World Building in Your Book/ Screenplay: An In-Depth Guide on How to Create Believable Worlds
The beauty of fiction is that it doesn’t need to try hard to make it believable to the reader all the absurd things it talks about. The reader is more than ready to be wooed and mystified, to be taken to worlds and logic so far away from the ‘real’ world they know. But it is this very ease that puts pressure on the writer to maintain the believable nature of the fantasy they are weaving. The spell can never be broken. How can you create worlds that are more than believable then?
- Pick a genre.
Is magic fundamental to the working of your world, or science? Or is it a unique mix of the two? Is your world futuristic, apocalyptic, or fantastical? Are you writing a romance that takes place in a neo-noir world? Zeroing in on the genre you’re writing in will help set the tone of the world you’re going to build. This way, you can also figure out how much of a role your world is going to play in your story.
2. Where in the galaxy.
Locate your world in the vast universe. Is it on a planet, in an impossibly far-away galaxy, or in the herbarium on some mad scientist’s shelf? Detail for yourself the climate and the weather of your world, and what the reasons for them are. Using what modes of transport can you get in and out of your world? You can draw maps of your world to help you clearly visualise the larger landscape. Do the people of your world mostly wear trench coats or crop-tops, and for how long in a year? What is the degree of balance between heat and cold in your world and why? Answering these questions for yourself will let you set up a more natural environment.
3. Build your language.
Language builds the world. Every order is deeply built by the systems of the language that it exists within. Are you constructing a unique language that your world speaks? Where does the English you use as the author fit in? What are the roots of that language? Who speaks it and who cannot? Put on the hat of a linguist and think about what role language plays in your world, and in your story. In fact, language can lend very well to the places, natural concepts, and social orders that you create that run your world.
4. Laws of the Land.
List out the laws of your world. Is there one sacred document that your world upholds as the law of the land? List out what that document contains. Lay down what the simple and terrible crimes of your world are. This will help you create a moral framework of what constitutes good and bad in your world. While you use the laws of the real world as a template for this, don’t simply copy them. If your world is deeply rooted in time, what kind of crimes would exist in it? And what punishments would be declared for them? Think of each law as setting up the natural conscience of your characters that will ultimately drive your plot.
5. For the culture.
Yes, you will obviously be setting down cultural norms, cuisines, traditions, and racial positions in your world. Yes, the templates for these will be the cultural systems of the real world that we live in. But you cannot make carbon copies or well-meaning caricatures of cultures that already exist. This will only bring down the quality and credibility of your creativity in building your world. Lay down more than three characteristics of the cultures you create, give them a multi-dimensionality. What kind of history do your cultures come from and what ideas of the future do they hold? How does their culture influence these ideas? While these may seem like complex questions, once you answer them for yourself, they will help you build the simple scenes and interactions between your characters with much more personality.
6. A day in the life of…
There are a lot of details you can come into if you map out the daily lives of your characters. Try this exercise. Pick any minor random character that is bound to have a place in your world. Go through a day as them. Maybe it’s a local vendor selling graphite powder which has common use in your world. Or a local law official, or a tobacco seller. How about the mayor of a district or a local librarian? How would these individuals go about their usual day? Mapping this out can help you figure out tiny details related to your world where you wouldn’t have been able to recognise the need to figure out these details when constructing your world. Later, you can use them as subtle details to advance your plot or just as props for a light-hearted moment among your main characters that will give more insight into your world to your readers.
7. Cause and effect.
What are the small or big things that could have altered the course of your world? Cause and effect play a huge role in imagining the possibilities for your world, both to you as a writer and for your readers. The idea of a multiverse is compelling. Your readers need to believe that variations of your world can exist. If they’re able to do this, it means they can believe your world.
8. Details. Details. Details.
Every detail you fix makes your world more similar or different to the real world your readers are aware of. These distinctions serve as important markers first, to give more information about your world, and second, to help establish belief in it by being relatable to actual phenomena. So, if you were to find the opportunities to talk about the specific material used for construction, or the usual shade of blue of the sky, or the spice tolerance of the people in general, you’re not moving away too much from what can easily be real and yet all these details are contributing to a world that you are in fact making up. The small details, which seem as if they don’t hold much importance, are in fact the ones that will help your readers vividly imagine your world.
There is simply one question that all your worldbuilding should be geared toward answering: why is your story taking place at the time that it is? What about your world and its nature has caused the need for the story you are writing to transpire? If you were to use this question as your quantifier for how believable your world is, you’ll be able to navigate the roadblocks you encounter in your process. Lastly, what you need to keep in mind is that you, as the author, will always know so much more about your world than you’ll ever be able to tell your readers. The task is to let them know and understand your world organically and to never info-dump. Happy worldbuilding!