The Key to a Great Story – The Basics of World-Building


Earth from space

It is great having characters and a plot, but without a story world to put them in there is very little point in having developed either. Likely as now you have some vague idea of the world you which for your characters to inhabit, but if you don’t, then in this next series of posts I’m going to be discussing a few basics about where to start building your world.

I have to admit they are just going to be basics for the moment, but in planning this section of the ‘The Key to a Great Story’ I realised that world-building, especially for fantasy books, is something that could very easily have an entire blog series dedicated to it, so in the future that is exactly what I am doing to do, but for now I’ll just outline the basics for you.

World-Building in the scheme of my blog series, based on the quote from Elliot Carver in Tomorrow Never Dies, covers two of the questions; ‘where’ and ‘when’. ‘Where’ is the one I will focus on first, for one key reason; in order to be able to construct ‘when’ in terms of story building, you have to go back to ‘who’ (characters) and ‘what’ (plot), and combine them with ‘where’ as well. ‘When’ will be covered in the next section to run after this one, which will focus on ‘where’.

Defining ‘where’ though is not as simple as pointing on a map and saying that is where the story is set. It can be as basic as that, for example in Benedict Jacka’s novels about Alex Verus, the shop that the protagonist runs is located in Camden, London. Now that is a fairly simple location to be able to pinpoint on a map. The same can be said of Trudi Canavan’s ‘The Black Magician’ series which is set in the city of Imardin, in the country of Kyralia. There are maps of this city and country included in the books, so you can see where everything is set.

However, world-building is not just about locations, it is about everything to do with the space and the place where your characters live and your plot takes place. One of the first things that a writer needs to consider is what World Type you are going to use. I’ve identified four world types that I will be discussing in the following posts;

  • Reality – A story set in our world which has or does exist.
  • Fantasy – A world created entirely by the author, like Kyralia I mentioned above or like Middle Earth created by J.R. R. Tolkien. 
  • Parallel  – Reality does exist, but there is a fantastical parallel world that exists alongside it; like with the Benedict Jacka’s books, but also Harry Potter is a parallel world. This is commonly known as urban fantasy.
  • Futuristic – Fairly self explanatory. Can be based on reality but set in the future; very commonly found in Dystopian fiction. Also in utopian creations like Star Trek. Can also be a fantasy world, but with futuristic elements.
  • Alternative – This is based on the real world, but is an alternative version; for example they might have a different historical timeline, and differences in technological development. Steam-punk is an alternative world and Kate Elliot’s work like ‘Cold Magic‘ where history has been changed.

Naturally of course it isn’t as simple as this basic description, but I will explore this more in the posts dedicated to them.

The other thing I will be looking at is the composition of the world that you need to build. This will be more theoretical in nature than what I normally post about, especially by Micro/Macro world theory. This basics is the different between the ‘Micro’ world of your characters, and how that fits into the ‘Macro’ world, or the wider world. For example, I live in Newcastle, in North East England, and my ‘Micro’ world largely consists of my home, my workplace and places like the swimming pool and restaurants that I visits regularly. The Macro world I live in though consists of the wider world, such as Great Britain and Europe which have an affect on my life, but perhaps not on a daily basis nor on a small scale.

World building can be very simple and it can also be incredibly complex but which you choose is entirely up to you. Hopefully over the next few posts I’ll be able to give you some pointers on what you need to think about.


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