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11 Tips for World-Building in Science Fiction and Fantasy

World Building, World Destroying Ray Gun

How do authors create an imaginary world from scratch? This weekend, I’ll offer writers some world-building tips at MileHiCon in Denver.

Can’t make it to the convention? No worries. Here are the answers to eleven of your burning world-building questions.

MileHiCon: How do authors go about building a world?

World Building, World Destroying Ray Gun
Don’t “zap” your story with world-building mistakes!

Laurence MacNaughton: Personally, I immerse myself in the strangest real-world research I can possibly find.

My novel The Spider Thief sprang from a real-life case of amnesia, a real lost city in the Amazon, a frighteningly real tarantula migration, and a scientific mystery about a real-life toxin that can steal your memories.

Truth is, of course, stranger than fiction. So the most interesting place to start a story is with the truth.

MHC: What are some mistakes other authors have made, and how do you avoid them?

LM: The danger lies in letting the world-building stray too far from having any real-world counterpart. You see this all the time in science fiction.

If you create a setting where the characters interact in ways that are so peculiar that we can’t relate to them as real-life parallels, then the story starts to feed on itself. It stops feeling real, and you risk losing the reader.

Make sure that every element of your made-up world relates, emotionally at least, to our world.

MHC: How much does the detail help in world-building?

LM: I have a rule: never create more detail than you absolutely need to. I have a stack of unfinished manuscripts in my desk drawer that suffered from a fatal case of too much world-building.

As a writer, you can become lost in trying to create a world that is so intricate and planned-out that you end up strangling the story. To avoid that, my advice is simple:

Just create what you need in order to tell the story. The rest will fill in naturally.

MHC: Is the best world-building the kind you don’t notice?

LM: Not necessarily. The unique features of your world need to play a key role in the story, and that might shine a spotlight on the world-building. That’s okay.

But here’s the key.

There must be some unique aspect to this world that presents a challenge to the heroes that the reader would never face in real life. You want to transport the reader away on an adventure that couldn’t exist in our normal, everyday world.

MHC: Do you need to change every little nit-picky thing for an alien/fantasy culture? For example, having time measured in minutes, as opposed to dinkblorts? Do dinkblorts make it harder for the reader?

LM: Personally, if I ever ran into “dinkblorts” in a story, I’d toss the book aside and run away screaming. Because it’s too distracting.

The cardinal rule of world-building is that you never, ever want to change something just for the sake of changing it. If you make something up, it needs to play directly into the story.

MHC: Does your plot influence your world-building more, or does world-building shape plot more?

LM: A little of both. When you’re first creating the world around the characters, you can make choices that are dramatic for the story you have in mind.

But later on, once the world is established, you must adhere strictly to the “rules” you’ve already established. If you break them, you risk breaking the reader’s trust.

When you’re writing, the plot and the world-building are so tightly linked that they can’t be separated.

MHC: What aspect of world-building is the hardest to make seem “real”?

LM: I’m always focused on making sure that every “weird” aspect has a parallel in real life. That keeps it allegorical, and makes it feel very real, even though it’s made up.

That way, you can explore issues that are maybe too heavy to address directly in real life. But in science fiction or fantasy, you can create a parallel and explore that issue without upsetting anyone. It’s a very powerful technique.

MHC: If you have a fantasy culture based on a historical period, are there problems with making changes in that history—for example, having a Victorian era fantasy without trains? Can you take an existing world, and just change a few small things about it?

LM: Sure, as long as you can convince the reader. The wonderful thing about science fiction and fantasy is that you can make up anything, as long as it feels right.

And I use the word “feels” for a reason: whatever you do, it has to work emotionally, in the context of the story, whether or not it makes logical sense.

Think about all the stories you’ve read, or comic books you’ve flipped through, or movies you’ve watched, that had some element that made absolutely no logical sense. That doesn’t matter, really. Because a story is an emotional experience.

As long as the emotion is there, you can create anything.

MHC: What are the components of a fully developed fictional world?

LM: No matter how strange your world is, every character needs a place to work, a place to live, and a place to have fun. That’s true in the real world, and it needs to be true in a story, as well. No matter where or when the story takes place.

MHC: So you’ve created a deep and rich world. How do you present that world to the reader without making them feel like they’re reading an encyclopedia entry?

LM: Make each element vitally important to the characters. Every aspect of the world needs to affect the story somehow, either by making life harder for the heroes, or by making their opposition stronger.

If you do it right, it actually becomes easier to explain the world. Because sooner or later, someone will say, “Hey, this would be easy, except for the zombies/aliens/time warp/whatever.” In other words, if the heroes lived in our ordinary world, they wouldn’t even have a problem.

But because they live in this deep and rich imaginary story world, they’re in big trouble. That makes for a fun story.

MHC: In your opinion, which tropes and shortcuts to world-building are acceptable to readers?

LM: Here’s a universal trick you can use in writing any genre. If you want to introduce some world-building aspect that is so outlandish that you worry readers aren’t going to believe in it, just pause for a moment and think. Come up with something even weirder and more outlandish.

Have one of your characters say, “What’s next, ___?” And name that weirder thing.

Then, of course, you can have another character say, “Don’t be ridiculous. That only happens in science fiction. This is real life!”

Except, of course, it isn’t real life. It’s a story. But now, by comparison, your world-building seems more “real” and believable. Instantly!

Writers: Are you writing a novel?

Leave me a question in the comments, or send me an email, and I’ll do my best to get your question answered at MileHiCon.

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