When you mention world building to a bunch of writers, most are instantly going to think about fantasy worlds. Makes sense since that’s the genre that does the most world building from scratch, but every story needs a rich world, even if that world is set in the good old USA. Luckily, the same tricks genre writers use to flesh out their worlds can also be used by non-genre writers.
A Room With a View
One of the strongest tools you have for world building is your point of view character(s). They can ground the reader by what they see and provide context for everything. They can show what’s normal and what’s unusual by how they react and interact with things in this world. Just as readers have never been to Middle Earth, they might not have ever been to the Midwest. Sure, they’ll have a general idea (corn, flat, farms), but imagine how much richer you can make that world if you treat it like the reader has never seen it before. Especially if your world isn’t what the average person thinks of when they hear your location.
People know what mundane things look like, but they don’t always know what importance a mundane item has. You get your pick of details to convey subtle information to a reader, so look for details that do more than just provide window dressing. Look for details that have meaning to your point of view character, and let that meaning add a new layer of understanding to the world they live in. Make it clear that this world couldn’t be anywhere else but where you’ve set it—whether that’s Atlanta or The Kingdom of Asaguili.
Setting is a vital part of any story, and one of the hardest to deal with because it’s all description. As a fantasy author, I have to establish an unfamiliar world and the rules that govern that world right at the start. To avoid bogging down the story, I background the world building details into the actions and thoughts of my point of view character. I don’t need to tell readers about the economic climate if I show my protagonist stealing food so she can eat. Making her wary of soldiers posted along the street shows an occupied city without me ever having to say a word of explanation.
Backgrounding works just as well in the real world, if not better, because readers already have an idea of what the world is like. (They do live there after all). If your protagonist lives in a crime-ridden area, you might show her locking multiple locks on the door, or have her hear gunshots or sirens. She might not carry a purse that can be easily grabbed on the street. Seize the opportunities to flesh out your world in ways that not only show setting, but add tension, deepen characterization, and even further plot advancement. Just because readers know the world is no reason to skimp on making it feel real. And those tiny “real” details can add so much to your story.
What’s That You Say?
Dialog is as distinctive as geography in defining a world. Slang terms, swear words, clichés, metaphors—every culture and region has their own set. If your story takes place in the south, let the dialog reflect the slower pace and country charm of the region. And I’m not talking about writing dialect (dropping the g off words, spelling things all funky) but using the rhythm and flow, the slang and phrasing of those who live in that area. A New Yorker is going to ask for a cup of coffee differently than a Southern Belle, or even a Midwesterner (soda vs pop vs a coke anyone?). Find the language characteristics common to a region or culture and use them to bring that region to life.
You Look Marvelous
Visit both Florida and Chicago in the winter and you’ll notice how different regions dress. You can use this to show climate and even morality with what people wear and how others react to the way people dress. What’s acceptable in Manhattan is very different from what flies in Salt Lake City, and neither might be appropriate in Louisiana. Instead of having your protagonist wear just a green blouse and jeans, see if there’s anything specific to a region that would show another side or trait of the character.
Well, See, There’s a Problem
Even the obstacles you throw at your characters offer chances at world building. A fight with the boss is something that could happen anywhere, so what might be distinctive to your world that would make that fight really memorable? Are there jobs unique to your book’s setting? Are there concerns that only people who live in a particular place have? Perhaps the environment plays a role. Cultures or politics often shape a region, so how might these beliefs hinder your protagonist? When characters going about their daily routine can be a challenge, you have extra tools to use to keep your story exciting.
The World is in the Details
Just as fantasy authors choose details that flesh out and create a world readers have never seen before, non-genre authors can take advantage of the same opportunities. By looking at your world as someone seeing it for the first time, you can discover details that will help make that world a richer place. It’s really no different than choosing the right verb for the right time. Every line of your story will feel layered and deep, and even a world readers know will come alive.
What are some of your favorite world building tricks?