One of the best things about speculative fiction is the chance to dwell in other worlds, be they slightly or radically different from your own. It follows that world building is probably the key skill for fantasy and science fiction writers to master.
Key though it is to these genres, the story world is still only one element of your novel. It’s not enough to create a brilliant story world – you must also know how to use it.
So here are my top tips for creating your fictional world and showing it off to its best advantage.
1: Decide on the relationship between your story world and your story
Your story world isn’t your whole story. Some worlds are vital to the story being told, whereas others are little more than a backdrop.
In his short and helpful book How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, Orson Scott Card (author of Ender’s Game) proposes the acronym MICE.
This is a shorthand way of saying that every work is either a Milieu, Ideas, Character or Event -oriented story. Decide up front which approach characterises your novel, and you’ll get a feel for how detailed the story world needs to be.
2. Build from the inside out
I’m the first to admit that world building is probably the most fun you’ll ever have as a writer. But don’t forget: the most convincing story world is one that’s seamlessly integrated with your characters and plot.
In her guide to World-Building from the Inside Out, Janeen Ippolito recommends that you start by establishing the cultural worldview of your characters before deciding what their society, technology, language, terrain and location are like. This helps avoid them coming across as puppets on a convenient stage.
In the same vein, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever seen on the cultural aspects of world building can be found in Jeff VanderMeer’s beautiful Wonderbook. In the juicy chapter dedicated to fictional worlds, VanderMeer reminds us that no real culture is completely uniform, so societies in books shouldn’t be, either.
This, incidentally, is one reason I prefer David Aaaronovitch’s Rivers of London to the (also excellent) Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. For me, Aaaronovitch outdoes Gaiman when it comes to sketching London in all its nuanced diversity.
3. Don’t show your readers every detail all of the time
Even Tolkien didn’t do that, finely wrought though Middle Earth undoubtedly is. Readers vary in how much detail they prefer, but everyone has their ‘too much information’ threshold.
Instead, take a tip from the visual arts and be selective about what you bring to the fore.
You can use telling detail to:
- Set a particular mood for the reader. Shirley Jackson’s descriptions of weird architecture in The Haunting of Hill House unsettle us every bit as much as the house unsettles its visitors.
- Enhance or reduce the reader’s emotional connection with story events, which can also help with pacing.
- Add richness and strangeness by playing with metaphor. Not only is the London Underground a metaphor for the story world in Neverwhere, but Neil Gaiman rapidly moves the reader into pataphorical territory. In London Below, the Angel Islington is a supernatural being, and there really are shepherds at Shepherds Bush.
And do make sure the details you reveal are in line with your overall narrative perspective. Unless of course you want to play with this element for a particular reason.
4. Impose restrictions
If your characters have magic or supernatural powers, or are living in a magical universe, it can be tempting to make it so that anything is possible. But tension, and by implication interest, arises when characters butt up against limitations.
That’s the real reason vampires must be invited across thresholds (see John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In) and that the practice of spells has a potentially destructive effect on the human brain (as in Rivers of London).
5. Do your homework well
If your story world is entirely fantastical, there might not be too much fact-checking that needs doing. In which case, your only job is to make the details consistent.
But where you’re using real-world technologies and settings, be sure to get them right. That’s not to say you can’t apply artistic licence, but obvious howlers snap your reader straight out of their bubble of enchantment.
It’s probably best not to rely on internet factoids when you’re writing outside your comfort zone. Instead, track down a friendly expert or do some serious academic-type research.
What are your favourite tips and resources when it comes to world building for authors?