W – World-building

April 26, 2013 by KWills

All stories take place in a world of some sort.  Some are set in the real world, others in worlds very like ours.  Others use worlds far away, the distant past (or future), or lands of magic.  But no matter where or when your story is set, you have to build your world.

How much detail you go into with your world is up to you.  If you are using the real world as your template, or you are writing a true story, then you will need to research the answers to most of the following, rather than making something up.  Some of the headings will not apply to every story, but you should still be aware of them.  Here then, are the headings I use to begin my world building.  I owe the basic structure of this to Mark Rosenfelder’s “Culture Tests”.

  • The Wide Angle – How big is this story world?  What’s the furthest thing (in time and space) of which your characters are aware? 
  • Goods and Services – Water, electricity, gas, phone lines, etc.  Who runs them?  How much do they cost?  Are the supply lines reliable?
  • Getting Around – What is the transport infrastructure?  How do most people get from A to B?  
  • Food, Drink and Basic Living Conditions – Where does the food come from?  How does it get from field to table?  Where and how do people eat?  What is a standard home built from?  Is it heated?  
  • Work, Shopping & the Economy – Are most people employed to: produce raw material, process raw material, supply and/or transport goods to markets, sell goods, provide services, or administrate other people?  How easy is it to buy new things?  What is the rate of tax, inflation, and unemployment?
  • Marriage and Family – Too many variables to list.  How does the family work?  Is there such a thing as marriage?
  • Childhood and Education – At what age does a child become an adult?  What level(s) of education are available to all, and what level(s) are optional/paid?
  • Government – Who governs, and how?  
  • Language(s) and Socio-Cultural Groups – How many?  Which group(s) to your characters belong to?  How to they view other groups?
  • Health care – If you get sick, or have an accident, what can you expect in terms of treatment?
  • Provision for young, old, sick & disabled – How does your culture support those who cannot support themselves?  How are they viewed by people in general?  Who’s responsibility is it to look after them?
  • Popular Culture – Name some famous people, and some popular forms of entertainment, including sports.  Are these home-grown or imported?
  • History – Is it important in your culture?  How is it taught?  How is it recorded?
  • Technology – What items are considered “every day”?  What are luxuries?  Antiques?  What counts as common skills/knowledge?  What sort of knowledge or skills are considered “specialist”, and how are their practitioners viewed?   Which technologies can your society not survive without, and which are “cutting edge”?  Are new things and/or ideas welcomed, viewed with suspicion, or considered unimportant?

You don’t need to go overboard (unless you want to) but you should be able to picture a day in the life of your characters before the drama of the story begins.  It’s all very well to say, “Got up, had breakfast, went to work. In the evening, [relaxed at home/went out with friends], went to bed,” but you need to have in your mind the type of bed, the typical breakfast, what the journey to work is like, and what work is done all day.  How the free time is spent, and with whom.  All this doesn’t need to be in the story, but if you can’t picture your main character eating breakfast, or hanging out in the evening, then your characters – and hence your story – will ring hollow.

Don’t sit down and try to do all this in one go.  Let it come together over time, whether you are researching or inventing the aspects of your story world.  As with characters, getting to know a culture takes a while.

As storytellers, we are world-builders.  And, just as we decide how much of the story to tell, we also decide how much of the world to build.  World-building needn’t be scary or stressful – it is just another writers’ tool.

Some people take culture-creation very seriously, and they have whole sites devoted to the minutiae of world-building.  If this appeals to you, then you are only an internet search away from a plethora of information.  Good night, and good luck.


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