NaNoWriMo Prep: World Building

This post has been the hardest of the bunch for me to write because I don’t really have a standard process for world-building. It just sort of happens? But I do have some great resources for you, so read on.

As a reminder, the schedule for NaNoWriMo prep is as follows:

  1. Develop a Story Idea (September 12-18) — Click Here to Read This Post
  2. Create Complex Characters (September 19-25) — Click Here to Read This Post
  3. Construct a Detailed Plot or Outline (September 26 – October 2) — Click Here to Read This Post
  4. Build a Strong World (October 3-7) <— You Are Here
  5. Organize Your Life for Writing! (October 10-16)
  6. Find and Manage Your Time (October 18-24)

Okay, so most of the time, because I write sci-fi and fantasy, my world-building starts with these questions:

  • Is this a real-world story or an invented-world (secondary-world) story?
  • If it’s a real-world story, what is/are the speculative element(s) I’m adding (magic, superpowers, futuristic tech, fantastical creatures, etc.)?
  • If it’s secondary-world, is the world primarily sci-fi (science-based) or fantasy (magic-based)?

From there I usually start with the things I know I want to have in my world, and then I ask a bunch of how and why questions to sort out the underlying details.

For example, when I started the Modern Fae series, I knew it was going to be a magic in the real world story. There was a legend I was using as a “what if” jumping off point. So I started with a “if this is true, then how what?” kind of brainstorming session. Based on the legend I was using, I knew there were going to be vengeful spirits and Fae and that the two groups were going to be at war by the time my story took place because of things that happened prior to that first book. I didn’t spend a lot of time working out the details of that beyond what was necessary to get from point A (legend set in the ~1100s) to point B (modern day). I saved the fleshing out of those details for when I eventually wrote Rogue Assassins, which is the sort-of origin story for book one in my series (Eve of the Fae).

From there I started asking questions like “what are the rules of my magic system” and “what do my real-world humans know about these magical elements?” I thought a lot about what it would take to kill or injure or even just weaken the various supernatural creatures in my story. I also had to decide if iron was going to be harmful to my Fae or not because the various legends and superstitions are not all in agreement about that.

Those were the basics, but I came up with more things I needed to sort out after I started writing. Usually, I would get to some thing that was happening in the story and get blocked. Some of those blocks were either character things I hadn’t figured out yet, but most (at least in that first draft of that first book in the series) were world things that I had to stop and consider (or research) and make a decision about. For example, there are some power dynamics between the various types of Fae in my world that become important to the plot. There is also a whole thing I had to figure out about cross-breeding between Fae and humans and other magical creatures. Like, is the off-spring of a Demon and a Fae a Demon or a Fae or some mix of both? Similarly, are the offspring of humans and Fae automatically Fae? What sort of magic do they inherit from their parents? What role do the parents play in their upbringing? How far down this world-building hole do I go before I have WAY more than I need to figure out the plot problem I’m facing?

That last one is the big question with world-building, in general. Most experienced authors and professors will tell you about the iceberg theory. The idea being that there is a sweet-spot for world-building where there is a lot of stuff that the author knows about the world that is under the surface of the story, but only a small portion of that actually goes onto the page.

For a really good explanation of this, check out Brandon Sanderson’s lecture on world-building from his BYU lectures video series on YouTube. (Note: I linked to the one I watched which is from his 2016 lecture series, but this series was updated in 2020 and you can find that full playlist here.) The first half-ish of that video talks about the iceberg theory and is more focused on the how you write world-building than how you create a world. The second half-ish (starting around 30min) gets into more of the how you build a world.

One of the things he does in that video is have his class brainstorm a list of the physical aspects of a world (geology, geography, weather, etc.) and the cultural aspects of a world (government, religion, class, education, etc.). That list is really helpful reference for what is possibly my favorite world-building exercise and the thing that I now start with when I’m building a new world.

Sometime after I started writing Eve of the Fae, I took a world-building workshop where one of the resources we studied was this world-building presentation (link is to slides) given by N. K. Jemisin. I really love her “Let’s Build a World” exercise from that presentation, and I come back to it every time I start to build out a new story world. You can hear her talk about it and actually walk you through it in her Masterclass, if you have access to that. The whole Masterclass is great, and I highly recommend checking it out if you can.

She also talks about the iceberg in the presentation slides I linked to, but her “Let’s Build a World” exercise starts with defining the geography of the world because geography is pretty much at the root of everything. She talks more about why this is the case in her Masterclass. Geography determines weather, it also determines a lot of aspects of culture. This sort of science is not my strength, so I like to brainstorm this stuff with friends and/or family who love to geek out on this type of thing. It’s a great aspect of story to brainstorm because you don’t have to explain your whole story in order for non-writer friends to be helpful.

After geography comes culture. N. K. Jemisin suggests picking three aspects of culture (this is where that whiteboard brainstorm list from Brandon Sanderson’s lecture comes in handy) to focus on. One of those three is your speculative element, or what she calls “Element X. This is what I like to think of as the “secret sauce” of my world. Once you have your two cultural things and your speculative element, you flesh those out both individually (how do they work, why), and then consider how they relate to one another. For example, if you picked education, religion and magic, how does education relate to magic and how does it effect religion?

One tip that I picked up from my world-building workshop which I love is to not only think about what your world looks like from the perspective of people who have “Element X,” but what does it look like to people who don’t? Don’t forget about the negative space. If you have people who worship a god, and you’re writing your story from the perspective of someone who believes, does everyone in that world worship that god? What happens to people who don’t believe? What is life like for them? This is a great way to define additional layers of conflict in your world and your plot, and maybe even in your characters (internal and external conflict).

And one final thing that I try to keep in mind as I write any story, as N. K. Jemisin says in her Masterclass: “If you’re trying to understand what your culture is going to be like based on the environment that it’s developing in, go and research cultures that have developed in that same environment in our own world. But you don’t want to ‘rub the serial numbers’ off an existing culture.”

I love talking about world-building, so let me know in the comments if you have any other great resources you recommend.

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