This is a follow up to my World Building 101 post. They don’t need to be read in order; the 101, 102, and 103 distinctions were simply the easiest way to differentiate the posts.
Two things to keep in mind that will always improve your world building:
There is good and bad in everything
Everything has a past
What kind of political systems govern your world or various factions? How long have those systems been in place? Check out this database of actual world government systems in place and see wikipedia for any definitions you may need: CIA Government Factbook and Wikipedia Forms of Gov.
You may be tempted to create an evil tyrant with a completely corrupt political system, but remember, there is always the lone incorruptible optimist who believes things can be salvaged. You may want your world to be idyllic, utopian in nature because the political system has no effect on your story (or so you think). But there will always be a greedy politician who works in the shadows to gain power.
So determine your government types and then try to make them dynamic. And remember, the world has a past! If you don’t include a glimpse at its history, it will be as if that history doesn’t exist. Your world building may come across as superficial. How is the present political climate different from the past, the goals of the characters, and the setting you hope to end the story in?
You may disagree with me, but I LOVE when religion is incorporated into world building. Even simple mentions of a made up god – cursing in their name – adds richness to your manuscript. For an excellent example of how to really insert a made up religion into your work, having a devout main character, mythic lore, and the magic system based on religion, read Emily R. King’s The Hundredth Queen series.
In dealing with setting, keep in mind my first two points. (1) There is good and bad in everything and (2) Everything has a past.
Cities and Towns
Show the nitty gritty dark alleyways where drugs are taken and black market items are traded. In Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi, he cleverly has drug users grind up precious gemstones to snort, calling them stone sniffers. His world building is absolutely incredible. I highly recommend Beasts Made of Night for anyone who wants to read an excellent example of comprehensive world building.
Don’t forget to show the bright shining architecture or quaint beauty of your cities and towns too, even when your main characters hate living there or are frightened of their surroundings. Showing beauty amidst fear can add an extra level of creepy!
It rains. It’s muggy and humid near water. You can’t see stars in light polluted cities. When you come in from the wind, you smell windswept – not like pine or lavender. Don’t forget the things you know of the world when you’re inventing a new one.
It’s really easy to ignore nature and either not talk about it or make every day perfect. I’ve fallen into this trap, focusing more on my story than the fact that I’d set my characters in the Pacific Northwest and never once mentioned rain or clouds. Don’t be that writer. It’s a problem easily fixed in editing, but why not go ahead and plan your weather more intentionally before you start writing? And I don’t mean throwing in the cliche thunderstorm during the climax. Be intentional but be realistic.
Color is an excellent way to create mood. If done well, it can quickly convey things to the reader, both overtly and covertly. It doesn’t have to be reserved solely for clothing. Think about how a room is decorated – how did the character who decorated it want it feel? Play with shadow and gleams of light. I happen to be reading A Court of Mist and Fury right now, and Maas describes Rysand’s black wings as gleaming with red and gold in the sunlight, very different from her initial descriptions of him perpetually dressed in black and surrounded by wisps of darkness.
Read over this in depth wikipedia summary for more thoughts on color. Some of the descriptions in the color chart below are very well known; be careful not to be too obvious when mentioning color in your manuscripts.
Just like we have diversity in our world, your world needs it too. If you’re opening with a dystopia, things may appear uniform at first, but they won’t stay that way. You need rich and poor, young and old, different ways of thinking and upbringing. You need different ethnic, socioeconomic, and cultural groups. Your cultural groups may require unique governments and religions too.
Diversity doesn’t simply refer to skin tone. Think people with disabilities, varying skill or knowledge levels, and sexual orientation. The most realistic worlds contain variety and uniquenesses. And don’t forget, your unique characters and groupings have a past, and there should be positive and negative aspects of each larger cultural or ethnic group.
I’m sure I’m missing plenty of other categories that could fit in with this post. Let me know if you can think of any.
I plan to conclude this series with some science aspects of world building, including climate and topography. Are there any other subjects you’d like for me to explore before I finish the series? Let me know in the comments!