“She’s in her own little world.”
“It’s a world all it’s own.”
“This will make a world of difference.”
We’re exposed to references about the world every day in our conversations and daily reading. So it’s no wonder there’s a great deal of importance attached to “world building” in commercial fiction.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking world building applies only to science fiction and fantasy. It may be true that Smurgledorfs on planet Smurgadore live under three suns and drink motor oil for breakfast, and the elves of Ohminshire cure their sick with potions made from frog spit and magic owl pellets, but such stories don’t corner the market on world building. A unique world is just as important in a story about a twenty-first century homeless family struggling to survive in a city park, or a murder mystery centered around corporate law in urban America.
World building needs to satisfy two basic needs a reader has when indulging in the entertainment of fiction. One, they want to experience something new and different. And two, they want something familiar they can relate to. It’s a dichotomy that challenges the writer to satisfy both needs while creating a compelling story in a unique world suited to the characters and their story goal.
For the fantasy or science fiction writer, it’s a given that we must create an imaginative environment to grab our readers. We design our worlds with an exclusive physicality and geography that has its own social, psychological and political issues. These will be relatable in some way to our readers. Smurgledorfs may drink motor oil like we drink our morning coffee for a caffeine fix, but they also have families and jobs and relationships. They struggle for love, fight for freedom, and grieve for lost ideals like the rest of us. They just do it in a world different from the one we’re used to.
As for that homeless family living in cardboard boxes in a city park, their world is different from the Joneses living in a suburban ranch style home five miles away. The environment may appear similar to what readers have seen before, but when experienced through the characters’ perspectives, an entirely new world emerges. It allows us to imagine what it might be like to be cold and hungry, to scavenge for food and clothing, to miss what we once had and hope to someday have again. As a result, we’re exultant over every goal achieved and cheer that much louder when dad gets a new job and his daughter wins the scholarship of her dreams.
So with world building, it’s not only about place and time for a setting. It goes far deeper than that. Your world is intrinsically linked with the characters who breathe life into your story and create a satisfying experience for your readers.
The next time you plot a novel and develop your characters, be sure to pay as much attention to your story’s world as you do to everything else. It will make a world of difference to your book.