When creating a whole new world, your goal is to build something that’s unforgettable! Shining, shimmering, splendid, should just be the tip of the iceberg. It can be a lot of fun to dream up ideas about alien spacecraft or magical laws. World-building is an opportunity to let our imagination run rampant and go BIG!
If you’re writing a secondary world, you’re most likely writing in the science fiction or fantasy genre. However, the fun of world-building is not limited to SFF. Regardless of the genre you write, take heed of these warnings. Avoid making some of these world-building mistakes that might make your writing seem more novice and less novelist!
1. Worlds that feel a little too familiar
This should be a no-brainer, but do not copy the world of another fictional work. The most common victim is Tolkien’s Middle Earth; however, any popular secondary world is fair game. The medieval fantasy secondary world is very popular and easy to feel ripped off or overused. It is important to generate new spins and fresh takes on the world you build.
Start by putting the medieval genre behind! (Or if you write science fiction, this is like the Star Wars method, where you have a single planet that has one ecosystem, e.g., “the water planet,” “the sand planet,” “the city planet”.) Focus on what new elements you could pull into the story. Try to create something that has never existed before––even if these are small-world elements, it adds up!
2. Forgetting the why
Write with purpose. Everything should serve the purpose of the story, including the world. Avoid including world items only because they seem cool. Instead, create cool items that work within the context of the story. Think about the conflicts in your character’s backstory or plot and create world elements that help kindle those challenges or provide possible solutions.
A world is much more than simple set dressing.
3. Creating cultures in a bubble
When I say ‘bubble’, I’m referring to the tendency for an author to create a culture, nation, or race that has no interactions with other cultures, nations, or races. This is unrealistic for several reasons and will lead to a flimsy world.
Of these reasons, is that separate cultures will have conflict. When writing a novel, conflict is a very good thing, as it creates interest and tension. By creating a world that isn’t contained in a bubble, you have the ability to use the juxtaposition to your advantage. You can draw attention to a particular detail in a culture by the lack of it or opposition of it in a different culture.
For example, if you have a culture that has an abundance of one resource, showcasing a culture with a deficit might work to both create conflict and establish how valued that resource is.
4. Creating bobblehead citizens
I used the term “bobblehead” because they are always nodding in agreement. Avoid creating nations or large groups of people that all think, look, and act the same. This means it’s imperative to incorporate diversity!
Say it with me: DIVERSITY!
There could be dominant religious beliefs, ruling sovereigns, or societal norms established in your book, but your world falls flat if everyone follows everything to the letter. Not everyone’s head is going to nod in unison. Highlight the differences in your world. Let it build stress. Let it impact your characters. But do not hide it and do not muddle your world down with a fixed set of principles that everyone falls in line with.
5. Not having a history
This is pretty much the same as creating a character without a backstory. Don’t do it. If you create a world, you should also understand the highlights of its history. Was there a war that led to the rise of an enemy nation? Was there an apocalyptic event that forever shifted how people lived in your world? Have populations grown or dwindled based on how things were in the past?
Creating a history adds realism and a feeling of authenticity. Handle this delicately and weave these moments into the story when the details are relevant. This means, don’t waste the reader’s time filling them with world-building that doesn’t matter to the plot. Your readers want to be sucked in by the narrative, not reading a history book.
6. Oversharing world-building details
No one will ever be as excited about your world-building as you! Which is not a bad thing. As an author, it’s basically a requirement to sit and brew up all world-building options in great detail. This is when a book bible comes in handy, as well as the iceberg method, i.e. keep track of all your ideas in a reference document and, when world-building, have a lot planned but only include the top 20% in your draft.
The dreaded info dump is no joke! However, it can take a few drafts to nail down what is truly relevant to your story. When writing a first or zero draft world-build away. You can always kill your darlings and take things out as you edit.
7. Inconsistent or unrealistic timelines
Despite what’s said about season eight of Game of Thrones (I’m guilty of trashing the show’s ending), Westeros is one of the most notable secondary fantasy worlds. Both the show and the novels expressed the vastness of the kingdom with the passage of time and travel time––often having plot elements happen en route to key locations. However, things crumbled in the show when the established passage of time felt flimsy. This occurred when the travel between areas was inconsistent.
In our worlds, we want to have a realistic passage of time. Whether this is travel time, time in a calendar year, or the time that makes up an entire history. These timelines should be consistent, realistic, and should be supported over the course of the narrative.
8. Creating a culture that never evolves
I marvel over how much technology has changed in the past twenty, fifty, and one hundred years. Granted, we went through a rather prosperous technological revolution, but it just goes to show you that people are always learning, growing, and developing. This is not limited to technology and industry. Ideologies, religious practices, and societal norms––to name a few––will evolve over time.
When injecting pieces of the world’s history, you can use comparisons of how things were to showcase how they are now (either for better or worse). Even if you have a race of immortal characters that has been alive for hundreds or thousands of years, the world will have changed during that time.
9. Magic systems without rules
Author and champion of world-building, Brandon Sanderson, feels rather passionate about having rules to any magic system. He has created Sanderson’s Laws of magic, which are.
- An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic.
- Limitations on magic should be greater than the power yielded from the magic.
- An author should expand what you already have before adding something new.
It might be fun to give a character this wondrous and almighty power. Unchecked or unlimited power could end up causing the book to feel predictable or the solution to feel too easy. As I mentioned earlier, conflict is a good thing. Capitalize on the amount of tension in your story. If you have magic that is special and unique to your world, you also need to consider rules for the magic system that are just as special.
10. Forgetting how the sausage gets made
Yes, creating a world filled with fantastical creatures and exciting landscapes is a ton of fun. However, building these grand worlds without infrastructure is like building a house on a foundation of straw.
You need to know how travel operates, what the jobs are for the different classes, how trade operates, and how food is grown and distributed. These small details shape and impact culture.
The environment can also be a huge factor. If your landscape is hot and arid, food might be a commodity that is fought over. The size of a world can impact travel times, especially when considering the modes of transportation. A world might have a unique system for currency, and you get to establish what is of monetary value. Plus, you’ll factor in how this all operates in relation to different nations, both in peace and wartimes.
11. The world does not serve the characters
We writers are very creative people. We like to come up with notebooks full of ideas and generate whole histories and vivid imaginings of our world’s inner workings. Sometimes we are guilty of shoe-horning details into the narrative that are not entirely necessary. This will sometimes lead us to the dreaded info dump!
What you want to keep in mind when creating your world, or at the very least writing the world into your narrative, is how it suits your main character. View the world through the character’s eyes when writing. You might know the extended history of your world, but your character may not. Unfold the climate, culture, history, and mythos of your world to the reader in a way that aligns with the character’s point of view.
The world should always be working to support the narrative structure.
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