5 TIPS on World Building from Scratch

By Jordan Dane

World building is a huge topic. I will only cover a fraction of it, but it’s a topic that’s been on my mind lately. Writing crime fiction thrillers, I mainly thought of world building as creating a setting that readers can relate to using all their senses. It can also be a world that can be its own obstacle for the characters I turn loose in it.

My brand slogan is “Take a front row seat to suspense,” which is a saying I felt related to the style of my “up close and personal” writing. But writing for the young adult thriller market has broadened my thoughts on world building. It’s stretched me. I’m working on a new YA proposal for a thriller series that will be set in the future, something I never thought I would do. Sci-Fi? Really? I’m faced with creating a world that doesn’t exist and I would imagine fantasy writers do this all the time. It truly amazes me, but now I’m testing myself too. I thrive on a challenge and this new idea has my juices flowing. I wanted to share my thoughts.

When developing a world that exists only in the future or in a paranormal fantasy realm, this is not the time to shy away from “over the top” thinking. The best tool in your author arsenal is actually a question – “What if…?”

Five Tips on World Building

1.) Take the familiar and give it a twist. A reader can more easily imagine the world you are trying to convey if you make them believe they have seen elements of this world before. Take known calamities, myths, or fairy tales and give them a new spin. Or use real hazards in our world and time—project them into the future with dire outcomes—and see how they might turn out. A dark Alice and Wonderland twist (Splintered by Anita Grace Howard, Jan 2013), for example. What if the world has taken a downward spiral from global warming or what if money is no longer a physical commodity? What replaces the power of money?

2.) Add a Heavy Dose of Human Nature. Basic human nature can transcend time and reality. Determine what matters most in the world you are trying to reinvent or create—and apply a human story at the crux of it all. That is good drama and readers will relate to a well told story with good solid conflict. A great example of a near future world is the ASHES trilogy by Ilsa Bick. A teenaged girl, dealing with a fatal brain tumor, must survive a post-apocalyptic nightmare alone.

3.) Take a look back to see ahead. If your world is in the near future, say in 2025, you might take a look back at the same span of years (13 years) to see how much has changed and in what areas. (Compare 1999 to now. What’s changed most?) Or if you are creating a fantasy world, man’s history or mythologies can give you ideas on what to bring into that world. What if there is civil unrest in your world? Who are the players and why? What if a magical mythical creature exists in your world? What would it be and what are its powers?

4.) Paint a world by highlighting the elements that enhance your story most. As an author you might know every aspect of the world you want to portray, but are these details important to your story? It can be tedious to demonstrate your world building skills at the expense of pace. Make your key elements conflict with your protagonist’s goals or become an obstacle to challenge them. Think of your setting and world as a character and place as much importance on setting up a solid framework where your characters can thrive. Your world may have to survive a series.

5.) Color Your World. Every world has its own dialect, slang, food, clothes, and customs. “Borrowing” from fables, myths, and history can be a starting point, but don’t be afraid to develop something on your own. Invent a few words that will play a prominent role in your new world or perhaps take a risk by combining a known world with a fantasy/paranormal one. A reader will feel grounded in the world you are creating, yet feel you are bringing something new to the table. A good example of this is the old Sci-Fi TV show FARSCAPE. A present day astronaut gets caught in a wormhole and transported to another universe where he is the only human. Remember the word, “Frak!” Yep, another four-letter word starting with F.

For the sake of discussion—by the year 2025—what do you think would change most? What would be cool to have? What bad things do you think are looming if we don’t change our ways? Will we still use real money? Are we headed for a global society, rather than individual countries? Exercise your writer brain and throw out anything that comes to mind. In brainstorming a new world, you need to cut loose, think over the top, and have fun.

25 thoughts on “5 TIPS on World Building from Scratch

  1. As someone who has been in the thick of doing this the last year or so, this is very timely! Also I have to say (geek that I am) any post that mentions one of my favorite sci-fi shows, Farscape, gets the big thumbs up from me! I would just add that I think successful world building has emotional resonance – it provides both a wonderful backdrop but also a real reason to care about the characters.

  2. Stacia Kane and her Downside Magic series is one of the best world-builders ever. It is dystopian, post-apoc with familiar touches that make is disturbing.

    Hunger Games and the Divergent series in YA come to mind as well.

    2025? I can see both forward and backward. Computers will be smaller and faster and there will be a breakthrough in battery technology that makes solar-power feasible. I see that as the biggest world-builder change, is moving to the post-petroleum technology.

    However, given the current political theme, I can also see society descending into some very scary places, such as a religious/corporate oligarchy or the return of the Hooverville. As the cliched saying goes, “We live in interesting times.”


  3. Absolutely, Clare. A heavy dose of humanity is vital. If the story is all techno & action stunts, it isn’t as compelling. That can be said for any genre, I think. Very good point.

  4. I forgot to mention, Clare, that I LOVED Farscape. I even attended a convention for the show when it paired up with another TV show fandom for Witchblade. One of the reasons I got into writing was my love for Witchblade (the Ian Nottingham character) & wrote fanfiction on it. I explored different writing genres on fanfiction.net. My stories are still out there under an online name I used back then. Farcape was a real fav for both my husband and I.

  5. Terri–Thanks for the book recommendations. I’ve read the Hunger Games trilogy, but not the others. SPLINTERED by Anita Grace Howard will be out Jan 2013. I got to read an advance copy. It’s such a beautiful amazing book. Any author daring to add a twist on a classic, better bring something to it & Anita does. Be on the look out for that one.

    Ilsa Bick’s ASHES trilogy had me hooked from book 1. The teen girl is a strong protag & the author does a great job of building a stark world with a realistic scenario on how civilization gets upended & remade.

    Like you, I see technology changing the most. When I looked at 1999 to now, I zeroed in on the smart phone as inspiration & how much we’ve all turned to an online existence. I’m looking forward to testing human nature & how that trend might change us. The impact of TV, computers too. I also looked at today’s global economy & projected it forward with the idea that we stray from traditional ways of making money & go to a digital world. And if the US is no longer a super power, who becomes dominant? The energy situation has to be shown too. I also want to show classes of people. I see the gap increasing to a major chasm between those who have & those who don’t. I also see the Internet as becoming more of a means for greedy corporations to spy & collect data on people for various purposes. The new Big Brother that no one watches over.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Terri.

  6. I’ve written sci fi romance and now a paranormal romance series based on Norse mythology, and all your tips apply. One of my characters in the upcoming Drift Lords series deploys an invisibility belt. Not possible, you think? Actually, I took the technology from an article I cut on this very real camouflage technique that’s being developed. So keep your eyes open for articles on cutting edge technologies.

  7. Jordan, I especially like the idea of looking back to look ahead to see what has been developed in the same time frame that you are looking to write ahead in. Great tip to use and an excellent exercise that would bring a slew of brainstorm ideas too! Thanks – Donna

  8. I was hoping you’d check in, Nancy. I KNOW you write Sci-fi. Brave girl. That technology sounds GREAT and exciting.

    For mind blowing projects, the DARPA funded ones are great to look up–the ones you can find, that is.

  9. Hey Donna–Thanks for your support on Twitter BTW. TKZ and I appreciate it.

    Building a future world can boggle your mind, but it seems less daunting when you take a look back and cherry pick off the areas that matter to your story. You feel like you’ve got a foundation to build on as far as research goes.

    Thanks for stopping in and commenting. Happy writing.

  10. My mother and I were chatting about the “good old days” when life was simpler and less invasive. She had responded to a phone survey from CNN. She seems to enjoy that, but it was a mechanical voice that guided her through the menu. It only reminded me how impersonal all this spying stuff can be. We are data. How will that data be used and by whom?

    Her point was that if you don’t have anything to hide, why would you care what people know about you? As you might imagine, I had some thoughts on that. Her view is typical of anyone who respects the law and thinks everyone else does too, but I’m a cynical crime fiction author. Evil lurks everywhere.

  11. It’s curious to me how much people enjoy dystopian novels. Why do they always see the future as bleak?

    That’s one aspect of the Star Trek universe I always find refreshing–there are dangers in space, but humans are organized, technically skilled and mostly benevolent. It’s a positive view of the future.

  12. I’m a Trekkie too for those very reasons. They celebrated diversity in infinite combinations. People of different races worked together in harmony and peace had come to the planet. I’m not fond of the bleak, post-apocalyptic vision either, although I do watch Falling Skies.

  13. Hey Mark. Dystopian novels feature repressive controlling societies of some form. It generally is the ultimate David vs Goliath, outsider theme. And it’s often a cautionary tale that celebrates the power of one–that one person CAN make a difference. I definitely love this theme if the outcome isn’t too bleak in the end. For me, the end should satisfy me & make sense, even if that doesn’t translate to a completely happy solution.

    Dystopian novels may have a bleak outlook on society’s future, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the book ending is automatically negative and dark. The books I’ve read–including the darker outcome to Hunger Games (no spoilers)–aren’t bleak as a rule.

    I’m a Star Trek fan too. But in the remake of Battlestar Galactica, the commander’s speech made an interesting point by asking the question, “What makes us so special that we should survive?” An intriguing question that translates to mankind may not be the center of the universe.

  14. Good tips, Jordan. One of the fun things I do with the zombie legal thrillers, set in LA, is try to figure out how a real court system would have to treat paranormals if they started getting arrested. Like, does a vampire have the right to have her trial held at night, so she can attend? Civil rights!

  15. Ha! Jim, that is EXACTLY the fun “what ifs” I am writing about. I was thinking of your genius Zombie Lawyer series when I wrote about taking something familiar & twisting it. The humor in a Zombie lawyer makes for abundant material for a series. Your titles are priceless.

  16. In 2025, I’ll be wearing cool, form fitting clothes that don’t make me perspire and one of those little buttons just above my heart that I can tap and say . . . “Beam me up, Scotti. I’m done shopping here!”

    Joking aside, GREAT topic, Jordan. I can see why your books are so effective. These are excellent guidelines for world building. (But why am I not surprised?)

  17. Oh, and I agree with you about Jim Bell’s Zombie lawyer series with all those intriguing twists. TKZ has one imaginative crew at work here.
    Just sayin’ . . .

  18. This IS a diverse & imaginative crew we have here at TKZ, Piks.

    I like your shopping button idea too, but by 2025, EVERYTHING will be made in China.

  19. Hey Jim– How do you put handcuffs on a shapeshifter & jail him? Bet it’s hard to do a line up too, with him shifting into a cute kitty.

    And do the jailers have to make sure the food they feed the vampire prisoners is garlic-free? That could turn awkward.

  20. Jordan — good luck on your worldbuilding venture. I’m also in that process, with 2032 being my endpoint.

    The type and tenor of the government in charge is going to have a huge impact on what your world is like. Think about getting the politics nailed down first and much of the rest will follow logically.

    A 2025-2032 world isn’t going to be like Star Trek or even The Hunger Games — there’s not enough time to get there. That makes the worldbuilding a lot harder because the differences are so much more subtle.

    Something else to keep in mind is that the future comes to poor people much more slowly than for rich people. Since you’re planning to explore the differences between classes, you may be able to use that to your advantage.

    I’ve started a series of posts on my site (wombatgroup.com) talking over some of the issues in the world I’m building.

    Again, good luck!

  21. Hey Lance – Thanks for sharing your insights. I’ll check out your site too.

    The rich poor thing is a definite part of my storyline. It’s my way of grounding the reader in the familiar before I launch them into the excesses of the wealthy class. It’s like the old movie, Crocodile Dundee, where the character goes from boonies to NYC. I also saw a TV program where Native Alaskans fly on a small plane for the first time, going from their small village to Nome–a HUGE town for them. Can you imagine them in NYC? My characters from a small town could act as unreliable narrators who won’t understand what’s truly happening except in the context they know. This should be another way for me to ease into the future world building too.

    Although the government connection is important, it takes a back seat to the Big Brother aspects of the plot when a secret corporation comes to the small town in search of my kid. The story will hinge on my cynical view of corporate greed, a government incapable of understanding and policing the Internet, and a world stage looking for a new economical environment that is more stable and instantaneous.

    I can’t explain much more since I am still working out the details, but this will be my first attempt at doing something very different when it comes to world building. I’m looking forward to the challange and appreciate your help.

  22. Good stuff. I’m in the midst of world building as well, but its one of those near future dystopian worlds.

    Alaska after an EMP strike and invasion. What would life in present day Alaska be like with no connections to the US, technology tossed 100 years into the past, foreign troops in the main cities and Russia pining to take us back?

    And worst of all, no more Taco King!

  23. Hey Basil–I think about WW II where a small team of local Alaskans launched a stealthy assault on the Japanese who had invaded some of the Aleutian Islands. The U.S. sent in a larger troop, but these guys had no idea how to fight in these conditions & didn’t have the right clothing and boots, so a handful of Alaskans did the job, using their own gear and weapons.

    It’s been awhile since I’ve seen the documentary on the war, but this part was fascinating. Made me very proud to be a former resident of AK. It reminded me that with all the complex scenarios, sometimes the best solution is the simplest and the independent spirit of the AK people in a hostile climate can make a difference.

  24. Yes Jordan, they were the Alaska Territorial Guard. The Federal government only recently recognized them and gave them VA benefits for their brave guerrilla actions against the Japanese.

    I actually spent 3 years as an NCO in the descended military unit, the Alaska State Defense Force. A couple of our members had been teenaged soldiers in the ATG and told stories of fighting Jap subs and occasional dive bombers in Southeast.

  25. So cool, Basil. That independent spirit of Alaskans & the terrain and climate will be important to get in your story. You get into it in all your adult thrillers, so I think you’ve picked a good setting for your dystopian story. Good luck with it.

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