20th March 2024

Build Worlds – Part I

Creating the world that your story takes place in is a difficult and vital art, and one that is best approached by building it up from small details.

When you are writing a story you are also building the world in which that story happens. That world is a character every bit as important as the hero and antagonist, more so perhaps. How that world is realised and communicated in the story is often called world building, and it’s as difficult as it is important. It’s the context that those characters move through and react to, that shape the goals they have and the actions they take.

Without world building, nothing makes sense, and nothing has resonance. Think of the world of knights and oaths and families in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, or the sodden estuary and Miss Havisham’s rotting house in Dicken’s Great Expectations. In both, the world building is not incidental, it is central to what makes the story work. How do we make sure that we build the worlds of our story well? We do it by using the small details and unfinished threads of story.

Start small

A world is a big place. Even a period of history in our own world has kingdoms, people, political power structures (or the lack of them), economics, conflicts, religions, places, geography. It is virtually endless. Make that world fantastical or spread across multiple planets or even various versions of reality, and the problem magnifies.

Our instinct when we are building these worlds is to start at that big picture level. We start at the top and look down at what we are creating. We establish the big features – where things are, who is in charge, important historical events, a system of economics. We know more about the trade systems of these worlds than we do our own. We build as though we’re drawing a map or assembling a scale model. It is completely understandable, but it is a mistake.


Because it makes them feel and seem artificial. They are artificial*, of course, but we don’t want them to feel artificial. You want them to feel real, to feel like places that exist. And starting with the god’s eye view is not the best place to start when creating that feel.

“Our instinct when we are building these worlds is to start at that big picture level.
We start at the top and look down at what we are creating”

So where do you start? There is the old advice of ‘show, don’t tell’, which is flawed in a few ways but in the case of world building is absolutely applicable. If I tell you that a world which I am writing about is highly superstitious, and there are various traditions that have sprung up because of the fear of shadow spirits that creep out of the ground at night, you might be intrigued by the notion, but you won’t get a feel for what that means. You won’t understand what it means to the characters who inhabit that world.

Being told how a world works does not give you insight. Being in that world does, and when we are in a world, we understand it by the things we see, and touch and use and the reasons for that. Remember that ultimately, you are writing a story, rather than dictating facts.

Every Object is a World

There is a podcast series made by the BBC called the History of the World in a Hundred Objects. Each episode talks about an object from a specific period of history, its significance to the world it was made in, and what it meant to the people of that time. It is an amazing series and more than worth the listening time. It really helps to reinforce the point that a single object can tell you about the world that it was made in, it can tell you about the people who made it – a single object can tell the story of an age.

For example: A silver cup. Fingers have worn the metal so that he flowers etched into it are barely visible. It has a loop handle on the outside and hangs by woven cord from the belt of the person it belongs to. It’s not large. You could encircle it with your fingers. The inside shines from the bitter wine that is poured into it every sunset and drunk to give protection against the night.

You have an image of this cup now. You can imagine holding it, perhaps, or drinking from it. But you also have an idea about the person who made it, who uses it. You know things about their religion, superstition, about culture. The world is built by the presence of the cup and its nature.

“a single object can tell the story of an age'”

Scraps of stories

There is a temptation when creating a world in any medium to make things neat, and to make the world fit around the story. We, rightly, focus on plot and the consequences of character actions, but to build a world that feels real, we need our characters to intersect with unfinished and ongoing stories that are not theirs. They need to brush past them, cross over them and move around them. Those scraps of other stories help to show the world that the story is a part of.

Imagine a scene in which a character is trying to sneak into a city in a fantasy world. It’s tense. The gate into the city is guarded and the character is in a wagon carrying jars of wine. It’s hot. The guard stops, asks the driver of the wagon for their medallions of passage. The guard mutters, they can’t read the medallions properly. It’s been two days since their eyes were blessed. They grumble that they need the silvered-sight to do their job, but have to pay the silver for the blessing themselves – how is that just? They look at the medallions agin, they move to look under the awning where the character lies, still and quiet. There are shouts from the line of wagons behind – there are fruits picked that morning that need to be on the market tables by noon. The guard shouts back at them, and then with another mutter about his eyes and the cost of blessings lets the wagon pass.

What is important to the plot is the possibility of discovery, which increases tension in the story. It does not matter why the guard takes longer to let the wagon pass, narratively speaking – the point is the delay, the risk. But it is also an opportunity to do some world building. This is a place were blessings have real effects, where they are treated as part of some kind of system of commerce, and where there is a link between the control of the people that come and go and medallions that can only be read by someone with blessed eyes. There is an implication of a link between authority and religion there, too. All these features of the world are shown in this interaction at the same time as serving the plot and the needs of the scene. We have brushed past a small strand of another story and woven it into a larger tapestry.

Together these small fragments of stories and tiny details build a world that lives in the mind, and one that seems like it could exist even if it is pure imagination.

*I would argue historical settings are constructions rather than truth. The1980’s of Stranger Things is not reality even if you take away the monsters, neither is the Greece of Gates of Fire, and the England of The Last Kingdom is as imagined as Middle Earth. They are not real, even if they are based on reality.

If you have any questions on notes and writing, drop them in the comments.

John French

March 2024

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Edited by Greg Smith

Written without AI

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