Building Worlds from Scratch

One of my favorite things about writing fiction is the freedom to make your own rules. When you’re writing fiction, especially of the more fantastical varieties, the laws of our everyday world no longer apply. Time travel, magic, talking objects, flying animals… Everything is on the table.

Except that it’s not, really.

Because the thing about magical worlds is, no matter how far removed they are from reality, they have laws, too. There’s status, governance, basic infrastructure. There are rules — both political and metaphysical — governing the use of magic.

Let’s take two of my favorite magical worlds as an example:

Both worlds involve magic, but they have unique rules that really ground readers in the world. You’d be shocked if a letter-carrying owl tapped on the window of your own house this afternoon but, when you’re immersed in J.K. Rowling’s world, it’s a commonplace occurrence. And the magical worlds don’t mix, either. You’d wouldn’t see Sabrina on a Quidditch pitch, and it would be odd if Hermione started ointing her finger to perform charms.

Why are these rules so important?

When we invite readers into a made-up world, we’re asking them to suspend their reality-based expectations and embrace something brand new instead. But, in exchange, we have to offer them a new structure to help ground them in the new.

The key to a well-built world is, no matter how radical the expectations, readers know what to expect.

When readers are comfortable with how things work in the world, they can focus on the characters that inhabit it, and the story that’s unfolding.

So how do you build a world?

My favorite way to build a fictional world is a prewriting exercise I learned when I was studying playwriting in college.

You can define the world is by creating a palette just like a painter would.

She puts all the colors that belong on her painting on a board, leaving off the ones that definitely don’t. Then as she paints, she has all the possibilities she’s chosen right there in front of her to use and manipulate.

You can play the same game with your writing.

Your categories are (and feel free to add) Location, People, Soundscape, Rules, Vital Moments, and Theme. For each story, go through each category and make a list of elements that belong and elements that don’t.

Here’s an example – from Harry Potter again (HP is always a great example text, because it’s so well known and so well written). For the sake of brevity, I’ve limited the palette to the Gryffindor common room, and just four categories:

See what I’m doing? This exercise helps you create a reference chart. Whenever you’re uncertain about something you’re thinking about incorporating — or uncertain how to flesh out the world, you can go back to your lists and decide which new elements feel on-palette or off-palette.

The better you know your world, the more specific you can make it, and the clearer it’ll be to your readers. Prewriting exercises like this can help make your drafting process just a little easier.

What are your favorite world building exercises?