Building a Believable World-What Tools You Need

While I am aware I have already made a post regarding world-building, this is an aspect certainly worth repeating and elaborating on, especially for us science-fiction and fantasy writers.

My last post on this topic mostly covered why world-building is important, and while there will be some overlap here, there’s also an inclusion of additional information writers of these popular genres should know. In her interview with bestselling author Alan Dean Foster, Janice Gable Bashman asks some key questions about what writers need to consider when they’re constructing a fantastical world from their imagination.

“There must be a sound scientific/ecological reason for everything you create,” Foster explains.1 In other words, don’t input something fantastical in your story without realizing the implications of what such an element requires.

Quoting Foster, Bashman also writes, “Nothing breaks a reader’s immersion in a story faster than an obvious error in world building.” Folks, this is crucial. Your work must be grounded in realism to a certain extent, no matter what the setting or rules of your world. Readers want to be entertained and intrigued, not confused.

You might say, “But there are some elements in these kinds of stories that are not explained. Take traditional vampires, for instance. They’re reanimated corpses that can usually shape-shift into a legion of bats, wolves, or mist, and they’re immortal. They need blood to survive, have to sleep in coffins and burn up in the sunlight. A lot of authors don’t give any scientific physiological explanations for them, and yet you see them all the time.” But consider the context in which such vampires originate. Most, if not all of the time, when you read (or see in movies and TV shows) vampires like that, the world is dominated by magic. Magic, by definition, is meant to supersede normal reality to make the impossible possible. When in that context, totally far-fetching creatures like traditional vampires are more acceptable. And actually, even in these circumstances, you will often find storytellers attempting at least a rudimentary explanation as to why these creatures are they way they are (i.e. demonic influence or possession-which tends to work for a lot of readers because demons themselves are supernatural).

In my personal opinion, I think authors who strive to create worlds that have at least somewhat plausible mechanisms and structure within them have a better imagination than those who don’t. Believable worlds that have at least relatively thorough explanations behind them rooted in the sciences, philosophies, laws, etc. of our own reality allow for a unique, realistic, and engaging journey, both for writer and reader.

Foster tells Bashman, “Building a world is akin to being a sculptor who works from the ground up: first by sculpting a skeleton, then adding muscles, then flesh, skin, and lastly, color.”1

He’s right. In order to develop a good story, you need to start from the bottom up. Another good analogy would be that of building a house. Before you get to later projects like the walls, roof, and windows, you need to begin with the foundation. When you start constructing your world, also ask yourself important questions along the way. What are the rules of your world? Why? How does the structure you’ve set up help create whatever unique conflict(s) are happening in your story?

What kind of creatures exists in this world? How does their physiology work (strengths and weaknesses)? What about their physiology gives them those strengths and weaknesses? Does this somehow help add to the conflict(s) as well? One of the theoretical examples Foster poses for Bashman is, “You cannot have alien creatures shooting death rays from their eyes unless you provide a reasonable power source, a reason for them to do so (predation? defense? sexual attractant?), and an explanation of why they do it in the first place.”1

Why is it so important to pay attention to these details? Because otherwise, “you immediately lose the reader. Or they start laughing at you.”1 Foster continues, “Just because a reader might not recognize an error or omission is no excuse for the writer not to address the problem. To ignore it is lazy writing, to miss it is incompetence.”

Do you want someone saying that about your work? By the way, if you’re like me, then that said work will have taken you years to bring to completion and perfection (well, as much as possible for the latter). You won’t want to go through all that work and have it severely lacking in something that keeps it from being sensational. And honestly, if you’re that invested in your story, don’t you want to do your homework? I know I do.

Foster also explains how excellent world-building can lead readers “to the heart of the story,” as Bashman puts it. “Everything proceeds from the characters’ immediate environment. They not only have to cope with it, they are required to react to it…The most famous example…is Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity. In that story the characters and the plot are driven by the act of world-building, one of the greatest in the genre.”1

So…seeing as how imperative good world-building is, it can also serve as a tool to help you get out of a “writer’s rut,” as I like to call it. If your story is stalling as far as how to further your plot, then step away from that aspect for a while and do some more research on what your world and creatures within it are like and how it/they work. When I started out my fantasy, I was focused mainly on the story, figuring I could go back and polish up my world later. And for a while, that worked. But then when I reached that point in which the story wouldn’t budge until I took a different avenue, I decided to think more critically about my lore and build up my world better. It’s made a considerable difference!

However, just like with most everything else in story writing, it’s also possible to overdo it. Don’t focus so much on your world that your characters themselves seem dull. Remember how important they are in the scheme of things because they’re the ones who will be acting out, creating (if they’re the antagonists) and resolving (if they’re the protagonists) your conflict, whether directly or indirectly. And, despite whatever you do with the world, the characters are ultimately what the readers will always recall (not that your world-building is all for nothing, of course). If you’re as serious a writer as you think you are, then you will need to envelop your readers in both.1

Of course, if you’re also as imaginative as you think (and we hope) you are, then there’s no doubt that you have a picture of how everything looks and works in your mind. The painstaking (and therefore frustrating) part comes when you try to put it all down on paper. If it makes you feel any better, all of us other serious writers know exactly how you feel.

So what can you do? As I’ve already said before in this post, start small, and work your way from there. You don’t need to have everything already figured out before (or when) you start writing. But definitely keep it at least in the back of your mind as you write, because you will eventually need to know all the ins and outs before your finished project.

Start with your foundation, and then build, build, build. And remember, have fun.

Embrace your writer’s side, and let the words of your imagination run free.

Information source:

Bashman, Janice Gable. (Year unknown). “Alan Dean Foster: Effective World Building.” In Scott Francis (Ed.) 2013 Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published (pp. 18-22). Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2012.





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