Today I welcome another guest to share more tips on world-building, following Craig Munro’s great post from last week.
K. M. Cooper is a creative director and self-professed Jacqueline-of-all-trades who specializes in fiction writing and world building. Her first book, Hub City Survival, is a zombie horror novella based in her hometown of Moncton, NB. She currently resides there with her husband–actor Brad Butland–daughter Amelia, and two very distracting cats.
In my many years of writing fiction, I have found fantasy world-building to be my favorite non-writing-but-still-writing-related activity. There’s nothing like the feeling of creating whatever your imagination fancies and throwing your characters in to interact organically with your chosen environment, and being able to lose yourself within the world you have created.
I’d like to discuss a few tips and tricks to help you along during your journey to build a fantasy world that not only lives and breathes, but walks and talks, too. Crafting a world from the ground up may seem daunting, but it can be fun and intuitive, and an ideal way to help keep you interested in your work if you need a break from the actual writing.
Find your starting point:
My world-building process always starts with a single detail of sorts. Everyone’s process is different, but I love going with one tiny thing and building from there. Often it’s an image online or in a magazine, or a location I find beautiful. Sometimes it’s as simple as seeing a flower and imagining a world where that flower is as big as a tree. Sometimes I’ll print out an image that inspires me, save it on my phone, or take a picture, all to remind me of the kind of feel I want my world to have.
After I have my initial details, I use a number of processes to expand from there. Here are a few techniques that I put into practice. I hope they’re useful to you, as well!
Start with the general:
What kind of place do you want? What kind of “feeling” do you want it to have? Do you have an overall theme in mind? Is your world based on a place in real life? All of these questions can help you get a big picture of your world, from which point you can build on the finer details. Get to know the general image, get comfortable with it, and use it as a foundation for your future ideas.
The devil is in the details:
I’m not saying that you should insert the population of your town or its main exports into the story during the opening paragraph—in fact, that inclusion of detail tends to bore readers and have them skipping over your hard work. Instead, plan the details, and allude to them within the story. Instead of saying that the town’s main exports are baked goods, allude to the scent of bread wafting through the air as the protagonist goes along, or the abundance of bakeries on street corners. Know your stuff so you can drop hints inside the story. In fact, you could write a Wikipedia-style entry for your main town. In summary: know your details, create a reference point, and come back to it so you can allude to those details and make your world feel more alive.
Make a list of rules:
This comes twofold. Firstly, your world should have a set of rules to abide by. By this, I mean that you must ask yourself what is or isn’t possible in your world. What kind of magic is there? What’s off limits in the realms of possibility? It’s good to have a general idea of what can or cannot exist, using blanket terms. Specifics will come later, but having a general set of rules like these will give you another reference point for you to go back to when you aren’t sure if your writing is fitting with the overall image of your world.
Secondly, give your town or city some policies, laws, and bylaws. Throw in a couple of weird ones, just for kicks, and don’t let anyone know about them. All of this will contribute to you knowing your world better, and being able to write in it through your own intimate knowledge. Don’t spend too much time on this, as it can seriously detract from the actual writing, but there is something to be said for knowing your town or village’s way of life.
Ask yourself questions based on ordinary life:
What will take your world from being a cardboard cutout of other worlds and transform it into something living and breathing is the day-to-day, ordinary stuff. A good way to get a feel for the ordinary is to observe it in your own life, and translate it to your world. You could go for a walk outside and envision yourself in the world you’re building. Notice a squirrel run across the street. What kinds of animals or insects make your world their home? Feel the sun on your back. What is the climate like in your world? Notice the cars driving by. Is there a trade route, and do people ride horses and carts along it? Is there a different sort of vehicle that fits into your world?
All of these questions can help translate your current real-world situation into your fantasy setting. While it doesn’t hurt to separate your work from others’, originality for the sake of originality won’t feel genuine to your readers. Following along with the general idea, as outlined earlier in this article, will help you stick to your theme.
Log your details:
As I mentioned previously, writing a Wikipedia-style entry for your world and its details is immensely helpful for fleshing out your universe. I also recommend taking it a step further and writing them out in a book.
Make sure the writing takes the center stage:
World-building can be engaging, and is a creative exercise in envisioning your world—but don’t let it get in the way of the actual writing of your story. At the end of the day, your story deserves and requires your attention the most, though world-building can be a handy side-focus if you encounter some writer’s block.
Instead of limiting your focus to world-building, you are welcome to let the details come as you write, as well. As all manuscripts require multiple edits and re-writes, you can also write the details in later if you wish. An important footnote to this is that any world-related additions to your story should feel organic and seamless, not forced. Follow your intuition, and give a section of your work to a friend or editor if you’re not sure about the authenticity of your additions.
You’re welcome, of course, to accept or reject any of this advice. My style may not necessarily match with others’, so cherry-picking the suggestions that work best for you is recommended. I hope some of these suggestions are useful to you while you craft your own living and breathing world.
Let me know which tip you plan on implementing in your process!
M. Cooper’s current novel, Mushroom and Anchovy, is a steampunk adventure with fantasy elements. It is currently being funded in a campaign through Inkshares. At 250 preorders, the book will receive publication.
Mushroom and Anchovy follows the journeys of Patricia “Anchovy” Finnigan and Vladimir “Mushroom” Kalkov, professional adventurers. Their adventuring company, the Panzerotti Group, organizes hunts and adventures to locate fabled or lost items. Mushroom and Anchovy work together for the first time to locate jewels, but find a lot more. When a fellow agent is murdered, they have to learn to work together, and fast. Especially since anything can happen in a cursed cave…
You can preorder Mushroom and Anchovy at this link: https://www.inkshares.com/books/mushroom-and-anchovy
Connect with K.M. Cooper!