Friday, April 8, 2011

Worldbuilding with Fred Warren

I'm getting ready to jet off to Career Day - armed with the list of suggested questions you guys were so wonderful to provide. I'm nervous (which I tend to be when heading into any situation where people will be focused on me) but feel pretty confident in my material.

We've been talking about first drafts on here, and as I was mulling over how to address
description, my friend Fred Warren popped into mind. Fred, author of The Muse, writes science fiction and fantasy, and I don't think anybody bears the burden of "how much do I describe...?" the way science fiction and fantasy writers do. They have a term for it - worldbuilding - and I hoped Fred wouldn't mind writing up some thoughts on it for us. Because he's a nice guy, he agreed.

“All the world’s a stage, and the men and women merely players...”

- William Shakespeare, As You Like It

Begin at the Beginning. Every story happens somewhere. That “somewhere” is the stage on which your characters move about and have their adventures, and worldbuilding is the process of creating it. Where you start depends on the sort of story you’re writing. For a story set in the here and now, the job is pretty straightforward. If your story takes place in New York City, for example, you may only need to acquaint the reader with the particular neighborhood your characters live in. You’ll need to describe some landmarks to help them get oriented, and provide some cultural flavor. Beyond that, it won’t be too hard to paint a picture in your readers’ minds of a big, modern American city. Most of the work has already been done by their own experiences.

Question Yourself. If you’re writing a science fiction or fantasy story, it can get a little more complicated. You’ll have to make some very basic decisions about what sort of world you’re working with. You can start out with a list of questions. Imagine it’s your first visit to this planet—what are some basic things you’d want to know about it? Is it similar to Earth? If not, what’s different? What are its gravity, atmosphere, and climate? How about the geography? Is it mountainous, or flat? Dominated by oceans or land? Full of life or sparsely populated? What kinds of creatures live there? What creature dominates? Is it intelligent? If it’s intelligent, does it have simple or advanced technology? Does it live in large communities or small groups? Are the communities organized into broader kingdoms or nations, and what are the relationships among them? If it’s a fantasy world, is there magic?

As you answer these questions, you’ll begin to develop a picture in your mind’s eye of what your world is like. The broader questions will lead you to more specific questions, and may begin to impose limits on the characteristics of your world’s inhabitants. For example, on a high-gravity world, creatures will likely be big-boned, muscular, and short. Tall, willowy creatures won’t be able to handle the gravity, and flying may not be possible, either. Dwelling places will likely be built close to the ground or burrowed into it. Likewise, plants will probably be broad and stumpy, growing close to the surface.

Be Consistent. All worlds, no matter how alien or fantastic, have rules. The questioning process establishes the general boundaries, and those limits will become less fuzzy as you go along. Everything that happens in your story should make sense within the rules you’ve established for your world. Let’s say you’ve created a fantasy world where magic works, but only females can use magic. You can’t just randomly have a male character casting spells, at least without providing a reasonable explanation for why he’s an exception to the rule. Depending on the scope of your story, and how much of your world your characters will move around in, you may need to sketch out some maps to keep the lay of the land straight in your mind. It wouldn’t do to have mountain ranges and rivers changing position at different spots in your story.

Ready, Set...Wait a minute! Once your world is fully imagined, you’re ready to turn your characters loose on it and get your story moving, right? Not so fast—you have a solid picture of your world now, but you can’t assume your readers know anything about it. You have to help them see what you see. You have to find a way to immerse readers in this world without overwhelming them or your story. Worldbuilding is fun, and it can be easy to get so wrapped up in the intricate details of creating a new world that your story gets lost in pages and pages of details about plants and animals and architecture and the bizarre effects of your planet’s crazy orbit. Sure, you want your readers to love this world as much as you do, and there’s a lot of information to share—but what’s the best way to do that?

Leave Room for the Reader’s Imagination. Remember, worldbuilding is like creating a theater stage, and the complexity of your backgrounds and props will depend on the story you’re telling. You may want to provide only a simple outline of the environment, and let the readers fill in the rest. The human imagination is pretty powerful and can do a lot of work for you.

If you’ve seen a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, you know what I mean. Using only a few props, the play creates a complete image of the town in the audience’s imagination. This can be especially effective in short stories, where there’s not a lot of time to set the stage. In a novel, you have room to be more lavish in your descriptions, and sometimes key characteristics of your world can be pivotal to the story. In novels like Dune, or movies like Avatar, the planet itself is so important to the story, it actually becomes a character.

Avoid the “Data Dump.” Writers often get anxious about introducing the reader to their world, so they’ll pour all that carefully crafted information into a few paragraphs at the beginning of the story and then, having gotten that bit of administrative business out of the way, proceed to tell their tale. The problem is, they lost their reader’s interest halfway through the Professor’s lecture on “Obscure Flora and Fauna of Planet Xangesa.” The worldbuilding is there to support your tale, not steal the spotlight. It’s better to seed little details throughout the story. Show your world through your characters’ eyes. Describe the color of the sky, the feel of the wind, the sound of a bird’s call in the distance, the smell of the vegetation, the taste of an exotic spice. Engage all five senses. Bring out important facts in conversations among your characters, as they would naturally arise. If you’ve developed some maps in the course of your worldbuilding, you may be able to pretty them up and include them as a supplement. It’s not a substitute for describing the geography, but it can reduce the level of detail you have to provide.

Writing by the Book. For a large, complicated world, it can be useful to organize your worldbuilding ideas into a notebook you can reference as you write. If you’re writing a short story, it may be enough to walk through the questioning process until you form a clear mental picture of your environment, and then write from that. Sometimes it will work backwards for me—I’ll get the image first, then have to sort out why things look the way they do, which can become a story all by itself. Some writers can carry half a dozen alien worlds around in their head without taking any notes. Other writers will fill dozens of notebooks with a comprehensive encyclopedia of knowledge about a single island. Depending on your personal creative process and mental “wiring,” any of these approaches can get you to the same destination.

Go Forth and Build! I’ve only scratched the surface of things to consider as you construct and portray worlds from your imagination. Go back to some of your favorite books and focus on how the authors build and describe their worlds. Take some of those ideas and apply them to your own writing. Some of them will help, but others probably won’t fit your style. There’s no one “right” way to build a world. Bottom-line, have fun with it, and do what works best for you.

Fred Warren writes science fiction and fantasy. His short stories have appeared in a variety of print and online magazines, including Kaleidotrope, Every Day Fiction, Bards & Sages Quarterly, and Allegory. His first novel, The Muse, debuted in November 2009 from Splashdown Books, and was a finalist for the American Christian Fiction Writers Carol Award for book of the year in the speculative genre. Fred works as a government contractor in eastern Kansas, where he lives with his wife and three children. You can find him online at


  1. Sweet! Fantasy books fascinate me. I love how anything is possible -- everything from special powers to closing your eyes and thinking of a really yummy meal and having it appear. Yes,it is very cool indeed. Thanks for this great post!

  2. This post helped me a lot. I'm writing my first book and it's a fantasy. My writing teacher doesn't really like or read fantasy so it's hard to get help from her. I was really having trouble with some of the world building parts of my novel. Thanks a ton!

  3. Fred, thank you so much for being on here!

    And, Emii, I with you! Fascinating genre.

  4. Thanks for inviting me! I look forward to seeing some exciting new worlds soon from these up-and-coming teen writers.

    As I mentioned in the article, I've just scratched the surface on this topic. A cool resource I found today at the Science Fiction Writers of America website provides a whole slew of worldbuilding questions, particularly for fantasy stories, that will get you off to a good start:

  5. Steph -- I don't know if you've covered this before, but I have a question -- how long should a novel be? As in, how many words? I thought a normal book was around 40,000-60,000, but I'm not sure. Thanks!!:D

  6. We'll be talking in more detail in a couple weeks, but the short answer is it depends on the genre, Emii. The Skylar books are between 55 and 60k, but the new stuff I've worked on for my publisher is 75k. If it's adult fiction, almost all is between 80 and 100k.