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Wednesday, 26 January 2011

What is World-Building?

Two of the most memorable novels I read as a teenager were DRAGONFLIGHT by Anne McCaffrey and CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR by Jean M.Auel. The wonder of McCaffrey’s feudal-like society of Dragonriders and their Weyr’s and the savage beauty of Auel’s prehistoric setting sparked my imagination.

The detail, the unique characters, intriguing cultures and vivid descriptions drew me into their worlds and convinced me I was flying a-dragonback with Lessa and F’lar or walking right alongside Ayla as their stories unfolded.

This is the sort of effect we all want as authors when a reader picks up one our books and spends a few hours sharing our characters adventures. We want the world to stick in their minds so well the memories will last long after they’ve put the book down.

I’ve no doubt Ms.Auel and Ms.McCaffrey spent weeks, if not months or years, world building. And as they wrote other books in their respective series they revealed additional layers of detail and expanded our knowledge of the worlds their characters inhabited.

How did they do it? Is there a set formula or process writers’ use when constructing their world?

Answering these questions wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Firstly, though, what is world building?

The best definition I could come up with was this … world building is imagination with logic, a world unlike our own but with enough familiar similarities that they resonate with the reader and then accept the differences.***

It’s also a term frequently associated with the science fiction, fantasy or paranormal genres. Type in the search words world building on the Internet and you’ll be inundated with thousands of articles and references that assure you the term is synonymous with this genre. In fact, it’s hard to find something that doesn’t mention it.

Sure, it plays an integral role in sf/f/p but it’s not confined to this genre alone. A contemporary still needs a setting, an historical needs to get its facts right, a suspense might be based loosely on a true story or an erotic romance might push the boundaries of what’s socially acceptable.

How can you address these issues, in whatever genre, if you have limited or no knowledge of them? Whatever you write, world building is as important to your book as any other.

So, is there a set process or magic formula to follow so we can get it right?

Do you want the good news or the bad news? Bad news is, there’s no set process or magic formula to make world building easier. You have to figure out what works best for you. This next couple of posts in this series on world-building will provide some ideas on where to start.

Join me next week to find out how other authors approach this process.

Quotes used in the posts:
* “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto” article by Maree Anderson from her website (www.mareeanderson.com)
** Nalini Singh website – web-link called Behind the Scenes re: “skin privileges” (www.nalinisingh.com/psy.html)
*** Worlds of Wonder – How to write science fiction & fantasy – David Gerrold (Titan Books 2001)


  1. "No magic formula..." So true. World building makes my head ache. Needing to be consistent. Not hitting readers over the head with huge info dumps. Subtlety. I'm looking forward to the future posts.

  2. When I first wrote this post, I thought it would be a quick one - WRONG! Ended up a few thousand words and broken into 4 bits to make it manageable on a blog.

    So,tune in next week, Jenny! Same DSDU time, same DSDU channel - LOL!

  3. I agree - how you build your world will differ from person to person. And of course you may know everything about your world but the book is only the tip of the iceberg. So how you convey your world will be different depending on the story and setting. It's all fascinating and thanks Kylie for posting this. I love world-building and finding out how others do it.