at hand. However, this is a delicate balance. In real life, how often do you sit around with your friends, telling each other facts you both already know? Probably not very often. Your characters, therefore, should avoid doing this too much. Too much exposition in dialogue (especially about facts that are, in your story's world, considered to be common knowledge) can feel contrived and cheesy. The website TVTropes.org has an excellent article on this.

The Fish Out of Water

One easy way to justify exposition through dialogue is by introducing a fish-out-of-water character. That is, a character who is completely new to the world you are building, someone to serve as a stand-in for the audience. Their questions are our questions, their sense of wonder and uncertainty our own. While this is a plot device as old as time, there are literally infinite variations of it. Your character could be a small town teenager who finds a portal to another dimension, or a wizard sealed away in a magical sleep for hundreds of years, or anything else in between.

It could even be an actual fish, I suppose...
It could even be an actual fish, I suppose... | Source

Listen to the Right Music

Are you writing a space opera? Look up the Star Wars soundtrack. A story set in the Roaring Twenties? Some Louis Armstrong or some Ella Fitzgerald will do you fine. You get the idea. Music is one of the most valuable tools a writer has at their disposal; especially in this day and age, when so much of it is available for free. Listening to the right tune can instantly immerse you in the world of your story, and therefore make it easier to bridge the gap between your imagination and the blank page. Try listening to some music that your characters could (conceivably) hear in their day-to-day lives.

Remember the Little Things

At the end of the day, the most important thing about your world is the characters that live in it. It is the characters the reader identifies with, not the setting, and it is through your characters that your audience will come to know your world.

  • How do current events in your story affect your characters? A national tragedy is likely to be a topic of conversation for months afterward, especially in far-off places where news travels slowly. A local event might have a big impact on a character from that area, but might not mean much to a stranger passing through.
  • Each area of your world will have its own set of challenges, things that keep its residents up at night. Deciding which challenges fit which places might sound tedious, but it can be surprisingly fun.
  • When writing historical fiction, pop culture tidbits from the era in question are worth their weight in gold, and a simple internet search can turn up more than you might think. What are your characters wearing? What do they like to eat? What famous figures do they admire, and why? The more you can tell us about your characters, the clearer their world will become.

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