It’s Q and A Wednesday on Teachers Write! That means the comments are open for your questions, not only about today’s post on world building, but about whatever you want to discuss relating to writing & teaching writing. Guest authors will be popping in all day to answer, so don’t be afraid to join the conversation!
Guest author Ammi-Joan Paquette, author of PRINCESS JUNIPER OF THE HOURGLASS, joins us for a Teachers Write Saturday reflection on world building — that magical mix of setting and circumstance that makes a character’s world feel as real as ours, even when it’s in a fairytale kingdom or another planet.
Shape Your World
So here you are: wordsmith, historian, grammar hawk… author! You’ve got some terrific characters. They’re inhabiting a pretty dynamite story. But what’s going on behind the scenes? Reading a novel without a well-developed world is like watching a stage performance without a backdrop: the actors move and interact and inhabit their roles—but it’s hard to fully immerse yourself in the story.
Something is missing.
Contrast this with lavishly rendered plays—care has been given not only to set construction, period-specific costumes, and expertly painted scenery. There’s also the small things: an ornate side table topped with a bouquet of freshly picked wildflowers; a chipped porcelain mug that has clearly seen better days; heavy brocade drapes to give a gloomy, faded glory to the scene.
None of these elements on their own could be argued as being essential to that scene. But taken together? They transport you to another world entirely.
My most recent novel, Princess Juniper of the Hourglass, was the first book I’d written which was not set, in some way, on this world we know. The land of the Lower Continent is not so different from ours, as a matter of fact, but it is fully its own place, complete with history, geography, wildlife, and more.
Once I got the hang of what I needed to do in creating this world, I had a blast! Here are some of the things I learned along that journey.
1. Ask the big questions. Nothing is too obvious when you are building a world. So you should start at the very beginning. What is your country’s name? Who is its ruler? What is the climate? What are the people generally like? In my case, it helped when I could relate my country to a real-world place I was familiar with. I quickly realized that my world had a generally European feel. I knew Torr was a tiny country. I researched small European countries to get an idea of size and population and settled on one that generally fit. This served to anchor the specifics in my mind and gave a clearer expression to the story.
2. Think visually. One of the best ways to bring your world to life is to represent it outside of the written word. For me, sketching a map was invaluable. This map was ultimately reproduced within the finished novel by the immensely talented Dave Stevenson, but for my early writing purposes, I just kept to my chicken-scratch basics. Right away, this act of creation will beg new needs: What does the rest of your continent look like? What are your country’s land neighbors? What outstanding land formations shape your world?
3. Venture outside the lines. Throughout this process, detail is your friend. You should color your world in broad strokes, without worrying about whether this information you’re gathering will be directly useful to or will even appear in the story. The population of Torr, for instance, never appears in my novel. But knowing it is extremely helpful to me in visualizing the events as they unfold across the series. Likewise the history of the Lower Continent (my characters’ piece-of-the-world)—I did a good deal of brainstorming as far as political backdrop and motivation for this, most of which had no bearing whatsoever on book 1. But once I went to begin writing book 2 (and, soon, book 3!), I was very glad to have that foundation to draw from.
4. Don’t be afraid of the mundane. Throughout this lesson so far, I’ve mostly been talking about fantasy worlds. But if you’re writing a realistic story, your world needs no less detail. It might be more easily rendered, but all of the above still applies: Draw a map of your character’s immediate neighborhood. What is the history of his or her family? Describe his relatives, best friends, acquaintances, and more.
5. Whip out your magnifying glass. Big-picture details are important; you can’t have a king without a country for him to rule. But equally important are the smaller world-building details. When it felt appropriate, I described Princess Juniper’s outfit. I invented a crest for the country of Torr, as well as a motto, which I worked into the description of the royal coach. I had a lot of fun giving details about the foods my characters’ enjoyed. I created exclamations and expressions that felt consistent with their country and worldview. The large details anchor the reader into the story; the small details anchor them in the scene.
6. Go exploring. When it comes to writing outside your comfort zone, Google is your friend. In book #2 of my series, Princess Juniper of the Anju (out next summer!), the main characters stumble upon a village built entirely in the trees. I confess, at first my imagination moved in a pretty linear way. To combat this, I went searching for treehouse images—and I was amazed as the treasure trove I discovered. There was no point where I sat down to transcribe an exact description of the images I found online, of course; but filling my mind with possibilities sparked my own imaginative potential, so that the resulting village is filled with much more detail and creativity than it otherwise would have been.
7. Leave a little room for fun. Last but not least, don’t forget to have fun with your world. Upon reading an early-stage draft of Princess Juniper, a friend commented that she would have liked to see the kids have more fun. She was so right! While part of this was plot-driven, pausing their schedule to give them time to be kids, I also wanted a little world-building specificity to bring this aspect to life. A little research uncovered a list of old-fashioned games that kids used to play in centuries gone by: for my medieval-style world, this was just the thing. Instead of giving my characters a general afternoon off, I gave them some unique and specific activities to engage in. Just one paragraph in a whole book, but it’s become one of my favorites.
Building a world, like any other kind of writing, is an intensely personal experience. Just as no end result will be the same, no journey will take the same path. But I do know that the more deeply you live in your world, the more vividly you see it, the more sharply you recreate it—the more your readers will do the same.
It’s your world. Now go and bring it to life!
Note from Kate: Got questions about world building today? (Or anything else relating to writing? Fire away in the comments!)