Just the facts: building a fictional world for your characters

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Next to your characters and a coherent plot, your world is one of the most important aspects of writing fiction. This is true for short story writers as much as novel writers, and literary fiction writers as much as genre fiction writers. Even if the setting of your story is a real place, you must build the world in which the story takes place for your readers. Fortunately, this is not as hard as it may sound or what you may have heard from other writers.

The goals to accomplish when world-building fall into two categories: essential and optional. The optional stuff can be accomplished upfront, or it can be done over time, as you write the story or as you write the series, if it is a series. Let's take a look at each set of goals.

Essential Goals

I recommend that you follow this list in order, unless you get stuck on one and want to come back to it.

  • What is it called? Obviously, knowing what your world's name is will be priority #1. It's hard to write about a place if you don't know what it's called. If you're making up a name, I recommend a quick internet search to make sure the name isn't used elsewhere in another writer's work or connected with something that will make you regret using that name later.
    Caution: Take care in naming your world, because once you publish a piece, you're stuck with that name. So, make sure you really like it.
  • What is the timeframe? Is it Earth's future, Earth's past, or a fantastical present? Only you know this. If you have a year in mind, make sure you note that someplace, at least for yourself. If the year has a name, as sometimes happens with fantasy writing (i.e. Year of the Spider), make sure to make note of that for yourself, too, so you don't forget it later. If the year has some other significance, note this. You may find it helpful to write out a timeline if the year fits into a larger continuum.
  • What does the world look like? This is about both understanding what the character's surroundings look like within the world, as well as the general geography and places you might find on a map, were you to pick up a map of your world. And, if you're writing a fantasy or science fiction series, I definitely suggest you put together a map for better understanding of your world. This is where any artistic skills you have will come in handy. If you're not artistic, don't sweat it - drawing a blob works just as well as making a map a cartographer would envy. Or, if you don't feel your drawing skills are sufficient, there are plenty of map making tools out there on the internet.
  • How does your character fit into your world? Is your character unknown to the greater world, or are they someone important? Are they related or married to someone well-known? This is as much about world-building as character-building, so you may be able to kill two birds with one stone.

Ok - so once you have all of those details fleshed-out, you're done with the essentials. You can get back to the actual writing part, or tackle some of the optional stuff.

Optional Goals

As I said, these things are less important upfront, unless they have direct bearing on the plot. If they have a direct bearing on the plot, obviously you want to hash these details out sooner rather than later, but if not, you can fill in these details as you write.

  • Who else is in the world? The "who" here is a general "who". It doesn't necessarily mean a specific character. If you're writing fantasy, horror, or science fiction, the "who" may refer to non-human races (or monsters) that exist in your world - orcs, elves, Klingons, HR Giger-type aliens.
  • Who doesn't like whom? Are there tensions between races or other groups of people in your world? How does this affect your characters?
  • What does the world's history look like? This may be more or less important, depending on the length of fiction you're writing or the type of storyline. Only you can determine how little or much of the world's history is important to you.
  • What does the political structure look like? Again, this may be more or less important, depending on the length of fiction you're writing or the type of storyline. If you're writing a story that includes some political intrigue, the political climate is important to describe for your readers. If you're writing a simpler slasher horror piece, the politics of the time are probably less important and can be skipped.
  • What type or types of religion exist in your world? Is there one religion or are there many? How does religion affect or not affect your character? Is there strife around religion or between other religions. Maybe these things are important to your story, maybe they're not at all important - you're the creator, so you decide.

Now, a world-building example

I'll give you a window into how I built Cathell, the world in which both Into the Darkness and Corruption of Honor take place. This is how I answered the essential questions:

  • Name: Cathell
  • Timeframe: a fantastical past and then present
  • What does it look like: Cathell is standalone continent, with islands off the coast to the east, a peninsula to the west called The Fang, and a separate continent lies to the north. It is covered in vast forests (most famous is the Forever Wood to the west) and mountain ranges (like the Black Mountains) and plains. The story begins in the Black Mountains and then extends to the city of Valis, just past the Black Mountains.
  • How does the character fit into this world: Aeryn is the daughter of a soldier of The Fang. She is a sell-sword who has been largely unknown to the world until she found the key to breaking the infamous curse placed on the Black Caverns.

I had these four sets of facts, plus, I knew the races involved in the plot - humans, elves, vampyres, and gods, both evil and good. And then I was off to the races. As I went, I learned a little more and a little more about Cathell, and I'd write it down as I went. The most important part was not getting bogged down in the world-building.

Gather the facts you really need to know and then move on. You can spend forever on building up your world. But, wouldn't you much rather be writing?

A.M.