Do’s and Don’ts of World-building

If you’re writing either a fantasy story or a sci-fi one, there is no getting around the world-building. It’s pretty much essential to your genre. World-building occurs when your story’s world deviates from the “rules” of present world that we occupy. So even if your story isn’t set in an entirely different planet, but it’s got a little dusting of magic thrown in, guess what? You’ve entered the realm of world-building. And that requires us to begin looking for and providing explanations for why our fantasy world functions the way it does. 

When it comes to the art of world-building, there are certain things we need to keep in mind. Even though world-building does break the rules of our present space, there still is a certain way of creating your fantasy or sci-fi world so that it reads coherently and doesn’t come off as a big hot mess to your readers. 

So, if you’re grappling with how to create an alternate reality in which your world is set, here are some common mistakes you might want to avoid making:

Spending too much time world-building: There is such a thing as spending too much time building your world. While you do need to build up your world and explain the whys and hows, what you don’t want is to get so wrapped up in creating the world that your book reads more like a history lesson than a story. The way I like to do things is I like to create the entire world separate of the story – complete with a history and a language if there is one – and then just pick and drop in the bits that are relevant to the story. I don’t know how many are familiar with Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, but it’s the theory of omission. There is only 5% of the story on the surface while the rest of it is underwater. And if the writing is clear and concise, then the reader can infer the other 95% of the story. It kind of works like a show, don’t tell sort of idea. But basically, I like to look at world-building with almost the same lens as the Iceberg Theory. If you know the world well enough yourself, you really only need to show the reader the relevant parts while the rest is left underwater. That is why I’ll list out everything about my world ahead of time, but just include what is relevant to the plot. 

Including things that are never used: This sort of touches back to my first point. It’s okay to build an entire family tree for yourself, but unless it’s a vital part of the plot, don’t include it in the book. Same with language. Unless there is a major plot point around an alien language there is no need to include an alphabet or launch into an explanation of the grammatical rules surrounding a certain language. A simple clue that there is another language in the world – like referring to a “common tongue” or a character noting that another character has the accent of a certain tribe – is more than inclusion enough. Don’t over explain something, especially if it’s a part of the world that doesn’t warrant an explanation in the first place. 

Not planning ahead: While there is no time like the present, getting a little ahead of yourself doesn’t hurt when you are world-building. Particularly if you’re creating a series. You want to have somewhat of a long-term grasp of your world. It helps to cut down on future plot holes. 

Lack of conflict: Let’s face it, perfect worlds are boring. Our current world is a festering cornucopia of social, political, and environmental problems the world over. But that is what makes our lives interesting – we all have our own personal struggles to overcome. We’re our own heroes or heroines in the stories of our lives, and we can thank the conflicts we face for that. Your fantasy or sci-fi world should also hold conflicts that affect or influence your characters. That is what is needed to start them on their heroes’ journey. Don’t create a perfect world, create a flawed one and watch the fun unfold. 

Creating a world that has been done before: Yes, we’re all prone to being inspired by other books or movies or TV shows that we’ve enjoyed. But the last thing you want to do is be charged with derivative copyright infringement for creating a carbon copy of a world that has already appeared in another work of fiction. Of course, just because someone has already written a book about a group of students attending a magical school, or someone else has a world in which cars fly, that doesn’t mean you can’t still write your own story. What it means is that if you’re going to have a world of flying cars, or a story about students attending a magic school, you need to put your own spin on it and make your world as uniquely you as possible. 

Breaking your own rules: Readers of sci-fi or fantasy are willing to suspend their belief. But they won’t forgive the writer for breaking their own rules. So, when you are creating your world, be sure to pay attention to the rules that you’re setting in place. If you are creating a world in which witches only discover their magic powers at the age of 14, but then suddenly you’ve got witches practicing magic and spells at 5 years old, your readers are going to be confused and upset by these plot holes. That is why as the writer and the “god” of your world, you need to pay attention to the rules that you have set forth. Don’t break your own rules. It creates a lot of plot holes and angry readers. 

Pitfalls to Avoid: Mary Sue Characters

You: “Oh man, people are going to love my female MC. She’s a total badass!”

Friend: “Why?”

You: “Because she has all sorts of magic at her disposal, she can fight with swords, she’s got a genius-level IQ, and she’s beautiful. Guys just swoon for her, but she’s a virgin, saving herself for her True Love.”

Friend: Rolls eyes. “Of course. What does she do?”

You: “I’ve got a whole series of books planned. She’s from a fantasy world, but she’s transported to our world in the 21st Century. She then learns about guns while wielding magic. She has to fight Neo-Nazis, werewolves, evil corporations, and gives a speech at the U.N. on women’s rights. She doesn’t need a man to save her.”

Friend: Sighs…loudly. “That’s it? What’s her flaw?”

You: “Umm…flaw? Oh yeah, she was abused a lot by her parents. She doesn’t know how to love. She can’t decide from the six men who are chasing after her, but she can’t let a man in her life though she did have some girlfriends with some buxom elves and hot shifters. She–“

Friend: “Stop! Just…stop. I have a major headache now and I need a drink.”

What did I describe to you? If you guessed that the author had created a Mary Sue character, you’re right. What is a Mary Sue? I won’t get into the origins of such a character (but you can read about it here), but they are a very powerful, virtually flawless character who overcomes any obstacle in the story. Ultimately, they are boring characters because they will plow through every scene by their sheer will alone.

I write this post because if you’re an indie author or an amateur writer who is looking to publish, this is a very common mistake to create a main character who can do everything. Trust me, as I write this, I’m not writing this from a pedestal looking down upon you. I’m guilty as charged as well and this post is also for me as well (I have a few characters in my Rise of Evil Series that I need to take a hard look at and pare them down a bit).

So, let’s get back to the boring part and what you can do to fix them or at least create believable MC’s the reader can get behind. Remember, these are guides, not hard rules.

  1. Outline all the challenges a character has to face in your story. Hand them some failure that sets them back and if you want to make it impressionable to your reader, make those failures debilitating. Say, for example, you have a master swordsman. He is awesome. No one can beat him even in twenty-to-one odds. Now, get him in a fight with a wizard where he loses his sword arm–chop that thing right off. He has to learn how to fight all over again. On top of that, he now has to weigh his battles carefully.
  2. Flaws in the backstory are meaningless unless they come into play in an actual scene. You want to “humanize” your MC with some trauma from their childhood? That’s an overused cliche in amateur writing as well, but that’s another post for later. That trauma is boring if it doesn’t come into play. For example, you have a young man who is sorcerer attempting to overthrow the evil king, but past abuse from his father causes him to freeze up. The evil king casts a spell to look just like his father, and the sorcerer is powerless, just stands there, and is captured, tortured, and sentenced to death.
  3. Make your character rely on others to achieve victory, and make that an endeavor as well. I’m not talking about him leading troops. I’m talking about he needs others to help him overcome a particular challenge. Bob from Accounting can’t see Sue the VP to convince her to fund Project Z; however, Jack, who … umm … works closely with Sue, can slide that proposal on her desk. But as life would play, Jack likes to play both teams and desires Bob too, so Bob has to figure out how to get Jack to agree to meet with Sue while not having to cave into Jack’s unbridled lust (and irritate his constant bickering wife).
  4. Bring the power level down. If you play Dungeons and Dragons or similar table-top role-playing games, you’ll know that your characters have a level assigned to them which measures their power and abilities. A 1st level wizard is no match for a 20th level wizard. In your story, you don’t want your character start right off as a 20th level wizard because if you do, your character won’t grow and achieve a pinnacle of power if you have a whole series of books planned out.

In summary, ensure your characters have flaws purposely created to give your story tension and drama. Your readers will appreciate your MC’s efforts to try to overcome or circumvent those obstacles.

Happy writing!