April 4, 2019

Worldbuilding: Your Story World’s History 101

Beautiful view of Swiss mountains with text: What's Our Story's World?

I’m still suffering from my super-cold-from-hell, and in response to the jokes that my previously mentioned spring cleaning caused me to get sick… Well, everyone in my family was sick too, and I was the last to succumb, but sure, I’m good with blaming cleaning regardless. *grin*

Anyway, between my illness which is still most keeping me offline and an emergency appointment with my surgeon yesterday, I wanted to keep this quick. *cough* But I couldn’t resist sharing some cool advice I found on worldbuilding. Oops.

(For those who have followed my health issues, the wire holding my jaw together during the “pause” to let my body recover…broke. So we’re going to try something new next week. Maybe. I’m going through testing now to see what kind of “something” my body might tolerate that we might try. So much fun.)

In my paranormal romance genre, it’s obvious what worldbuilding refers to, as I have to create the “rules” for my paranormal characters and their story world. But worldbuilding can apply to many other situations as well, and in fact, every story needs a coherent story world.

Let’s explore what worldbuilding is and how we can develop our story’s world…

Types of Worldbuilding

All stories need to create a story world, whether that refers to a small town or the restrictions of the characters’ circumstances. However, some stories require more worldbuilding because of the genre, setting, or culture.

Worldbuilding with Genre

Throughout my life, my favorite genres have all focused on worldbuilding to some extent. In fantasy, the reliance on worldbuilding is obvious. Narnia’s “rules” say that animals can talk, and Aslan is a powerful figure all respect, admire, or fear.

In science fiction, some stories incorporate artificial intelligence among humans, and some focus on aliens. Some are planet-bound, and some take place among the stars, etc. In the romance subgenres of paranormal romance and historical romance, the stories take readers out of this world in an obvious way as well, through time, place, and/or “laws” of nature and science.

Worldbuilding with Settings

Some settings—such as Harry Potter’s Hogwarts—are well-known for what they add to the world. The setting itself is as well-developed as many of the characters. But settings can build a world in other ways as well.

For example, many readers love cozy mysteries or small-town romances for the worldbuilding of the small-town setting. At the other end of the spectrum, motorcycle-club romances also successfully establish a unique sense of place and story rules.

Worldbuilding with Cultures

Many fantasy books build a sense of the world through the cultures of the characters. Compare our impression of hobbit culture versus elven culture in Lord of the Rings to understand how much cultural elements add to our feeling of the story world being even bigger than what we see.

However, even contemporary stories can create a sense of culture. Think about how Greek-American culture was featured in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Stories based in New York should have a different feel from ones based in the Deep South, etc. Stories based outside the U.S. can take American readers on a journey of world-exploration.

Developing Our Story World

When building our story world, just as we want our characters to feel real, we want to create the sense that the world our story takes place in is real as well. But what makes a story world feel real?

Again, just like with our characters and how we want them to feel three-dimensional by giving them layers and so on, we want our story world to feel bigger and more layered. The story world shouldn’t feel limited to a bubble around our protagonist. That means aspects of our story world must all work together in a big picture.

For example, let’s say no one likes our protagonist. Okay, why?

  • Are they an outcast for some reason?
  • Are others jealous of them for some reason?
  • Is their behavior unacceptable and if so, how?

Those answers related to character development all relate to and reflect our story world. If there’s no reason in the story for our character to be disliked, not only will that aspect of their character development feel fake (like we’re piling on for undeserved sympathy) but our story world will feel fake as well.

What Readers Know vs. What Characters Know

When it comes to worldbuilding, we often hear the advice to not include too much information in the story itself. Just because we know something doesn’t mean our readers need an info dump of background information.

Worldbuilding: What do our characters know (or think they know)? Click To TweetHowever at the same time, just because our readers don’t need to know all the details, that doesn’t mean our characters—those who live in the story world every day—wouldn’t know the details. Worldbuilding, to some extent, is all about showing or telling the story-world details our characters know. In other words, to make our story’s world feel real, we have to know what our characters would know.

Going back to our disliked protagonist example, readers might not know why no one likes our character, but we need to know why. We need to know if…:

  • everyone finds redheads/transfer students/whatever suspicious,
  • her test scores/experience/whatever makes others feel insecure,
  • her behavior of respecting animals/sleeping in/whatever is unacceptable, etc.

Each of those indicates something different about our story world, whether we’re talking about a fantasy world, a military unit, or a high school.

What Do Our Characters Know?

So what does it mean to develop our story world? Worldbuilding means that we have a general idea of what our characters know about the story world so we can weave that information into our writing in a natural way.

What's the History 101 of our story world? Click To TweetOne of the coolest tips I’ve heard on how we can get a feel for what our characters know about the world came from Elle Maruska on Twitter. Elle wrote a thread a couple of months ago pointing out how their graduate degree in History helped them approach worldbuilding.

Elle suggested that we should imagine teaching a History 101 class to our characters and think about the sort of general knowledge “everyone” would know.

What’s Our Story’s History 101?

Elle then suggested that we could refer to World History syllabus examples for ideas about what our characters might all know. For example, general historical/cultural knowledge might include…

  • Where and how did our culture start?
  • How did earlier cultures affect and influence ours?
  • What religions (if any) or groups have influence and how and why?
  • What “age” do we consider ourselves in? How is this age considered good or bad?
  • What wars or conflicts have been fought, with who, and why?
  • What people do we admire or detest and why?
  • What breakthroughs are we most proud of?
  • What do we consider the strengths and weaknesses of our culture and why?
  • Are we exposed to other contemporaneous cultures? What’s our impression of them and why?
  • Has our culture experienced revolutions? Were they considered good or bad, and why do we think they were fought?

Then as authors, we’d probably want to know how any of those character assumptions are wrong, especially for how they relate to our story. For example, has history been covered up and now it’s repeating itself? Or are the people less free than they think they are and are thus fighting the system? And so on.

Using the History 101 Approach in Every Situation

It’s probably easy to see how those questions above apply to historical or fantasy worldbuilding, but they can actually give us ideas for any type of story world.

Every type of setting for our story world has a history of:

  • transformations
  • organizations and reorganizations
  • local interactions
  • beyond-local interactions
  • developments and realignments
  • diplomatic efforts

An office-place romance has a history of which employees or departments make things harder on everyone else, just because they can. In a cozy mystery, our wannabe detective often deals with rivalries, some of which will be apparent to them and some which won’t. High schools, offices, and small towns are hotbeds of cliques and alliances.

History 101-style worldbuilding—thinking of what “everyone” knows or what people think they know but are wrong about—applies to all of those situations, whether we’re writing science fiction or a basketball sports romance.

Do We Need to Plan These Details in Advance?

All that said, as someone who writes by the seat of her pants, I have to point out that we don’t need to determine these details about our story world in advance. Pansters can just pause when a story-world-related question comes up in our draft and figure out the answers on the spot.

  • For some of us—or for some of our details—we might figure out what we need to know just by watching our characters: what do they do, think, behave, etc. Think of the example of our disliked protagonist, and how we used our other characters’ dislike to interrogate for more details.
  • For some of us—or for some of our details—we might figure out what we need to know by paying attention to our plot events: why is it an issue, what was expected and why, etc. For example, a plot event of an authority figure encouraging bullying of our protagonist would prompt us to figure out why.

At the time we’re faced with unexpected situations in our story, we can think through our History 101-style questions and determine the circumstances, knowledge, beliefs, and assumptions behind our characters’ impressions. Those of us who pants often have more information about our story lurking in our subconscious that we can tap into as needed, or we can always layer in these details later, during our story’s editing phase.

No matter what type of story we write, we have to build the world of our story. To make our story world feel real, we want to develop a world beyond what’s on the page, and that means thinking about what our characters know—or what they think they know—and paying attention to how those impressions and assumptions interact with the story. *smile*

Do you understand how every story needs to “worldbuild” to some extent? Do you consciously think about building your story world, or do you just let the pieces fall together? Do you think knowing more about our story world might help us create a more three-dimensional, and thus a more realistic and/or immersive, world for readers? What aspects of worldbuilding are easy, hard, or fun for you? Does this “History 101” approach make sense and help you know how to build your story’s world?

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Deborah Makarios

I had fun with this in Restoration Day – what the main character has been taught about the major political events of the past differs in very significant ways from what actually happened. As she discovers.

In my current WIP I’m playing with the varying beliefs about what happened in the distant past (was it like this, was it like that, is it all just an old wives’ tale?) and the effects on the present if people hold to an inaccurate version of the past. Old sins have long shadows…


[…] Worldbuilding is a huge part of keeping readers intrigued. Donald Maass discusses how soon to introduce and how little to tell about the extraordinary world, and Jami Gold walks us through worldbuilding 101. […]

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