I was surprised during our weekly Writers in the Grove free Monday workshop meeting that some of my fellow members didn’t know about the concept of world building in writing.
When you write fiction, you create a world, literally. It may represent the real world or a fantasy world. It consists of scenes, places where events occur in your story.
Your fictional world is made up of places, people, cultures, traditions, habits and routines, weather, geology, current events, and politics.
I’m working on a story that takes place in 1979. I begin my world building by researching historical events in 1979, then branch into newsworthy stories and topics, and even some trivia. If my story is concentrated solely in the United States, and specifically a location, say Seattle, then most of my research would focus on what happened in Seattle in and around 1979. Here are some of the results of my web search.
In my research, I discover that the average income that year in the United States was $17,500, and the average monthly rent was $280, a far cry from today’s prices. A gallon of gas cost 86 cents, oil was $24 a barrel, and the Toyota Corolla was one of the most popular cars on the road and the $200 Sony Walkman was in demand by most teenagers and college students. Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” album won awards and played out of boomboxes everywhere, blasting “Y.M.C.A.” by The Village People off the charts. The daily news included updates on Voyager 1 as it made its closest pass by Jupiter, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, the Moral Majority religious movement by Jerry Falwell, 63 American hostages taken in Iran, and Saddam Hussein becoming president of Iraq. John McEnroe, Tracy Austin, Bjorn Borg, and Martinia Navratilova became household names as tennis champions. We watched MASH, The Jeffersons, The Dukes of Hazzard, One Day at a Time, and Three’s Company on television. The big screen played Alien, All That Jazz, Apocalypse Now, Start Trek: The Motion Picture, Norma Rae, The China Syndrome, Being There, Life of Brian, Mad Max, and the Muppet Movie.
If you are writing about 1979, this is the world your characters lived in. They listened to that music, watched that news, those movies, and said funny things like quotes from movies and television such as “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins” (Brooke Shields ad for Calvin Klein), “Reach out and touch someone” (AT&T ad), “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” (Apocalypse Now), and “You need this for your rent, boy” (Richard Pryor).
Cultural stories might filter into conversations or even the thoughts of your characters such as when then-President Jimmy Carter explained how he almost tipped when an enraged swamp rabbit swam toward his fishing boat, or comment on the first time a milk carton featured a picture of a missing child. Or the fears that swept the globe as NASA’s Skylab fell to Earth, landing in Australia, made fun of afterwards by many when the Shire of Esperance in Western Australia fined NASA $400 for littering. Or maybe how Charles Manson sent a Monopoly “Get Out of Jail Free” card in a humorous attempt to be released by the parole board. Or maybe the dinner table discussion that night might be about the work of Mother Teresa after she won the Nobel Peace Prize.
The world your characters live in influences their personalities, behaviors, even habits. A worker in 1979 living and/or working in downtown Seattle would have made sure they made a swing by Starbucks at 1912 Pike Place for a cup of their soon-to-be-famous coffee.
Now think about your characters and their relationship to this place and this time. Are all of your characters from here? Or maybe one or more of them are from different places, creating conflict when their worlds come together such as a white woman from Seattle falling in love with a black man from Mississippi in 1958, or the reverse. What about a new immigrant from Europe or Africa landing on the shores of the United States or Canada in the 1800s? Or maybe you have a person from Germany finding their way in Alabama in 1943 at the height of World War II? When we travel, we bring our worlds with us no matter where we go.
Your story may begin in any time and place. The world existed for your characters before the start of your story, and they might survive your story. Reveal the world they live in, as well as the world of history and experiences they carry with them through your story, to your readers as they shake hands and get to know your characters.
Here are a list of questions to help you define the world in which your characters live.
- Why are your characters here?
- How did your characters get here?
- Why here now?
- What makes this place special to the character(s)?
- What makes this time necessary to the character(s)?
- What’s important in this place and time?
- What is it about this place that welcomes your characters?
- What is about this place that challenges your characters?
- What is about this place that creates conflict in or between your characters?
- How is this place different from other places, and how does it matter to your characters?
- What’s the weather like? Now and seasonally?
- What’s the landscape, geology, terrain?
- Is it crowded with buildings, people, or things? Or wide open and spacious, distance between buildings, people, and things?
- What does it sound like here?
- What does it feel like here?
- What does it smell like here?
- Who comes here? Who stays away from here?
- How many people live here?
- What do they do?
- How do they do it?
- What are their rituals, habits, routines, traditions?
- How do people live here?
- Where do people live here?
- What do they eat and drink? How is it grown? Where do they get their food?
- Are there races, ethnic groups, or other signs of diversity?
- Is there a class system? Social, justice, gender, ethnic, cultural, or economic? How do they interact and react to the world around them?
- Who are the leaders?
- What’s hot in the news and gossip columns here? What are people worried or talking about?
- How do the people interact here? In the streets, cafes, plazas, town squares, virtually, meetings, social hours?
- What are the laws? How do the laws impact the characters?
- What happens when a law is broken?
- Is this a stable society or one on the edge or dropped into chaos?
- How was this place made? Immigration, governance, wars, etc.?
- What’s the health of the place? Epidemics? Do the people have an active or inactive lifestyles?
- How safe is the place?
- What makes people feel safe or unsafe here? Why?
- What are the philosophies that guide this society and community?
- Is this community/society religious? How? Why?
- How does this society’s infrastructure function? Are there roads? Who builds them? Garbage? Power? Housing?
- What did it take to build this world?
- If this world would come to an end, what would it take?
This is just a few of the questions to consider. Go through these, and the questions and suggestions offered in the resources below, then ask yourself: Could this scene happen anywhere else? How would it change? How would it change the characters? How would it change the story? See what happens.
Resources on World Building
One last bit of advice.
If you introduce something new to the world in which your characters live, ask yourself if this change their world. How does it? If it is magic or technology, does it impact only your characters or everyone in society? How? Why? Is it good, bad, or indifferent? How do they adapt to the change? is it good for everyone or just a few?
Remember, your characters live in the test tube of your imagination. Every twist or turn in the story may create a tsunami of change beyond the bubble that is your main characters. Let your readers see and feel the change.