Oct 19, 2011


I'm doing a bit of world-building at the moment for another of my side-WIPs. It's a dark fantasy set in a massive tower city. There's a lot to do because it's a very unusual setting, a world with no sun. I want to make sure the world feels like it could be real and the people in it live their lives as people who have never known light greater than torches and firelight.

All this work got me thinking about the importance of world-building, not just for very unusual fantasy settings, but even for everyday settings. I like to think of the writer's job as being a puppet master, with a great big curtain between the audience and his collection of puppets and props. The audience may never see everything that's behind that curtain, but the writer simply must have a complete selection back there, and be familiar enough with every prop and tool to be able to put any one of them to use at a moment's notice. I think most readers can tell when an author has had to scramble to find an explanation for certain unexpected events, or pull out a new character they weren't prepared to use.

Even if you're writing in a modern day setting with no monsters, sci-fi or magic, it's so important to make sure you know the ins and outs of the place your characters inhabit. Is the hero's work next to a dry cleaner or a pizzeria? How often does it rain? What's the daily commute like? These small, simple details can help you add life to your story, giving you background and ways to interact with the world beyond pursuing the over-arcing plot.

I like to plan out bits and pieces like that before I start writing. If I'm using a real city I pick out the real-world locations I want to include and decide how they fit in. I come up with the fictional places and people who add to the setting. I like to play around with real places and give them my own twist. It frees me up to do things with the setting I couldn't do if I was restricting myself solely to how a place exists in reality. When creating a fictitious setting I tend to start with a more overall, macro-management approach. I work out the things most important to my protagonist first. In Nightfall, for example, I created the town of Little Falls, and started out with things like developing the local school and popular places for kids to go driving up in the hills and woods near the town.

I won't have the chance or even the need to reveal everything I've come up with, but it's comforting to know the information is there. It's like a wonderful security blanket, knowing it's there should I need it.

What about you? Do you enjoy world-building? Have you ever experienced a jarring moment in a movie, tv show or book where you just get the feeling the author needed to come up with something quickly to get through a scene?


  1. Oooh, revisiting that old chestnut? Very intruiging, that's a damn cool settting.

  2. I think I've managed to get away with quite a lot as far as world building goes in my work so far. As I haven't visited many places, and where I live certainly doesn't fit the bill for my Holloway Pack world, I decided to choose an English county, and then create a made up area within that county--so although it's 100% fabricated, there is still that tiny element that sill keeps it grounded and believable. :o)

  3. I don't write fantasy, so I have an easier time at world building. However, even the same real place at the same time requires a certain amount of building from the writer, imo. Take Gaskell's London and compare to Dickens. They are the same, but different.

    Because I tend to write historical fiction set so long ago, I have to take what I know, the stereotypes, and then my plot into consideration to build a quasi-realistic setting. I don't put as much thought into it as some people, and I really could focus on it more.

    Interesting post, Paul.

  4. The worlds I built in The Christmas Village were familiar to me - New England winters around holiday time. But I still had to make them vividly real. And most of the story takes place in 1932, so I had to make that real too. Mostly I write for the look and feel of it, then later do research to make sure the details are right. What you are doing is so wonderfully creative - to create a whole world that doesn't exist in reality - but the good thing is that no one can tell you that you got the details wrong! My next story will take place in 1939-1942 England and Wales. That will be a challenge to get right!