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 writers have for world building is our point of view character. She can ground the reader by what she sees and provide context for those details. She can show what’s normal and what’s unusual for that world by how she reacts to things. 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 what it’s like (corn, flat, farms), but imagine how much richer we can make that world if we treat it like the reader has never seen it before. Especially if our world isn’t what the average person thinks of when they hear the location.
People know what mundane things look like, but they don’t always know what importance a mundane item has in a story. We get our pick of details to convey subtle information to our readers, so it’s useful to provide details that are more than just window dressing. Look for things that have meaning to the 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 we’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 narrator. 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. It also mixes the world building with the action so the pace stays tight and keeps the story moving.
Backgrounding works just as well if a story is set 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 the protagonist lives in a crime-ridden area, we 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 the 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 a 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 a 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. 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. We 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 the 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 we throw at our 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 memorable? Are there jobs unique to the 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 the protagonist? When the character’s daily routine is a challenge, we have extra tools to use to keep our 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.