A Conversation Between Critique Partners: World Building

Hi, Sarah here! Today Sooz and I are sharing our thoughts on world-building. Enjoy!

Soul Twins!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):


15 Responses to A Conversation Between Critique Partners: World Building

  1. Megan Duff Mar 25 2013 at 9:14 am #

    You guys have one of my favorite chick-mances of all time!!! I have a supreme bestie who is also a writer and I can just imagine, as our writing develops, becoming just like you two 🙂

    World building is a fascinating aspect of writing, and one that can go very very wrong. While at Leaky Con last year I attended a panel where Laini Taylor, Holly Black and Margaret Stohl discussed world building in their novels. It was fantastic! I wish I could have recorded it, there was just too much information to absorb in one sitting.

    In particular Holly suggested this resource from Patricia Wrede: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/

    I love Sooz’s The Left Hand of Darkness example. I read that in a college Sci Fy class, and even at 19 years old I found it both far too wise and far too troubling for me. At the end of the day I love that book, but I always hesitate to re-read it because I know where it’s going to take me. Living in Wisconsin I’ve had my fill of ice and snow. Maybe this summer…:)

    • Sarah J. Maas Mar 25 2013 at 4:28 pm #

      Awww, thank you! (And YAY for chick-mances! It’s always awesome to hear that there are more friendships like ours out there in the world.)

      And WOW–that panel sounds…AMAZING! And thank you so much for sharing that link! What a fabulous resource. 🙂

  2. Carmen B. Mar 25 2013 at 9:27 am #

    Great post! World building is one of my favorite aspects about novels in general! I’m a sucker for it. And I agree, history is awesome, and I don’t think it’s boring at all!! I agree, the little details make all the difference. Bringing the world building to the reader without being info-dumpy is crucial, but if done well the whole novel is a lot more organic and just… real. It also helps understanding the characters and their actions and ways of thinking.

    I agree about the worldbuilding in Stardust (well, all of Gaiman’s stories) and I looooved Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell!! It was so realistic, also the way the book was styled exactly like a Victorian novel! Another series with great world building is Kim Harrison’s The Hollows series. I love her world! Oh, and basically anything by Holly Black and Melissa Marr that I’ve read.
    You’ve also just motivated me to dig into my omnibus of the Lirael books… it’s been on my shelf for over a year but I was hesitant to start it because it’s such a thick/heavy book ^^’

    • Sarah J. Maas Mar 25 2013 at 4:29 pm #

      1) Thank you!

      2) There’s an omnibus edition of the Sabriel series?! WHAT. I need that book in my life RIGHT NOW.

  3. Alexa Y. Mar 25 2013 at 11:33 am #

    You guys are my favorites <3 I do think that your tips for world-building are spot on though! A reader might not necessarily need all these details, but an author certainly will. I think that it's necessary for them to know almost every single thing that they can think of about their world, because it certainly helps with writing the characters and the stories.

    • Sarah J. Maas Mar 25 2013 at 4:29 pm #

      Awww! YOU are our favorite. <3 Thank you so much, Alexa!

  4. Natalie Aguirre Mar 25 2013 at 3:02 pm #

    These are such great tips. I especially liked the one about looking back in history. I’ll have to think about that one the next time I’m ready to create a new world. Thanks so much for sharing your advice.

  5. Rosanna Silverlight Mar 25 2013 at 4:14 pm #

    Great tips! Sometimes I feel just like a little kid wearing a plastic apron while brandishing a messy palette full of poster paints when it comes to world building. I usually have to revise my world building just as much as my actual writing because some things are better the second or third time around. Like the magic system in my WIP. Sheesh, that took A LOT of working out!

    I adore Stardust and absolutely fell in love with the Old Kingdom in Sabriel; I remember being entranced by the Clayr library in Lirael (and now I must go and read those books again!). Have either of you read Kristin Cashore’s Seven Kingdoms trilogy? Powerful, BEAUTIFUL world building, powerful characterisation and perfect examples of your tip number 3: Character-Building and World-Building Go Hand In Hand.

    • Sarah J. Maas Mar 25 2013 at 4:32 pm #

      Thank you so much! And lol–totally feel you on the apron/paints thing. Even if I have a really clear picture of the world in my head, it’s always a bit messy coming out of me onto the page. And, like you, it gets revised A LOT in later drafts, as I have a clearer picture what I need/don’t need by that point. 🙂

  6. Sorcha Mar 25 2013 at 6:45 pm #

    This is perfect timing! I’m terrified of world building and I need to do quite a bit for the novel I’m drafting right now. The part about having a reason for everything really struck a chord for me because it makes so much sense but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen world building explained that way — of course it’s not just a bunch of quirks and traits that the writer thought were cool, they’re logical extensions of the characters and story. I now feel dumb but confident!

    Thank you! You and Susan are both so good about writing these awesome ‘giving back’ posts where I learn so much about writing. Just know they’re really appreciated. 🙂

  7. Julie Eshbaugh Mar 25 2013 at 9:34 pm #

    You guys are awesome!!! This post is amazing – the four Big Tips cover so much territory. I think my favorite point you make here is Character-Building and World-Building Go Hand In Hand. Thanks for this!
    And Sooz – my husband just bought THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS yesterday! I’m sure you’ve read it, but the introduction blew me away! The things she says about writing (especially sci-fi writing) are so insightful. Ursula K Le Guin FTW! 🙂

  8. Kim Mar 26 2013 at 4:46 pm #

    Wow, this post sounds so amazing! I love all the tips. World building can be a huge process (and sometimes hassel) so I’m going to be referring to the post a lot. Thanks!

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