Before you read any further, I need to confess something. I've never taken a world building writing class. But after three decades as a science fiction freak, it's no wonder I enjoy world building. In fact, creating my own worlds may be why I write science fiction. But ever writer needs to know how to build the world, the vessel, that controls their story, whether that story is a contemporary, historical, or even memoir.
You don't have to write science fiction or fantasy to build your own world. The world you build is the container for everything that happens to your characters. You determine the size of the container, what's in the container, and more important--what's not in the container.
I'm in the process of beginning a new work so I'll share a little about how I put together my new planet. Yours could be a character's hometown, but there are rules.
The Vessel in NYC
Rule #1: The setting is a character. Your setting needs to have good things and challenging aspects, just like your hero and heroine. Think pioneer women. I can't imagine loading all my worldly goods into a covered wagon and heading west to battle unknown weather, frightening hostiles, and terrain. Prairies and mountains were characters in the lives of those Americans.
We won't get into the people those settlers had to travel with, here. Those are cultural and social aspects of world building, but today is about putting together a believable physical setting, whether it's a planet, a kitchen, a space station or a mountain cabin. How exciting to control every aspect of your characters' lives from the get go! Just be sure to use the setting as you would a villain or an ally.
You want to remember to account for the basic necessities to sustain life in your world:
food, shelter, light, warmth, air and water. Then you can move to the interesting stuff like safety, animal or sentient life, and technology. In my new world there is no human food. Imagine the conflict that evolves around a semi-annual food distribution. To say nothing of the fear of no more food deliveries to the planet. If your world is the home of a dysfunctional family, conflict can abound between troubled adults and their children.
Rule #2: Beware the laws of physics. If you break one or more of the physical laws in our universe, you better have a darn good reason why your world works differently. You must be able to convince your reader that the change is a real and consistent part of the physics of your setting. Note, you don't have to be an astrophysicist to pull this off. I'm not. Editor comments about my world building let me know that my worlds are "solidly drawn" even if they are a bit "off."
While a planet with two or three moons and maybe a couple of suns would be interesting, the instability caused by overlapping gravity fields would be a major problem. You'd be hard-pressed to convince me that such a planet wouldn't be pulled apart. Likewise, random gravity might be an interesting concept, but you'll have to come up with plausible rules governing the phenomena.
Similarly, if you have a character who is being repeatedly abused to life-threatening levels, there must be a compelling reason why either the abuser is not imprisoned or why the abused person keeps returning to the abuser.
Rule #3:Although your world is governed by the laws of physics in your universe, you don't want to dump all the detail on the reader up front.
As exciting as abandoned alien tunnels may be to explore during the book, you can drop a couple of hints about the map having an obvious mistake when your character gets a little lost to set up the discovery that the rock is alive and growing and changing. Or perhaps the oceans are polluted and the mist from the water causes hallucinations, but the sea monster with venomous fangs is definitely real.
Any time one of your characters is confronted by something new or different, setting details can help convey the tone and feeling of the experience, from a roller coaster rider to returning home and finding a burglar in their bathroom.
It's a good thing to expose facets of your setting throughout your story, but don't tell the reader about your world. Show your character's daily life in the setting, or if your character is in an urban fantasy setting, let the reader experience the differences as your characters discover them. Make your setting memorable. Save some surprises for your reader. In this way your setting can be hero or villain--or both.
Rule #4: Make a world that has everything, just like your dream vacation spot, or your worst nightmare. Then work those angles on your characters. They may not know anything but their own world, or they may be from elsewhere and know just how wonderful or how miserable their current surroundings are. Drawing those comparisons will reveal layers about your characters by showing their attitudes and skills.
The world of my new book is beautiful, filled with crystals as tall as trees. In fact, the
planet has only crystals and water. No plants, no animals, no indigenous life. This world is a three-month (real time) journey from the nearest civilized outpost. Why would anyone want to go there? Ah--those reasons supply the social/cultural setting, which is a different than your physical setting.
Rule #5: If you choose to ignore Rule #4, change only one thing about our present world, but make it an important plot point. Maybe the oceans have dried up. How would that affect weather, food production, travel? The reasons for the change would be considered back story, so don't fall into the trap of telling your readers all about the change. Do describe the world as it is at the beginning of your story. Maybe, as in Frank Herbert's Dune series, your world is being actively terraformed to turn it into a more hospitable place for humans.
We've all read books or seen television shows about contractors or home designers. Your job, as the writer, is to building your setting wall by wall, window by window, to let us, your readers, not only see the setting, but experience it with your characters. You don't need to write science fiction to do this. One of your characters can remodel, paint a wall, or buy a new piece of furniture that can work as a metaphor throughout your story to show that character's growth. Your setting can have a character arc!
Don't forget to mine every ounce of gold from your world building. After all, you placed all those wonderful nuggets there as you built your setting.
What challenges have you overcome--or still struggle with--in creating your settings? What are some ways you've used physical setting as a character? Are there laws of physics that you need help with or ways to tweak physical phenomena?
Fae Rowen discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak. Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes that she can live anywhere but the present. As a mathematician, she knows life’s a lot more fun when you get to define your world and its rules.
P.R.I.S.M.,Fae's debut book, a young adult science fiction romance story of survival, betrayal, resolve, deceit, and love is now available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.Fae's second book in the series will be available for pre-order on Thanksgiving, 2019.