World building is super important. It can make or break a novel, and it does a lot to support your characters and plot. For those of you doing NaNoWriMo, this post may seem like it comes a little late (especially as it should’ve been up yesterday, and I assure you, I feel almost guilty about that. Like, I’m probably 12% pure guilt. Truly sorry), but it doesn’t. If you have ten minutes on public transport without access to writing materials, start working over these questions, and from here on you can add them into your novel. If you’re still in the planning stages, however, it’s even more perfectly placed.
Whether your novel is set in the real world, a mythological realm, or an entirely created landscape, you have to build that world. Here are just 10 of thousands of potential questions to get you started.
If you’re setting your novel in an entirely new location, it can help to draw a map. It doesn’t have to be a Tolkien-esque work of art, though it can be. This will be super helpful later when you realise you don’t know how long your characters need to travel between various settlements. It also helps you keep track of what stuff is called.
If your novel is set in this world, you’ll still need to work out where your characters live, what sort of things are in their surroundings (are they near a park? a hospital? during an emergency, where would they go?) and if it’s an alternate world, you should work out how these fit in to existing geography.
Maybe it’s all the time I’ve spent in the UK recently (which is extraordinarily tiny when you’re flying, had you noticed? I might buy it), but you notice the weather. The endless rain. That’s not only going to affect some scenes in your novel, but it’ll also affect buildings: somewhere with a lot of earthquakes is going to favour reinforcement over aesthetics. And it’ll affect the clothing of characters too. Make sure you understand the climate and how it physically affects things.
#3: Magic and technology
If there’s magic in your world, or even any sort of super powers, then it’s going to affect more than just the users. How is it used defensively in cities; how do they incorporate it into weapons? What about for the purpose of illusions? What is the outsider’s impression of magic? Who can use it, and why: are they trained, or is it all natural? Magic also needs to have boundaries. A civilisation founded by magic users is going to look VERY different to one built by normal folk, so it’s crucial to work out how it functions in society, even when it’s as simple as what it looks like.
Meanwhile, for the sci-fi and futuristic folk, you might be thinking about technology. But remember: in a world built on magic, they’ll have integrated that into the workings of everything, so you fantasy folks need to think about how your unicorn-powered microchip works.
For YA writers, this is less crucial, because quite often our protagonists are too young to have jobs. Nevertheless, others in the story might, so work it out. What’s highly paid and what’s minimum wage? Is there such thing? Which jobs are valued or admired above others, and how does that affect hierarchy?
Also think about the characters who don’t work, but have a role voluntarily. That might be heroes, magic users, or even something like performers. Are they looked down on, or praised for their selflessness?
Are the inhabitants of this world educated, or is it limited to a select few? Unless you’ve found a way to genetically implant information, every world is going to need to have some form of teaching, even if it’s electronic rather than a physical school. For how many years are children educated, and by whom? It can also be an interesting look at politics: if they’re being taught by the government, is it a fair, unbiased education? (Clue: probably not.)
Look at materials. Look at where they come from, and that’ll give you some information about occupations. Do people value clothes as fashion accessories or are they just for covering? How do they reflect the hierarchical system of the world? Are they adapted well to the jobs of each character? Also look at what clothing says about gender. For example, if all male clothing is symmetrical armour, and female clothing is asymmetrical and less defensive, that could tell you something about gender roles (but what of the character in asymmetrical armour?*). How do androgynous, genderqueer and non-binary individuals express themselves through their clothing? What would be considered outlandish?
Oh, come on, he can hardly object to this one. He has wonderful fashion sense.
Linking to that last point, think about attitudes. How is gender perceived: is the world plagues by sexism? What about sexuality? In our world, religion has shaped history, so how has that happened in your world? Remember, if it’s a mythological realm then do your research properly, and don’t apply modern ideas about worship to pagan gods. Beliefs will also affect social issues and how others are perceived, so think about whether it has had a positive or negative effect. It’ll certainly affect ceremonies like weddings and funerals, and if you’re anything like me you’ll have more than a few characters dying in your novel, so you’ll need to work that out.
Even if religion isn’t a huge part, think about superstition and folk beliefs. These may be rooted in magic, if you have users in the world. It’s interesting to explore religious attitudes to magic, too.
Also think about racial issues. It’s very unlikely the world will be entirely homogenous, but a region might be, perhaps because of how it excludes outsiders. Will that affect your characters?
Not all characters will be white, especially if their world is hot. Not all characters will be our height, or shape: if it’s sci-fi, remember how gravity affects people and growth. This will also impact buildings, plants and colour. How much sunlight does the region get; how much gravity; how warm is it; how much oxygen; how much water? All of these affect characters as well as setting. Remember that in sci-fi, location within its solar system will affect light and colour, as well as length of days.
#9: Government and politics
Is it a monarchy? Is that a hereditary position? What about councillors, advisers, and other officials? Or, if it’s a democracy, has it always been that way? In our history, remember how many revolutions there’ve been to achieve that sort of thing. Does your world have a similarly bloody past?
Can your characters vote? How do they make their voice heard? Politics etc will also affect the legal system, so think about how crime and punishment are perceived. If the death penalty exists, consider what sends someone to death row. Fantasy worlds may well have a totally different system of punishment, and sci-fi can be inventively cruel. Also consider how society views offenders who’ve served their time but returned to civilisation, and whether they’re accepted.
I have a feeling Loki’s going to kill me for using him as an example several times in this post. He’s welcome to try.
An interesting way to explore government is to think about extremist groups. They’re usually formed to fight against and change something, so what’s their aim? How do they try and carry it out? It can tell you a lot about the government’s popularity, too, if the world seems disposed to support the terrorists.
Who makes the money, who controls it, and how does it get from one to the other? This relates to employment, because someone’s in charge and someone else does the work. However, you can also look at billionaires (like yours truly) and how they use their wealth in the community (sustainable energy, baby). Are there poor people, and if so, who is helping them? How?
The rest is for you to work out. I’m not here to coddle you.
There are a lot of things you could think about after this. Language is crucial (even regional dialect can play a HUGE part in building a world), and you’ll want to think about the military and who commands it, and how much power that gives them. Think about people of all levels of social status. Think about transport, and travel, and how that’s perceived.
Many of these prompts are better suited to sci-fi/fantasy writers, but can be adapted for those writing in our world, especially if it has some element of alternate reality, or if you’re setting it in a different time period.
To see how these work in a “show don’t tell” manner, I recommend watching movies. Thor’s latest
film press release is fascinating; his home realm of Asgard is utterly stunning, cinematically speaking, but we also catch a glimpse of many of its customs. And clothes. I don’t know if they have stocks and shares (one aspect we didn’t learn), but I want to buy some in their designers.
-- Iron Man (Click to stalk me on the NaNoWriMo website, if you will.)
*This is actually a direct observation from Thor: The Dark World, although don’t tell Loki. I’ve only had time to watch it once, but I happened to notice the difference in Thor and Loki’s clothing… Anyway, I’m not here to talk about that. I’ll leave that to the Asgardians themselves.