So, thanks to the success of our first glimpse into our super-epic critique partnership, we thought it would be fun to continue sharing some of the stuff that makes our CP relationship work so well. We’re both currently in the middle of drafting fantasy WIPS (I am working on Throne of Glass Book 3; Sooz is working on a Super Secret & Super Amazing project), and have been talking A LOT in recent weeks about our manuscripts. (We’re talking a near-constant stream of emails, texts, phone calls, video chats, smoke signals, etc..)
We ask each other everything from: “Does X-idea sound stupid?” to “What does it feel like to get a black eye?” But because we’re both in the semi-beginning stages of writing our manuscripts, we’ve been focusing a LOT of our convos on building the worlds of our books. And the other day, while discussing the dynamics of world-building, we wound up admitting that one of the questions we get asked by readers really frequently is “How do you go about world-building?”
SO, even though we could spend FOREVER talking about world-building, we managed to boil our answers down to what we thought were four of the Big Tips For World-Building (this is focused mostly on fantasy, though a lot of it could be applied to any genre).
1. History is a Goldmine.
Seriously. Want good ideas for how to build your world? Open up a history book. Do some research. It might not sound like a lot of fun (though we both LOVE doing it), but it pays off. Both Sooz and I have pillaged stuff from history for our various projects, and even if what we learned doesn’t make it into the actual manuscript, it’s helped US understand/expand our worlds a little more. Conquest, trade, language, religion—there is so, so much to glean from the history of THIS world. (If you are still in school and reading this, either PAY ATTENTION in history class, or go out and take one!)
Sooz’s Note: Seriously, I can’t emphasize history enough. Our world is COMPLICATED. From daily lifestyles to continent-scale diplomacy, from trade routes to farming, from wars to battles to marriage—you can find so many amazing nuggets to inspire you or add a layer of “realness” to your story.
2. Have A Reason.
This connects with Point #1, and is probably the hardest part of world-building. You need to have a reason for EVERYTHING. Of course, those reasons might not make it onto the page (and readers don’t necessarily need to know the “why” behind every detail), but YOU need to know those things. If you have a village in a remote desert, how do they get their food/clothes/news/trade? How do those things impact their culture? Do some research about things like that in our world. It might lead you to unexpected inspiration!
It takes a while to figure out these things, but the more you can understand the history of your world, the more it will come to life—both for you and the reader. Don’t be afraid to spend a while asking yourself these questions—and then researching/daydreaming. It might take hours, weeks, months, YEARS, but it is worth it.
3. Character-Building and World-Building Go Hand In Hand.
Your character is a product of their world. Seems pretty obvious, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to forget that. Asking yourself questions about your character—WHY they act a certain way, WHAT is happening in their world at that moment that might impact the way they are behaving—all helps not only expand your characters, but your world.
Your main character and secondary characters do not live in the bubble of your plot. They live in a WORLD, where what they have seen and experienced and learned has made them into who they are. Everything from food to clothing to mythology—all things that impact us in OUR world—have shaped them into who they are. There are other events going on around them as their own plot unfolds—untold stories. Again, readers don’t need to know every little detail, but you should try to have a sense of not just your character’s background, but what other events might be happening at the same time.
4. Small Details, Big Impact
The reader does not need to know 1) the entire history of your world 2) the entire history of your character 3) pages of explanation/reasoning about everything. That’s all stuff YOU should know, but only the tip of the iceberg should make it into your actual book. It’s okay to give a (brief) mention when necessary, but sometimes the subtlest details have the biggest impact and do the heaviest lifting. Even doing something as small as describing a character’s eye color as similar to a certain kingdom/city’s infamous blue dye can flesh out your world. Sooz’s favorite example of Small Details, Big Impact is from Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.
Sooz’s Note: I read The Left Hand of Darkness as a kid (wow, that’s some heady stuff for a thirteen-year-old), but I remember at the beginning being wowed by a subtle detail LeGuin included: these aliens live on an ice planet, and in between sips of their drinks, a thin layer of ice has crusted over it. So, they have an extra utensil with their forks and spoons that cracks the ice off their beverage. That single detail made the whole world feel that much more real to me.
We could probably keep going and going about other world-building tips, but we’ll just leave you with a recommended reading list. These are books that we both agree have PHENOMENAL world-building (and books we love to death):
- Anything by Sharon Shinn, but especially her Samaria series (starting with Archangel), Troubled Waters, and Mystic and Rider.
- Anything by Robin Hobb (The Farseer Trilogy or Liveship Traders Trilogy to start)
- Sabriel by Garth Nix (perhaps our favorite example of YA fantasy world-building)
- Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
- The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander (starting with The Book Of Three)
- The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner
- Stardust by Neil Gaiman
- Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels Trilogy (starting with Daughter of the Blood).
- Nalini Singh’s Guild-Hunter (starting with Angels’ Blood) and Psy-Changeling series (starting with Slave to Sensation)
- Anything by Patrica A. McKillip (especially Alphabet of Thorn, The Riddle-Master trilogy, and The Forgotten Beasts of Eld)