As a veritable Old Fart of Publishing, I've seen it all--from runaway bestsellers to "What on earth was that author thinking?" bombs. The truly remarkable stories, the ones that keep readers up all night and spawn endless Reddit threads, tend to have feature something elusive, yet amazing: masterful world-building. And with a bit of elbow grease, a dash of creativity, and a few tips from yours truly, you'll be well on your way to crafting the kinds of worlds that keep people up at night. In a good way.
For those who don't know the term (and that's nothing to be ashamed about; we're here to learn!), world-building is the process of constructing an imaginary world, often in the realm of speculative fiction like science fiction and fantasy. However, it’s crucial to note that this concept isn’t exclusively for tales of alien invasions or dragon-slaying quests. Any narrative that requires a setting can benefit from a dash--or, even better, a truckload--of world-building magic. And, in the immortal (and slightly-altered) words of Porky Pig, "That’s all [of them], folks!"
To help us understand the concept better, and how to put it into practice in our own work, let's look at two examples of authors who are generally regarded by readers as master world-builders: Frank Herbert and Brandon Sanderson.
Brandon Sanderson's Cosmere universe is a gleaming testament to the power of world-building in literature: a sprawling cosmos that spans across multiple series and standalone novels, incorporating different planets, species, and magic systems, each with its own distinct charm. Some may regard Sanderson's meticulous approach as exhaustive--perhaps even a smidge exhausting. For those of us who appreciate the nuanced art of world-building, however, it's a thrilling journey into the worlds that amaze and delight.
One of the hallmarks of Sanderson's world-building is the attention to detail that serves to enhance the plot and character development rather than overwhelming the reader. He lays down intricate webs of interconnecting details that breathe life into his worlds, and yet, readers rarely feels lost or buried under an avalanche of minutiae. Instead, each new piece of information illuminates another facet of the world, enhancing our understanding and immersion.
Take his series, "Mistborn," as an example. Here, Sanderson introduces us to Allomancy, an innovative and meticulously crafted magic system. This isn't your run-of-the-mill, wave-a-wand, mutter-a-spell-that-just-happens-to-be-perfect-for-destroying-Voldemort kind of magic. In Allomancy, individuals known as Mistborn have the ability to ingest and "burn" metals, each granting them specific abilities. From enhanced strength and senses to emotional manipulation, each metal imparts a unique superpower.
But Allomancy isn’t merely a neat trick thrown in for entertainment. Rather, it's a testament to Sanderson’s nuanced world-building where every element serves a purpose. The magic system is so tightly woven into the narrative's fabric that removing it would unravel the entire plot. It influences the political landscape, the social hierarchies, and even the architecture of the cities. Moreover, it drives the characters' motivations and shapes their journeys. It's as much a part of their identity as their names or histories.
And Sanderson doesn’t just stop at creating the magic system. He delves into the implications of Allomancy, exploring its rules, limitations, and societal impact in a way that feels natural and organic. This in-depth exploration adds depth to the narrative, imbuing the world with an aura of authenticity that's hard to resist. It’s a bit like discovering a hidden cave teeming with rare gems--each new revelation is a treasure to be savored.
In a nutshell (or a seashell, if you have allergies), Brandon Sanderson’s success in world-building lies in the harmonious blend of creativity, attention to detail, and the intelligent integration of these elements into the story and character arcs. His worlds are more than mere backdrops; they’re living, breathing entities that grow, evolve, and influence the narrative’s course. And the detailed elaboration of Allomancy, its rules, and its implications for Sanderson's world isn’t just window dressing—it’s integral to the plot and the characters’ journeys. Plus, bonus: it's Really Kewl Stuff.
I'm doing Herbert last because, frankly, no one else can touch his world-building in the iconic "Dune" series.
Herbert's magnum opus is considered one of the seminal works in the world of speculative fiction. He didn't just construct a world, but an entire galaxy teeming with diverse planets, species, and cultures. And within this galactic tableau, the desert planet of Arrakis stands out as a tour de force of world-building.
Arrakis, also known as Dune, is the stage upon which the epic drama of the Atreides family unfolds. The planet's environmental conditions, such as its harsh desert climate and the monstrous sandworms that patrol its dunes, are not merely atmospheric elements. They directly influence the plot and the characters' decisions. The arid climate has shaped the indigenous Fremen people's culture and survival tactics, leading to inventions like the stillsuit--a suit designed to preserve the wearer's body moisture in the desert. That suit isn't just described in detail; every detail described eventually, inevitably matters to the story.
Another example: Central to the narrative of "Dune" is the spice melange, a substance found only on Arrakis and coveted across the galaxy for its myriad properties, including extending life and enhancing mental abilities. Herbert uses the spice as a device to examine themes of addiction, power, and economic exploitation. By making the spice integral to his universe's functioning, he ensures that the fate of Arrakis is tied to the broader galactic politics, creating a sense of interconnectedness that lends depth to his universe.
Herbert's world-building extends to creating intricate societal structures and political dynamics. Arrakis is not isolated; it's part of an interstellar feudalistic empire with noble houses, a powerful religious organization in the Bene Gesserit, and a manipulative commercial entity in the form of the Spacing Guild. These factions, each with their agendas and secrets, engage in a complex dance of power, making the universe of "Dune" feel as rich and nuanced as our real world.
Moreover, Herbert cleverly avoids overwhelming his readers with these complexities. He doesn't dump all the information at once but reveals it gradually, in digestible pieces, as the plot unfolds. This allows readers to organically understand the world, keeping them engaged without feeling lost. It's a tightrope walk, but Herbert manages it, seemingly effortlessly.
Ultimately, "Dune" continues to captivate readers, even decades after its first publication, largely because of its meticulously crafted world. Every detail, from the sandworms' life cycle to the Bene Gesserit's litany against fear, is carefully thought out and purposeful. It's this sense of purpose and coherence that makes "Dune" feel less like a fictional universe and more like a glimpse into an alternate reality--the goal of any speculative fiction writer.
Now, I understand you might be thinking, "Great, now I need to come up with my own version of spice melange or design an entire magic system to compete!" So first things first: breathe. World-building is a marathon, not a sprint. And remember, you're the god of your universe, and gods aren't born overnight. I mean, unless you're Zeus's offspring, but almost none of us fit that bill.
...the basics: asking questions.
Questions are the cornerstone of world-building. What is the geography of your world? What kind of creatures live in it? How do societies function? What are the rules of your magic system, if you have one? Dive deep--don't just think "what are the rules of my system?" also ask yourself to follow those rules to extremes. If your hero can alter gravity, what does that look like in a fight? At home? Does it affect his ability to cook and clean? That latter isn't a silly question--the more thorough your understanding, the richer your world will be, and the more likely you are to think of amazing ways to show it off.
Once you've got your foundation, start thinking about culture. A world's culture is like its personality - it shapes its identity and influences the actions of its inhabitants. Does your world have a dominant religion? What are its festivals? What's taboo? Who holds the power? Remember, just as our world isn't a monolith, neither should be your fictional universe. Diversity breeds conflict, and conflict drives story.
Next, consider history. A world without history is a bit like a character without a backstory - shallow and unconvincing. The past informs the present, shapes societies, creates prejudices, and sparks revolutions. It's the tapestry upon which your current narrative is embroidered.
Language is another critical element. I'm not suggesting you need to go full Tolkien and create an entire Elvish language, but the way characters speak and the terms they use can add texture to your world. Accents, dialects, slang - these linguistic elements help create a sense of authenticity.
And, don't forget about technology (or magic, if that’s your thing). Is your world a steampunk wonderland, a dystopian future, or a medieval-esque fantasy? The level of technology impacts every aspect of life from communication to warfare, while magic can flip societal norms on their head, conjure unique conflicts, or power fantastical plots.
...keeping your world-building from reading like an exceptionally boring Wikipedia entry?
Here's my not-so-secret secret: make your world-building serve your story.
Information should be revealed organically, often through characters' interactions and experiences, not through info-dumps.
Let's get this out of the way: you're going to mess up. You might create a character who can teleport and then forget about that ability just when it would solve all their problems. It happens. The key is to remain consistent once you've established a rule in your world. Readers can forgive the occasional slip-up, but glaring inconsistencies can shatter the suspension of disbelief.
And there you have it--an amateur demi-god's guide to world-building, served with a side of self-deprecating humor and topped with a healthy dollop of "you've got this."
Remember, world-building is as much an art as it is a craft, and every artist's journey is unique. Embrace the process, and who knows? Your world could be the next Arrakis or Mistborn. Better yet, your world could be one that no one can compare to, because it's unlike anything that's ever come before.
I'm Michaelbrent Collings, an international bestseller and produced screenwriter, as well as a multiple Bram Stoker Award and Dragon Award finalist, and maker of a fair-to-middling chocolate chip waffle.
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