Creative Intersections: Worldbuilding and Plot


Today, I continue my series of Creative Intersection posts with a discussion of plot and worldbuilding (You can find the first Creative Intersections post here, and the second one here).  Many of you asked for posts that would tie plot to pretty much anything, and as I begin work on the third Thieftaker book, City of Shades, I am still thinking a lot about worldbuilding and research, so this seemed a natural combination.  Sort of.  

Sometimes, the intersections I discuss in these posts will be fairly obvious.  The last one I did — plot and character — is a good example of this.  Tying together story arc and character arc is a fairly intuitive thing to do.  As our narratives develop, so do our characters, and since so much of our plotting revolves around our characters’ emotional journeys, the relationship just makes sense.

As it turns out, this week’s blend — plot and worldbuilding — is a little less obvious.  In fact, after I came up with the idea, I sat for about ten minutes thinking, “Well how DO plot and worldbuilding work together?  I mean, I know they do, but how?”  I finally had to break down my work on the Forelands books and the Thieftaker series to figure it out.

What I realized is that there are some parallels between setting and character, and that these parallels are reflected, albeit imperfectly, in their relationship with plot.  Worldbuilding, I believe, influences narrative development in three key ways, and I will touch on each.

1. Establishing conflict/tension:  A host of story elements contribute to the establishment of our initial story conflict.  Some of them relate to character, whether a single characters’ internal issues or the interaction between two or more different characters.  But “worldbuilding” also plays a role.  I put worldbuilding in quotes because in this case it can mean just about anything relating to setting, be it the circumstances present in a real-world setting, the research demanded by a historical setting, or the carefully crafted conditions of an imagined world.

For instance, in the Harry Potter world, part of the initial tension in the storyline relates to Harry’s history: the death of his parents; his terrible rapport with the Dursley’s; the fact that Voldemort wants him dead.  But the starting point for the very first book also owes a lot to the setting Rowling has created: the uneasy coexistence of a Muggle world and a magical world; the fact that wizards and witches are expected to attend Hogwarts when they reach a certain age; the rules surrounding the use of magic by underage wizards and witches.

In my own work, the age-old conflict between the Qirsi and Eandi in the Forelands and Southlands series lies at the root of everything that happens in the books, as does the magic system, which results in shorter lifespans for the Qirsi.  In the Thieftaker books, the rising tension between Boston’s colonists and authorities of the Crown in the 1760s serves as a backdrop for each storyline, and the fear of witchcraft that was rampant in Massachusetts in the eighteenth century makes Ethan’s use of magic a point of tension throughout each novel.  In short, worldbuilding provides a starting point for most fiction.  It may not be the only element of consequence in establishing plot lines; it may not be the most important of these elements.  But it certainly plays a role.

2.  Tying changing conditions in the world to a developing narrative:  This may well be where worldbuilding and character arc are most similar.  Just as characters change and grow in ways that help to steer us to various plot points, so do the changing circumstances in our worlds and settings influence the directions our narratives take.  Let’s look once more at some examples of this.

If we look again at the Harry Potter books, we can easily see how changes in the magical world shape the narrative arc (as well as the character arc — but that might be a topic for another Creative Intersections post!).  In the very first Harry Potter book, Harry’s personal development — his discovery of his magical abilities, his experiences at school, his friendships with Ron and Hermione — certainly form the core of the narrative.  But without the search for the Sorcerers’ Stone, without the rumors of a new stirring of the dark forces that had supported Voldemort (and, in the end, the first signs that Voldemort himself is back), without even the existing rivalries among the various houses of Hogwarts, Harry’s character arc would have no context, and the book would have no major plot points.

Similarly, in the Forelands books, the rivalries among the various royal houses, as well as the history of warfare between Eibithar and her neighbors, provide crucial narrative touchstones for the story of Tavis and his fall from grace.  In Thieftaker, the Stamp Act riots of August 26, 1765 make the rest of my storyline possible, not only because they provide a possible explanation for the fictional murder committed that same night, but also because they dramatically alter the political landscape in the city, upping the tension level and complicating Ethan’s investigation.

3.  Broadening the consequences of our story lines:  Character arc and story arc tend to end in very similar places.  The drama of our narratives is reflected in profound changes in our characters.  These parallels are less apparent with setting, though no less powerful if handled correctly.  Sometimes the resolution of our plots can have equally dramatic consequences for our worlds, and this can give additional emotional weight to our endings.  But our worlds are far bigger than any single character, and so there are other times when the denouement of a narrative can seem to have little impact on the world around our characters, and that, in its own way, can be equally poignant.

Once more, the Harry Potter books offer instructive examples.  [SPOILER ALERT] Obviously, the death of Voldemort at the end of the final book has enormous weight for the entire wizarding world, and even for the Muggle world, though few may be aware of it.  Harry is transformed; every character is.  And so is the world itself.  But at the end of the fourth book, Harry knows that Voldemort is back — which has, again, huge consequences for him.  But many in positions of power refuse to believe or acknowledge this, and so the world seems relatively unmoved by the tragedy of Cedric Diggory’s death.  And this too is incredibly powerful.  In both cases, the conclusions of Rowling’s narrative arcs are reflected in her worldbuilding, although in dramatically different ways.  But in both cases the “reaction” of her setting to her plot points carries emotional weight.

In the Forelands books, the resolution of my narrative conflicts is more similar to the 4th Harry Potter book model, and, I believe, is powerful because of this.  A war has been fought.  Characters who my readers love have died.  And yet, prejudice and mistrust between the races remains, making the suffering of my characters seem somewhat (though not entirely) futile.  That was intentional.  Wholesale change — a complete disappearance of all prejudice and hatred — would have felt contrived and utterly unrealistic.  And so my plotting was influenced by my setting, and also had an impact on my setting.  The Thieftaker books are similar in this respect.  My readers would not believe my stories if Ethan’s inquiries into murders changed the course of American Revolutionary history.  But I find ways to allow Ethan’s work to have an impact on historical events, and I also allow those historical events to shape the conclusions of his inquiries.

In my view, plot and worldbuilding ought to be tied together throughout the narrative arc of a novel, just as I made clear in my first Creative Intersections post that worldbuilding and character point of view are closely connected.  The bottom line — the point of this series of posts — is that it’s all connected.  There are no independent elements of storytelling.  When our narratives are working well they link together character, setting, and all the other ingredients of our stories.

So, how do you link plot and setting in your work.  Can you share with us some examples?

David B. Coe

24 comments to Creative Intersections: Worldbuilding and Plot

  • Mikaela

    I am pantsing a lot of things with my current WIP, but I love the world. I also love how past events affect the plot. Let’s take the dragons.
    Millenia ago, the dragons ruled this part of the world. They viewed the other races as slaves, especially the dwarves who they created. After awhile, the dwarves had enough, and fought back. The dragons disappeared, to the relief of everyone. Except… they have returned. And that shapes the whole plot, both indirectly and directly. *rubs her hands* My MC is in over her head. Or she will be. 😀

  • Great stuff, Mikaela. Sounds like tons of fun — to write AND to read.

  • sagablessed

    Current WIP: the daemons have rivalries and alliences to match MI5/CIA/KGB. There is inter-family drama as on cousin cnnot accept magic is real, even though his boyfriend was given a familiar. And the Weaver’s love interest is secretly working with one of the Eldest -beings older than time. Or so he thinks.

  • Ken

    Great post David. The story that our characters are involved in doesn’t happen in a vacuum and, just like in real life, sometimes the events of the world around them intrude, forcing our characters to react.

    Current WIP: The world is divided into “Haves” and “Have-nots” and money makes the world go around…even more so out on the edges where folks are scraping to survive. When a risky stunt that my MC takes turns out to earn her much less than she’d hoped for…she’s stuck between several bad choices and the reality that if she doesn’t come up with the means to pay an ever increasing docking fee, she’ll lose her livelyhood.

  • David, I want to address your post and then address our readers.

    You first, Darlin’! I adore a book/series where the world changes (as our RL own often does) and the characters and the plot have to change with it. When I was writing mystery/thrillers/medical-mystery series as Gwen, I discovered that changing worlds worked best with a series, as the changes in a world that might take place in a stand-alone and a shorter time frame made the world changes harder to predict, and way harder to use.(In my case the world was a modern rural hospital setting and rural county in the South.) Until I started the Jane Yellowrock series, I had never written a series longer than 4 books and the changing JY world has been a great way to blend/wrap character development and plot with and around the world changes. (Wow. That was a mouthful.) Anyway, Now that I’ve done this longer series, I totally see what you have said in this post, and I love using the fantasy world to make my character change and grow. The world seems to infiltrate every part of the story line, so picking out a single example is beyond me at the moment. (It *is* Monday.) BUt I totally see it.

    Now to our readers. A few of us are having trouble with the MW site. For instance, I just timed out when I tried to comment, which is *frustrating!!!*

    I need to know if others are having problems. If you are having trouble getting to the site, slow site-loading, timing out problems, or anything else, please email me at and tell me the problems you are experiencing and the system you are using. Ex: timing out on comments, MAC. Or slow loading, I-phone. Like that.

    We are trying to detect and fix the problems.
    Thanks! And Thanks David for helping

  • TwilightHero

    Plot and setting eh? I guess my backstory would fit.

    In my world, for the last 1200 hundred years or so, a benevolent mage-society oversaw the group of kingdoms where the story begins. The use of magic as a weapon was outlawed. Thirty years ago, a tyrant king set up his own mage-society in secret, the Reavers, whose purpose was exactly that, and began a decades-long war of conquest. The old order was torn down in the end, but the tyrant king died shortly after and was replaced by his son, a far better king and human being in general, who immediately ceased all hostilities, leaving the world in an uneasy peace. But his magic-society, generally hated and feared for its destructive powers, is now the only one left, and conscripts all who can use magic as a matter of course. Enter the MC, whose family was torn apart by the Reavers during said war, and who now discovers he can use magic and has no choice but to become what he never wanted to be: one of them.

  • It’s long, I’ve got a lot of backstory I had to think about and interweave…and this isn’t even all of it. But The Heartstone’s Heiress does all three, weaving worldbuilding, plot, and characters in a big web that I’ve had to take copious notes on to make it work so far. And I think it’s working…but I haven’t done my own revisions and sent it to betas to tear apart yet.

    Backstory: Long ago, the Heartstone of the world, source of all magic and life on the planet, was found and kept secreted by the Droghar who found it sacred, but didn’t fully understand it. However, an evil from beyond that once knew the Heartstone in its original form, learns of where it’s fallen and covets its final destruction (an even longer story they’re just learning in book 2), sending the dark races forth from another dimension to destroy it, along with a corrupt and fallen Shaper thought banished forever who wields great power in the form of Hell’s Heart, a fell stone of corruption that ties him to the power of the other world.

    Terrible battle ensued across all the lands of the Anshere and a human King of the line of Sennaka gives his life to keep Keleth Daen’s army from reaching the stone. Keleth manages to find it, but is thwarted by a group of Shapers from the races of the Anshere, and the daughter of the Sennaka king, a young apprentice Shaper with great potential. She gives of her own life to protect the stone and drive Keleth and his armies back beyond, though the stone is damaged. The Heartstone brings her back and a pact is made where the Sennaka line will always have a daughter, regardless of other siblings, and that girl will be given the shard that was broken from the Heartstone. She will make a pilgrimage to the Heartstone to rebalance it and keep the magic in the land. And everything was good.

    Until a war between neighbors nearly wiped out the Sennaka line and the pact was forgotten. Sennaka eventually returned to power, but the damage was done. Over time, magic fled the world. And one day, so too did the magical races, snuffed like a candle. Disappearing into the Nothing. And since the magical races had become secluded and secretive, no one noticed. And over time, even they were forgotten except for in legends and fairytales.

    Now the Shroud has fallen and the dark races are returning, led once more by the enslaved and undead Keleth Daen. And the saving of the world lies on the shoulders of a young, spoiled princess of Sennaka that will have to learn to trust a man she’s done nothing but annoy since they were children, if she is to save their world, bring back the races of legend and become The Heartstone’s Heiress.

  • Actually, if you want to report trouble with accessing the site, please contact us at That address goes straight to the webmaster. Thanks!

  • Oh, and I was having issues accessing the site and timing out a few days ago, but it hasn’t been bad for me since.

  • The setting in my new shiny definitely is affected by the plot. A generation ago, the fae locked the Grey–a death magic world–out of their world. The Grey ate the human world, though. Now the Grey is back, and this time they got through, so as my MC (one of a few survivors of the ruling class), makes her way through the world, she’ll see the changes. But they are also manifesting on her own body. She’s part Grey, though she doesn’t know it, so her own appearence is changing–eye color, skin color, that sort of thing. I’m not sure if her appearence is character or setting, or both, but that’s one environmental effect of the plot action.

  • In my YA, the magic system has a lot to play. The main character’s abilities with the winds saved her life as a child when her uncle tried to kill her, and her other abilities as a healer/lay-priestess mean that as a young adult, she sets out on a traditional year-long journey, which gives her context for a lot of the decisions she makes and roles she plays in the first book.

    In my UF, the main character’s ability to speak to ghosts kicks off the story, since she wouldn’t go to Boca Raton, FL without prompting, and her dead brother has been bugging her to go find out how he really died. When she gets mixed up with the Weekly World News-style tabloid her brother used to work for, the tabloid’s secrets (and the characters trying to protect those secrets) become a major plot point.

    I love this series, David! This holistic way of looking at things really does provide deeper insight. Thanks!

  • As always, Great Post, David! And this one is extremely timely for me.

    In my newest WIP (still in the world-building, plot, brain-busting stage), geological and weather events have direct impacts on how magic works (or misfires) and my quartet of magical mistake victims (and one cranky old wise woman with arthritis and menopause symptoms) must determine and resolve the cause of the earthquakes, burping volcanos, lightning storms, tsunamis, etc. before the work tears itself apart. I guess you could say my world-building IS my plot! 😀

    Slow loading AND timing out, here!
    (having to save posts so I can get them up on a second or third try)

  • This is one of the intersections I was most interested in reading about, and it was as helpful as I hoped!

    In my WIP, the MC is trying to start a new life and escape her violent past on a planet devoted to preserving the past, or at least Earth’s past (sort of like Colonial Williamsburg–a tourist destination with other fun things to do but basically a living musuem). Recently refugees from another planet have fled to this world, and the overcrowding/clash of cultures is causing problems. When violence erupts, the MC’s past make her a suspect.

  • quillet

    David, this post sent me off on a very productive thinking/scribbling session about my plot and my world. Thank you! I’m actually really pleased to see how interwoven I’ve made these things — so much so that I’m finding it really hard to choose just one example to share. Well, here goes nothing.

    My WIP is set in an island country that has been surrounded by an impassable magical maelstrom for so long, its inhabitants no longer believe in the existence of the rest of the world. The origins of the spell, its purpose and its authors, have all been forgotten, but my MC is on a quest that will (accidentally; he has no idea what’s coming! *author laughs an evil laugh*) drag ancient history into the present and shake the world. Literally.

    Sorry to be so vague, but if I got started on the details, I’d be here all night! 🙂

  • Hello. I’m afraid my world isn’t so imaginative as some of these places.:) My WIP takes places in modern day Colorado. The world my protag, Bethany, lives in is a relatively normal one, only with the coexistence of fey and wolves and boogiemen. She is learning to deal with the fey and wolves because she is in love with her boyfriend Matt, who is indeed a wolf , who is in constant friction with these wolf hating fey but when her life starts to become a playground for the boogieman, she has to learn how to weave realities of her dreams and her waking life.

    It become bothersome to her when she imagines things are there that aren’t there and when something is there she doesn’t believe it because believing it would mean that the boogieman was real and that her old childhood fears had a right to be there. This boogieman is creating a world for her that she can’t seem to stop herself from drowning in but even if she wants to, she can’t, because its her destiny. The boogieman wants her and he will get her at all cost. There are people around her who know this, there are people around her know nothing of this hidden world, so she doesn’t really know who to trust and know one knows if they can trust her anymore either.

    I think I answered the question and mastered the lesson. Yes???

  • @Misty, that email address does not work; the email bounced back to me. I did email Faith too. I haven’t been getting any of the post for about a week in a half. I receive the post via yahoo and I’m using Windows 8, if that helps some.

    @quillet, that book sounds awesome! What can be better than isolated people, magic and forgotten histories. In my He Is Watching book(on hold), the book really revolves around one person’s history or lineage but she refuses to remember it out of spite to the very people(the angels) she now vows to help (helps only so she can live). The books is about the gathering this group of people who will eventually make her realize who she was, why her people killed the angels, why she was one of the top ranking officers of her people and what that means for the future of the human race and angels. We have similar direction, I think.

  • My apologies for taking so long to respond to all of these — the site issues have mad eit impossible for me to access MW from home, which is inconvenient to say the least.

    Saga, that sounds great. I always love the summaries that end “Or so he thinks . . .”

    Ken, thanks. Glad you liked the post. Your approach is a great example of how the world’s impact on the story doesn’t have to be of the “the world is going to end in a fiery apocalypse” type. Thanks for sharing.

    Faith, I think the JY books are a great example of plot and worldbuilding interplay. Jane is totally shaped by her world, and yet her actions are constantly reshuffling circumstances for the next installment. That’s what keeps the stories so fresh.

    Twilight, yes, your backstory totally fits. Sounds like a fun, intriguing story!

    Daniel, the complexities of your background and storyline are impressive. Sounds like you’ll be able to mine this world for many books — the problem will be picking which ones to write! And thanks for the feedback on the site.

  • Emily, I love the idea of the characters’ appearance being both character and setting, and I like the setup for your project. Very cool.

    Laura, thank you. Glad you’re enjoying the series. I’m having fun with these posts. I like both stories, and particularly like building a UF around a tabloid!

    Lyn, thanks for the kind words and the site feedback. Your world is indeed the plot, and a very cool one. The Environmental Historian in me is intrigued!

  • SiSi, glad to know that you liked the post. And having just been in Colonial Williamsburg for a con appearance, and being a historian, I totally love the project’s set-up.

    Quillet, glad to know that I got you thinking (and scribbling!) No need to apologize about being vague — your summary gives me a great sense of what you’re doing with your world, without giving away stuff you don’t want to give away. Thanks!

    WaitForHim, yes you did! And your story sounds very imaginative. Thanks for sharing with us, and also for your site feedback and the kind comments to quillet!

  • I’m slow in posting, but that’s because I’m on a writers’ retreat, not because of site issues!

    To me, the more the world is a “character” the closer the link between worldbuilding and plot. In my current work (a contemporary YA), I have *nothing* to share. From my first completed novel, though, the worldbuilding involved an extensive religion, with a prophecy that was embedded in many of the daily life customs. The plot was about the resurrection of the goddess from that religion. So, yeah. Intertwined…

    Reading your post, David, the first thing I thought of was DUNE — with the desert culture intertwined with the desert savior…

  • Ooooo, David!!!! Environmental Historian? Hmm. How’s your Geological History? The real world geological setting I’ve targeted (as a start of course, artistic license and all that…) is the California Central Valley during the late Pleistocene. California is so wonderfully replete with all flavors of natural disaster!

  • ajp88

    Another terrific article, thanks for the fuel David! I’ll share a bit of how worldbuilding and plot collide for my ongoing WIP.

    When I redid the much of the design of the world, and introduced several new, important characters, I decided that one of the only fictional races I’d created would be relegated to the frozen north in a forced march akin to The Trail of Tears. This place experiences about 6-9 weeks free of snow a year, so it’s a rather horrible place to eke out a living.

    So, when the titular evil awakens and begins to search for allies in his plans to usurp the rule of the world, he sends an envoy to this tribal race. One of the rather cool notes I discovered on my revamped map was that in their settlement I had titled a forest The Nameless Wood (I think because I was running on empty that day). But to help convince these people to seek vengeance on those that had marched them here (ostensibly the “good guys”), the envoy brings up the titles for their landmarks that the rest of the world had assigned. Here they are, living in a place so miserable and forgotten and ignored that the world calls their greatest forest The Nameless Wood. This little fact burrows deep into the psyche of the only POV from one of the tribes, and it works as a turning point convincing him and his people to ally with the big bad guy of the trilogy.

    That’s just one of the easier to describe examples of how my world tangles with the plot. And one of my favorite little moments.

  • Mr. Coe, I’ve been dealing with writer’s block for a few weeks, and you just got me through it with this post. It’s just the pointer I needed.

    (I’ll make it up to you by buying one of your books.)

  • Mindy, wonderful point about the setting as “character.” I agree with you – that is the key to making this work: developing setting with the care and attention we give to sketching out characters. And yes, DUNE is the perfect example.

    Lyn, unfortunately my geological history is not great. I have some knowledge of the Pacific Northwest, which I wrote about in my dissertation. Have you read John McPhee’s BASIN AND RANGE? Not focused on California, but incredibly informative, and beautifully written.

    AJP, great example, and an intriguing premise for your WIP. Very cool. And thanks for the kind words — glad you liked the post.

    Deep, thank you!! So glad you found this helpful! And I appreciate the sale — hope you enjoy whichever book you get. 😉 (Call me David, please.)