Allow me to start by saying that I am no expert in the field, but since I was a young boy I have dreamed of other worlds and societies. From altering video games like Ultima Online to include a vampire vs. werewolves vs. priests vs. hunters shard, to writing fantasy and science fiction stories, I have dabbled in many elements of world building throughout my life.
I have discovered many things that work for me and many that don’t. It is important to say that there’s no definitive rulebook for such things, but readers will often tell you what they think (they will always tell you what they think). Many of the examples, if not all of them, came into play when creating the world where Brother Dust lives in our novel Brother Dust: The Resurgence. If you haven’t read it, here’s a link (coming soon).
In BDTR we decided that Dastropan, although vastly different from earth in appearance, would function similar to earth in most ways. Gravity doesn’t change. Basic language ideas don’t change although we encounter other languages. It is to be assumed that food is made and harvested the same way, etc.. If you happen to be creating a world that is unique in those aspects it is vital that you get your details set before getting too deep into the writing. If you are confused, your reader will be too. It is also important that you don’t make such a huge deal out of the fact that the sky is red instead of blue that it seems forced or overwhelming.
Without further ado, The 7 DOs and DON’Ts of World Building:
1. DO consider your reader at every decision.
As writers it is so easy to get so caught up in our world that we forget that it doesn’t really exist… except to us. We need to make it exist for the reader as well.
All of those little elements that you’ve thought about a hundred times have no yet be introduced to your reader. They need to know what you are thinking, and that’s not easy. Is your world ruled by a king or queen? Or is there a council of individuals making decisions? You can hint at these things in brevity, but every world has certain elements in common:
• They all have history. Don’t forget about your past! It’s the past that shapes the present which gives way to the future.
• They all need economies. Someone’s gotta work to eat. It can’t just be a world filled with adventurers and wizards otherwise no one would ever be able to survive. Who are the farmers, the grocers, the woodworkers or metal shapers?
• They nearly all have class systems of some kind. It almost every culture, someone serves someone. How about yours? If there’s no class system, how to people live? Are they a hive mind? Does one “queen” think for everyone? Think The Hive Queen from Ender’s Game.
2. DON’T name your world some generic name.
I can’t stress this one enough. The world WE live in has been inundated with stories about other worlds. We can tell when you haven’t thought about names significantly. Does everything you name end with “ia”? I remember an early book I wrote, the planet was name Valeria. Now I look back and recognize how little I considered the name.
Another common mistake I see is throwing a number into the mix and assuming it sounds sophisticated. The only exception is Futurama’s Omicron Persei 8 but only because it was intentionally making fun of reality.
3. DON’T give your characters names that can’t be pronounced.
The first example of this that comes to mind is frustrating because it was done by one of my favorite writers Orson Scott Card. In Speaker for the Dead, he focused on Portuguese language and thus needed a several page introduction called “Pronouncing Foreign Names”. The entire time I felt like I was trying to learn a language I didn’t want to learn. The one that got me reeling was Quim. In the book they explain that you pronounce it like the english (or stark) word King. The explanation felt horribly out of place and took me right out of the book.
Examples of it done right? Hermione Granger. I understand that Harry Potter was written for a UK audience and Hermione is a British name, but JK Rowling quickly realized that people couldn’t pronounce the name so she had Victor Krum mispronounce it in the book in order to be corrected by Hermione herself. It flowed and worked perfectly.
In BDTR we used an oft-frowned-upon method of naming some of our characters. We used apostrophes within their last names. Sid’el being the main use. To me, the apostrophe tells the reader where to place the emphasis. The problem comes into play when you over use punctuation in stories.
A prime example of what not to do? Tad Williams book City of Golden Shadows. His character !Xabbu would quite normally be referred to as Zabbu by any normal thinking individual, but it is supposed to be pronounced with a tongue click instead of ! and the name sounds more like Kabbu or Gabbu. This is just confusing!
4. DO diversify your world.
Worlds are not all one climate or environment unless something occurred to make it that way. In BDTR Dastropan is a vast wasteland filled with sand and dust. But it wasn’t always that way. It was once a lush and vibrant land filled with beautiful creatures and breathtaking views. What occurred to drive it into the sandy regions that exist today? You know I’m just going to tell you to read the book! (coming soon).
But what about your world? I may be making enemies here, but Star Wars set us all up for failure. Tatooine is really just one big desert? Hoth a veritiable frozen tundra? Again, it’s okay if there’s a good reason for it but without explanation we are left wondering how it came to be that way.
5. DO consider the scope of your world or universe.
I think one of the things that writers often forget to do is establish the actual size of their world. In BDTR, there are many planets referred to. I know that Solovot is nearly a dozen galaxies away from it’s nearest inhabitable planet. I know that it has taken over 700 years for them to travel to the planet Dastropan in which our book takes place. Only one person traveling through the stars in BDTR has actually ever stepped foot on Solovot and the rest have been born in deep space.
Why is this important? Because as you are writing it is vital that you always maintain the same scope of your universe so that the sophisticated reader can’t find discrepancies within your story.
One of my favorite examples is again Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead. He maintained that it takes only weeks-months to travel from one planet to another but 22 years will have passed in the lives of those whom he left and whom he will be visiting.
It gives the reader a sense of understanding to know how large the world you are creating actually is. Our finite minds are used to one planet in one solar system with very little hope of encountering another species. Make us believe that it could happen. Maps could be helpful!
6. DO give limits to your creation.
This one is a biggie! It doesn’t matter if you’re writing Science Fiction or Fantasy, magic and technology should have its limits. For me, two stories come to mind.
The first deals with magic and since I’ve already attacked Star Wars I might as well lose more friends.
In Lord Of The Rings we see our heroes fighting Orcs and get chased up a tree. Suddenly, after a long fought battle, Gandalf’s eagles appear and save the day. It has left every fan asked “Why didn’t the eagles just bring the ring to Mordor?” You’ll find many fan theories (one of the best I’ve found https://www.reddit.com/r/FanTheories/comments/130it2/lord_of_the_rings_a_theory_about_the_eagle_plot/) about why they didn’t but it still leaves us all wondering. If we understood the eagle’s limits, or Gandalf’s limits for that matter, maybe we wouldn’t have this problem.
The second I will be pulling from a movie but it works nonetheless. Pacific Rim had no right to be made. (sorry!). As much fun as it might have been to watch the Jaegers fight the Kaiju I left quite disenchanted.
In the epic scene where The Gypsy Danger fights Otachi they unleash every weapon in their arsenal to no avail. Finally, Raleigh says something to the effect of “That’s it we’ve got nothing left,” to which Mako responds something like, “except this!” and she pushes a button that unveils a large bastard sword. With one fell swoop she lops the Kaiju in half and wins the battle. Here’s my question: If you have a giant sword that can cut a monster in half, why didn’t you use it to begin with? Why waste valuable ammo and rockets when a sword would do the trick? Was there some limitation that we don’t know about? Or was this simply poor writing?
7. DON’T be inconsistent with technology or magic.
I am preaching to myself on this one. In BDTR, our big bad enemy uses guns with bullets while our rag tag group of freedom fighters somehow has laser guns and plasma rifles. Why would this be the case? We explain it toward the end of the book but it is important to explain something like this.
• Why do some vehicles in your world hover while others still use wheels? Are hover vehicles expensive?
• Are your wizards born with their gifts? Or do they need to learn? Why are some wizards more powerful than others?
These are important questions to ask yourself before your readers asks these questions for you.
Hopefully this article helps you to create you own world. Without people like you, we would live in a colorless world. We are so excited to be a part of your journey. Please feel free to comment with any additions or thoughts. You’re allowed to disagree! We want to learn from you as well.