World-building in a Story

Anyone who has ever attempted a story with a setting in an alternate world has encountered the monumental challenge of world-building within a story. It’s exciting to be the master of your own made-up world and the creator of your own rules, but the responsibility of it is also highly daunting. Having endless possibilities for this new world can be very overwhelming, especially when you consider all the aspects and details that surround societies, cultures, and environments. It’s hard to find where to start, and how to make all the little details fit together and seem plausible, while also matching with the characters and plot that you place within it.

In my personal experiences with world building, it is helpful to have a set of questions to answer about your world. Thinking about specific questions regarding the world, such as what the people wear or what they eat, or what kinds of animals there are, or how the government reacts to conflicts, can help get you thinking about all the details that will make your world seem real and believable, as well as giving you specific ideas about your world instead of approaching the vague concept of ‘world-building’ without direction.

A good resource I found that has a list of important aspects to consider as well as questions to answer was this article on Writer’s Digest, called “Tips on World Building for Writers — How to Make Your Imaginary World Real.”

Another factor of creating a world is in knowing how much you really need to define and flesh out for the purposes of your story. Remember that how much the reader needs to learn about your world is tailored to the plot and characters of your story. For this, I found a helpful article by author Holly Lisle titled “How Much of My World Do I Build?”

That being said, there is another list of questions that I have found immensely helpful. The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America website has a master list of hundreds of detailed world building questions, organized by category and sub-category. This list is incredibly detailed and comprehensive, which is great because it aims to encompass all aspects of an undefined world. However I think this should definitely be used with the preceding article in that the author should perhaps exercise a little discretion in which questions to answer – honestly, someone could easily spend months writing detailed answers to each question but not all these details could be relevant or ever used in the actual story.

World building is a difficult pursuit, but with the right guidance it is entirely do-able!


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