On The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in the UK“, author JJ Barnes shares her advice for how to write world building in a way that interests your audience.
Written by JJ Barnes
World Building is the technique of telling your readers what world your story is set in. You show whether the laws of nature match ours, whether there is magical lore they need to understand, and how the society functions.
World Building is essential for most stories. It tells your readers how your characters function throughout the story. I’ll write about how to World Build effectively, and mistakes to avoid.
Stories In Our World
If you’re setting your story in present day, and in the world as it is now, your world building will be minimal compared to a high fantasy story. However, you’ll still need to establish anything relevant to your story.
If the story requires reference to politics, what political party is in power. If your story talks about travelling overseas, then any travel restrictions or international conflict may be relevant. However, for the most part, if you’re telling a story set in our world then you don’t need to tell your audience much for it to make sense.
World Building In Urban Fantasy Stories
For an urban fantasy story, you first need to establish that it is our world, but it is is enhanced by magic.
I write urban fantasy, so in Lilly Prospero And The Magic Rabbit I begin in the story in the mundane world of a standard British school. Lilly has lessons, interacts with other children, gets told off by teachers. It rapidly feels like the experiences most people in our world can relate to.
Once you’ve established that your urban fantasy is in our world, you’ll need to introduce the concept of magic. You can do this in one giant crash bang, if your characters are all familiar with the magic. This means you throw the straight in with people using magic with no explanation. Or do it more gently by explaining there is magic to someone unaware, so there’s a gentle introduction.
In Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Buffy is the character already familiar with the magic in that world. Then then explains it to Xander and Willow who are unaware. This gives you both the sensation of the world existing prior to the story, and a way of introducing the concept of the lore in that world to both the audience and the new characters.
World Building In High Fantasy
High Fantasy stories are set in worlds entirely different to ours. It could be in space, such as on Serenity, or a fantasy realm, such as Westeros. But it’s somewhere where everything is different and needs to be learned by your audience.
In a High Fantasy story you won’t have people unware of the world to explain it to, like you do in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, so you have to begin your story already entrenched in the world as it is. This requires world building that is more baked into the way you tell your story. It has to be done carefully to avoid info dumping, which is boring and will boot your audience out.
In Star Wars, the world building is just part of the story. You learn what’s going on by following the course of the story. Even though it’s an unfamiliar world, you become absorbed into it and it still makes sense. In Lord Of The Rings, more care is taken to explain the history of the rings and the realms, and why everything is the way it is before you try and follow Frodo on his quest.
Sloppy World Building
If you are not clear about the magical lore or the way your world functions, then you will write it in a way that is unclear. This will mean your audience doesn’t understand it either. If something has been established as a truth in your world and then, later, you change it a little because it’s inconvenient, that is sloppy world building.
For instance, referencing Buffy The Vampire Slayer again, in Season 1 it’s established that vampires can’t come out in day because the sunlight kills them. They live in nests, multiple vampires usually in a crypt or abandoned warehouse, and they stay out of the way until sundown.
However, through the course of the show this changes. Vampires can go out in the daylight as long as they cover up with a heavy coat. Vampires can drive during the day as long as the windows of the car are MOSTLY painted black with only streaks of sunlight getting in to show them where to go. It appears that sunlight is less dangerous than it’s first written to be.
Sloppy world building tells your audience that you don’t really know what’s going on. It tells your audience that whatever they think they know about the world they’re experiencing could change.
If the world can change without warning, you can’t count on anything being as important as you think it is. The dangers can be different, and the threat levels can change. How tense are you supposed to be at any given moment if the rules can change depending on what works for that particular part of the story?
How To World Build
Establishing the world your story is in needs to happen relatively quickly in your story. If you’re telling urban fantasy, let your audience know that there is magic during the first act. With high fantasy, they’ll know immediately it’s not their world. You’ll need to explain enough about the world they’re in that the story makes sense faster.
An entry point character is very useful for world building. This is somebody who is from outside who comes into the world in which you are writing. You can explain the world and the lore to your audience at the same time as you explain to the character. In high fantasy, that could be someone from a different area of the world to the one your story is set in. This could be a realm, such as The Shire, or it could be somebody training up to be a powerful wizard who needs educating.
If you can just let your story happen and explain along the way as the story needs it. In Firefly you’re thrown right away into Mal and the crew’s exploits onboard Serenity. You learn about The Alliance and as it becomes relevant when Simon and River come aboard, then that works well.
Keep It Interesting
World building can be a tedious experience your audience has to get through in order to get to the actual story. If you integrate the world and the lore into your plot in a way that intrigues your audience, you can make it something they’re eager to learn, rather than a duty to endure.
At the beginning of Star Wars Episode 1, you have two Jedi discussing politics and trade unions over tea. It establishes something important about why the story goes the way it does, and what the active conflict in that world is, but it’s incredibly dull.
Compare that with when Danaerys steps into the fire with her dragon eggs in Game Of Thrones. That moment establishes the changing circumstances for dragons in that world and that her family bloodline cannot be killed by fire. It is an incredibly important piece of world building. But it’s also exciting and dramatic, it draws the audience in.
World Building Through Characters
To world build as your story goes, rather than with an info dump or an entry point character, you need to ground your story firmly in the characters more so than the world they’re living in. Root your story in who they are, what they want, and how they’re going about getting it. The world can be peripheral to that.
Keeping your fantasy story focused on the characters allows the world to take form around them. It becomes clear to your audience as the people they’re invested in react to things around them. Because it’s the humanity in the people you’re invested in, the world building can come second and happen more gradually.
Good characterisation is essential to make that work though. You have to make your audience care about those characters, and you have to make them care fast.
Keep The Rules Clear And Consistent
If in your first draft, the rules you’ve established for your world take a wander, it’s fine. First drafts are messy and that’s normal, but then you have to edit and you have to edit well.
Make a decision and stick to it. What magic is there, how does it work, what can vampires do, what laws of nature control your characters actions?
If there is anywhere in your story that it’s unclear, sharpen it. Make sure your audience can latch onto exactly what happens in the world they’re reading, don’t leave it messy.
If you’re writing a series, either of books or films, or a TV Show, and you find later on that you do need to adapt some of the rules you’ve established for your world, then try and find a way to explain it. Something has changed, something fundamental to the world they’re in. The characters are adapting to those changes as the audience is.
Pulling a switcheroo on your audience, changing things without explaining why, and having your characters react as if nothing has changed, is sloppy and makes the rest of your story unconvincing. Anything can be changed as long as you give a reason for it and have your characters react accordingly.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose
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