From Authors to Authors: Writer’s Guide to World-building

Hello all and welcome to a new post in the blog’s From Authors to Authors series. Author Anna Butler is back with an in-depth guide to world-building. So grab a snack and read on. I’d also recommend a notebook, cause you’ll want to jot down these amazing tips!

I’m delighted Alina’s asked me back again, this time to talk about my favourite subject. I could talk the hindlegs off donkeys when it comes to world-building. It’s going to be hard to shut me up, I’m afraid.

What Is World-building?

Let’s start with what world-building isn’t.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the English Romantic poet, coined the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief” to explain how to draw his readers in. A lot of writers think that’s their job: to create worlds, whether historical, contemporary or imaginary, that will get their readers to suspend their disbelief about, say, interstellar travel, or dragon riders, or magic.

Thing is, with due apology to a literary great, I don’t think Coleridge had that right at all. Good world-building is not about making people think “Ho hum, I can’t really believe in this but I’ll squeeze and constrain myself and I’ll pretend I do.” No indeed. Good world-building is about creating something so compelling that it’s not that people suspend disbelief but that they believe in it.

The difference is, I think, quite profound. And it makes your job as a writer far more complex and ultimately, far more satisfying.


World-building Tips

So, what does it mean? Let’s take a science fiction world as an example, because that’s what I write, but this applies in principle to writing about modern day London or New York or about medieval Europe or a completely fantastical world peopled by rainbow-haired magicians riding telepathic sand dragons. What your job is, dear writer, is to make that world live and breathe by cataloguing its history, geography, languages, religions, economy; its weather, its societies, its peoples; its plants, its animals; its power sources, its industries, what people farm and what they eat and drink.

World-building is about telling details. To echo blogger Rui Ramalho, it’s about the plumbing and knowing where the poo goes.

One of the delights of writing science fiction not set on Earth is that the worlds, the culture and society, the government, the geography and the weather are all entirely up to me. I can, you know, make shit up. Which is wonderfully liberating. I can write something like this in my background notes and still keep a straight face: On the ground, a Shield warrior has his or her Shield suit: close-fitting, black, heat reflecting material threaded through with wiring (masking circuitry) powered by a flat battery pack across the shoulders and upper back. It produces a form of interferomatic dispersion that modulates to scatter radar and infra red/ultra violet sensors – a layer of energy distortion creating a refractive, reflective shield.

It sounds scientific enough, doesn’t it? It has a basis in physics, believe it or not. I didn’t make it up entirely out of my head. As part of my research—and for science fiction writing, that research was wide-ranging, to say the least—I read about interferometry (the technique of combining and superimposing electromagnetic waves to study displacements, refractive index changes and surface irregularities) and thought Wow. Okay. If I give that a jump to the left and a step to the right, not to mention turning it on its head and shaking it to see what falls out of its pockets, that sounds like it could be science-y sounding and feasible as a cloaking device. All right, an astronomer or a physicist would probably birth a cow if they read that paragraph about the Shield suit, but hey, a little bit of me is with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle here when he said “It has always seemed to me that so long as you produce your dramatic effect, accuracy of detail matters little. I have never striven for it and I have made some bad mistakes in consequence. What matter if I hold my readers?

I’m not saying he’s entirely right. But in the sense in which he is right, is that what matters is the story. I’m not writing a treatise on interferometry. I’m writing a science fiction yarn involving a fit young man in a tight Shield suit out to save humanity. If I end up bending those electromagnetic waves a little too far to the left to please the scientists, but the reader just thinks “Cool suit!”, then my job is done.

So… think of something that matters (infrastructure? politics? social mores?) and then decide how it all works in your world. Then take the next issue, rinse and repeat until you have a good understanding of what your imaginary world is like. And if you’re anything like me, you then end up with a folder three inches deep.

Is it important? Yup. Where you set your story, will have a profound impact on the characters you’re writing about. It will shape what they do, how they respond and react to events, how they think, what language they use in everything from oaths to proverbs.

Places shape people. Never forget that.

The World-building Devil Is in the Details

How do you do it? Not through huge paragraphs of guff, exposition and explanation. You weave it into your narrative so the reader barely notices it, bleed it into your descriptions of place, your character’s behaviour and speech, and into your plot.

Your starting point is simple: what does your PoV character know? In the Taking Shield books, my hero is a military man. Bennet is a pilot and soldier, not an engineer. The mechanics of spaceflight are part of his world, and he doesn’t leap up and down yelling at the reader to notice the faster-than-light (ftl) technology or hyperspace wormholes. Those things are just there. In the background. Unremarkable to Bennet as a character, so unremarkable to him as narrator. They’re the little details that make up the world as he knows it and what he shows the reader, but he is not going to take up three pages telling us how faster-than-light works. He doesn’t care, so long as it does. His sister, now, is an engineer. She cares, but she’s never a PoV character to share her knowledge with us, and so I don’t take up space in my narrative with the topic.

Think about it this way. I’ll bet you drive a car. Hand on heart and without looking at Google, can you explain step by every single tiny step how the internal combustion engine works? I’ve been driving for more years than most of you have probably been breathing, but I can’t do that. So why would your PoV character to know this level of detail about an aspect of his or her world that they really don’t need to know about? Put in what’s relevant to your character and his or her story. Don’t be David Weber, who interrupts what should be a thrilling space chase in his first Honor Harrington book, On Basilisk Station, with more than 2000 words on how ftl flight works in Honor’s universe. 2000 words! That’s almost twice as long as this post. Guess what readers do then? They flip over the page until they’re back on Honor’s bridge, sitting beside her as she closes her spaceship on the enemy. And if they’re me, grumbling about the poor job done by Weber’s editor.

It’s all about balance. Blend your imagination with all that stuff you’ve collected together, and seed those details through your narrative so quietly and seamlessly your reader just sees the whole, complete world and never has to worry about the plumbing, because you’ve done it for them. If you’re that desperate to share the details, create annexes in your book or information pages on your website. Geeks will love you for it, but the reader will also love not having to slog through pages of techy stuff that gets in the way of the storytelling.

Good world-building and judicious use of the lovely little details that come out of it won’t get your reader to suspend disbelief. It’ll get them to believe, instead. And that is what we’re all about. Pulling readers into our imaginary worlds and weaving a spell around them so rich and deep and nuanced, they never want to leave. And when they do, they take a part of your world with them.

Job done.

Want more Anna Butler posts? Check her articles on point of view in writing and on book reviews and how to deal with negative ones.

Meet Anna Butler

Author Anna ButlerAnna was a communications specialist for many years, working in various UK government departments on everything from marketing employment schemes to organizing conferences for 10,000 civil servants to running an internal TV service. These days, though, she is writing full time. She recently moved out of the ethnic and cultural melting pot of East London to the rather slower environs of a quiet village tucked deep in the Nottinghamshire countryside, where she lives with her husband and the Deputy Editor, aka Molly the cockerpoo.

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Anna is currently working on two, quite different, series of books:

  • The Taking Shield series is a classic space opera with handsome young men wielding lasers and trying to save the last remnants of humanity. This is a profound love story, but it isn’t a romance. Four books and still no HEA for Bennet and Flynn!
  • The Lancaster’s Luck series (The Gilded Scarab is published, The Jackal’s House will be published by Dreamspinner Press on 30 October) is a classic m/m romance, but with the added twist of a steampunk world setting where aeroships fill the skies of Victorian London and our hero uses pistols powered by luminferous aether and phlogiston.

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A pleasure to meet you! I’m Alina Popescu, an author, traveler, and hopeless coffee addict. I write urban fantasy, science fiction, paranormal, and sometimes even contemporary stories. A significant number of my books are LGBTQ fiction and romance.

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One Response to “From Authors to Authors: Writer’s Guide to World-building”

  1. […] talked a lot about world building on this blog. I’ve had guest authors talking about world building and the importance of setting. I’ve been on world building panels at Euro Pride Con (both times I […]

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