Making Your Worlds Come Alive


I have posted here before about worldbuilding, and no doubt I will again.  Only a month or so ago, Benjamin Tate gave  us an excellent guest post on the subject.  But I have been thinking about worldbuilding in a new way since beginning work on the Thieftaker books, which are my first set in a “real world” place (namely pre-Revolutionary Boston).

When I began the project I thought that I wouldn’t have any worldbuilding to do at all.  The world didn’t need to built, right?  It was real — the history had been written, there were maps, drawings, written descriptions.  I didn’t have to come up with street names, I didn’t have to imagine a political system or religions or any of the other things I come up with when I do worldbuilding for my imagined worlds.  It was all there for me.  Well, except the magic system, which I had to develop on my own.  And I also needed to fit my own characters and imagined plot lines into the existing world and history.  But aside from all of THAT there was nothing to be done, right?


In recent weeks I have come to the conclusion that every author of fiction does some worldbuilding.  I don’t care if you write “literary fiction,” mystery, romance, SF, or fantasy, you still have to establish a world for your narrative.  You can call it setting, ambiance, context, scenery — whatever.  It’s worldbuilding.  And good worldbuilding is an ongoing process that involves much more than simply laying the groundwork for your story.  Worldbuilding in a real world setting means doing research, figuring out how your characters and their lives fit in with the existing setting.  So, for instance, I had to learn about the neighborhoods of 1760s Boston.  I had to figure out how people got their food, how they kept their homes warm in the winter (if they did), how they traveled from one part of the city to another.  I had to learn all that I could in order to make Boston seem like something more than a place mentioned in a history book.  In writing the Jane Yellowrock books, Faith needed to find out all she could about about post-Katrina New Orleans.  Yes, she already knew the region.  But she needed to learn it again, street by street, house by house at times.  And then, just as I had to insert a magical subculture into my real world setting, she had to create a vampire subculture in hers.  (And she did it brilliantly, by the way.)

Still these are examples from our genre that demand additional worldbuilding beyond simply “learning the place.”  Surely a mainstream novel — no magic or vampires or photon torpedoes — set, say, in New York City wouldn’t demand worldbuilding. Would it?  Yes, I think it would.  There are people who haven’t been to NYC, people who this mainstream author hopes will buy the book.  So the author has to make the city come alive for these readers.  They have to be able to see and smell and hear the city.  They have to get a feel for the main character’s neighborhood; they have to feel at home in the MC’s apartment.  That is worldbuilding.  And that is why I say that worldbuilding is an ongoing process.

When we develop characters we figure out as much about them as we can prior to writing our story or novel.  We create character sketches, figure out the important details of their lives, etc.  But we don’t stop there.  We continue to develop those characters throughout the story.  We should do the same thing with our worlds.  Let me put it this:  You can set up your world and then just forget about it for the rest of the time you’re writing your book.  And what you’ll end up with is something like the dioramas that you see in the background of a display at a natural history museum.  It might be pretty.  It ought to be accurate in what it represents.  It will certainly look better than a blank wall.  But it’s not compelling or exciting; it’s not alive.

On the other hand, you can continue to tease out details of your world throughout your story, making the setting as much an actor on your narrative stage as your characters themselves.  Let’s go back to Faith’s work for a moment.  This passage from Skinwalker took my breath away:

The smell of seafood, spices, hot grease, and people filled the air.  Food and liquor, exhaust and perfume, vamps and witches, drunks and fear, sex and desperation, and the scent of water.  Everywhere, I was surrounded by water, the power of the Mississippi, the nearby lakes, the not-too-distant reek of swamp.  The overlay of coffee with chicory, the way they brewed it here.  The scent combinations were heady.

The streetlights hid as much as they revealed, like an aging exotic dancer hiding behind fans or party balloons.  Music poured from bars and restaurants, rich with jazz licks and dripping with soul.

Wow.  That is some kickass worldbuilding.  I’ve been to New Orleans.  I’ve seen and it and smelled it and tasted it and heard it.  And that is exactly what it was like.  Except, of course, I haven’t been to Faith’s New Orleans.  There were no vamps and witches when I was there.  But she works it all in seamlessly, melding the New Orleans we know with the one she has imagined to create something visceral and real and utterly compelling.  This is what worldbuilding is supposed to be.  It’s not something she did, described for us and then forgot about.  It is immediate and constant.  It is a process.  We feel the energy of the place, we experience its sights and sounds and smells, but we also feel Jane’s frustration at what remains hidden.  And we sense as well — hinted at in that passage about all the city is concealing — the seediness of the city, the sadness of an aging beauty that has seen and lost too much.

When we convey imagery from our world we reinforce our worldbuilding, but we also ought to reinforce our narrative, our character work, our themes.  Telling our readers about our world for its own sake doesn’t accomplish anything from a storytelling point of view.  What makes Faith’s worldbuilding work so well in the passage above is the way she uses the worldbuilding to deepen every other element of the novel.  Guy Gavriel Kay is another author who does this extremely well.  His worlds are incredibly rich, and as he reveals more and more about the places he has created, he ties mythology and religion, history and politics to the struggles of his characters and the conflicts driving his narrative.  Worldbuilding for him is not merely a body of background work, or a few bright details thrown in as an afterthought.  It is integral to all that he seeks to do with his books.

So as you work on your worldbuilding, think not only about what you need to convey to your reader about your world in order to make the story clear.  Consider as well how you might use details from your world to reinforce the growth of your characters and the course of your plot.  Use imagery — try to make at least some of the similes, metaphors and analogies you use in your prose relate back to your worldbuilding, as Faith does with the fan dancer.  Use the language of your world — the turns of phrase and expressions used by the people in it — to reinforce important elements of its history and culture, as I suggested a while back in my post about curses.  Or delve deeper and find ways to parallel older myths and historical events with the plot lines of your own story.

When I pick up a fantasy novel, I want to be transported to someplace wondrous, someplace that fires my imagination.  When I write my own stories, I try to give that same experience to my readers.  And so I try to weave my worldbuilding into every aspect of my storytelling, and in doing so I hope to make my worlds come alive.

What fantasy worlds have you most enjoyed visiting?  What have you done with your own worlds to make them feel real and vibrant?

David B. Coe

33 comments to Making Your Worlds Come Alive

  • Mikaela

    A great post, David. I can really relate too it. I have an idea that I would love to write, but I haven’t. The main reason is that it takes place in the Ozark. I admit it. I am afraid. But I’ll write it. As soon as I finish this revision…

  • “Use imagery — try to make at least some of the similes, metaphors and analogies you use in your prose relate back to your worldbuilding, as Faith does with the fan dancer.”

    This is a great point, David. If a writer can bring their imagery full circle back around to their world-building, they’ve really done something special. It’s harder than it sounds, but SO effective when it works.

  • Deb S

    As a kid, I always fantasized about living on Pern. It was easy, the world felt so real. I knew the politics and the history, of course, knew every Hold, Crafthall and cliff-carved Weyr. But what made it real was the way all of that was nuanced into the details of characters’ daily lives. What they ate, what they wore, and where they lived was a reflection of that world’s culture. Oh, and the thought of bonding with a dragon? Yeah, sign me up.

  • I’ve always thought historical fiction was akin to fantasy when it comes to worldbuilding, but I never really considered it for other mainstream genres. With Thieftaker you’ve got both the historical and the fantasy side of things which, I imagine, creates one complicated and huge task of worldbuilding for you. I can’t wait to read it!

  • Lankhmar. Decadent and smoggy and dangerous and I couldn’t have loved the idea of it any more than I did. I wanted to drink in the Silver Eel and be a thief like the Mouser and hide behind ale barrels if the gods of Lankhmar ever went walking out. It isn’t a pretty place, but it won my heart.

  • Thank you, Mikaela. Sounds to me like you’ve got a great excuse to do some traveling! I always loved creating new worlds for my work, but I’ve been surprised and pleased by how much fun it’s been to research and write about real places. Good luck!

    It is hard, Ed, but also incredibly rewarding when it works. I think this is one of the reasons why fantasy writers tend to write so many books in the same world. There is an investment of time and creative energy that pays off more and more as a series progresses. By the time I’d finished my Forelands and Southlands books I felt like I had this kind of world-specific imagery down. But it took being steeped in those worlds.

    Deb, yes, Pern is one of those imaginary worlds that truly comes to life in the books. McCaffrey wa san early favorite of mine, in part because I loved picking up one of her books and immediately being transported. Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books were like that for me, too. Thanks for the comment.

    Stuart, I do think there are similarities between historical and fantasy, although I find historical harder and also more rewarding. Harder because when you get something even slightly wrong you HAVE to fix it. There’s no fudging it. Some reader is going to catch the error if you don’t. I recently discovered that I had made a huge mistake in setting up 1760s Boston. I was able to fix it, but it took a lot of work. I say historical is also more rewarding, because of those wonderful moments when you find some cool little historical tidbit that is just too cool for words, and then you get to use it in your book. I’ve had a couple of those with the series. And I can’t wait until it’s in print so that people can see it. Sadly, it looks like the release is still about a year away.

  • Okay, I have to admit, Misty, that I had never heard of Lankhmar. I just googled it. Looks like there are a few Leiber books that I need to read….

  • Oh gosh, David, now I’m jealous that you get to experience Lankhmar for the first time. Have fun!

    I say historical is also more rewarding, because of those wonderful moments when you find some cool little historical tidbit that is just too cool for words, and then you get to use it in your book.

    No kidding! My WIP is set in Nebraska in 1876, and last night while reading a reference book, I noticed that Wild Bill Hickok was killed in August 1876. I practically ran to the desk to scribble some notes for inserting Hickok into the story. How could I not? *grin*

  • David, I’m not sure how to respond here. I admit to being flummoxed. Honored. Flustered. Thank you for your kind words.

    I envy you and Misty writing alternate / real history. It sounds like such fun. Makes me want to try a new genre!

  • Yes, Misty, that’s exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about! Have fun!

    Faith, I certainly didn’t mean to flummox or fluster. Honored is good. The passage truly moved me and seemed a perfect way to illustrate my points about worldbuilding. So dive into the discussion and tell us how you approach this stuff when you’re writing!

  • Mikaela

    David, if I wait until I can afford travel to Arkansas I’ll never write it. I’ll just have to use guidebooks instead. I discovered the Insider’s guide today. Guidebooks written by locals.

  • that’s the next best approach, Mikaela. If I can make a suggestion, there may well be coffee-table-style photography books on the region. And you might be able to find them used on Ebay or at Powell’s books. A photography book of that sort can be incredibly helpful as you write.

  • Sarah Naumann

    What a great post! Especially the part about setting your story in the *real* world and connecting the plot to *real world* history was helpful, since I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a historical fantasy myself. I’d like to revisit late medieval Germany during the great witch hunts. As a real witch, how do you hide when pretty much everybody is looking to find and burn you? (Somebody has probably already written this kind of story, but I am simply itching to write this…) During my recent research I have been quite happy about having the advantage of being a native of said country and therefore fluent in German. That way I have access to a bunch of interesting texts and documents: I’ve even found some spells/chants in Old High German – never seen anything like it…
    Reading-wise I loved the world of Patrick Rothfuss’ “Name of the Wind” and I am always excited to return to Kim Harrison’s Cincinnati!

  • Mikaela

    Thank you, David! I hadn’t thought of getting a coffee table book.

  • Thanks, Sarah. Your book idea sounds fascinating. And having access to those old documents in the original German should allow you to find some research gems. Because my book is set at a time when witchcraft was still feared and accused witches were put to death, I’m getting to play with similar issues, and it really is interesting.

    My pleasure, Mikaela.

  • Shawna

    This post really came at a perfect time for me. I’ve been struggling with the setting for the contemporary fantasy I’ve been working on, unable to decide if I want to set the story in a real place or a fictional city. Right now the setting is very vanilla-ville; Anytown USA at its worst. It’s such a non-setting that the story is more or less moving through white space, and that’s no good at all.

    So while I’m still waffling between a real place vs. a fictional one (The only real world place I know well enough to be willing to set my story in is my old home town, and I’m still uncomfortable using it, for some reason) this article made me realize that the worst thing I can do is avoid the question entirely. Even if I do opt for a fictional city, I’m not doing the story any favors at all by neglecting the setting to the point where even I can’t visualize it.

    So thanks for that, David!

  • Young_Writer

    I’ve been wanting to write a book that partially took place in Sagion and during the war. Too bad I realized my character and I had a little misunderstanding and he was really in Chicago during the Great Depression. I honestly think making your own world is easier, but I might just be the oddball here.

  • Shawna, if I can offer a suggestion, I think you can go ahead and use your home town, but change the name and some key details and you’ll be fine. You’ll be able to get the flavor and ambiance without making it such a match for the real place that you get in trouble. The important part, as you say, is to get beyond that feeling of “white space” and make it feel real. This isn’t all or nothing. It doesn’t have to be real or imagined. It can be an amalgam of places you’ve experienced. Give it a plausible name and voila: fictional home town. Best of luck with it.

    Alexa, as I say in my reply to Stuart above, I agree with you to some degree. Real world (historical or contemporary) can be much harder than imagined, because you have to get things right. You can’t fudge it or make it up. It has to be recognizable to those who know the place. Which is not to say that imagining worlds is easy, or that worldbuilding in that sense can be sloppy. Created worlds should be crafted, they should be consistent and logical. But you can make up what a part of an imagined city looks like. If you’re writing about Depression Era Chicago, you need to get your details straight. So, nope, you’re not the oddball. You’re right on the money.

  • David said: >>So dive into the discussion and tell us how you approach this stuff when you’re writing!…Shawna, if I can offer a suggestion, I think you can go ahead and use your home town, but change the name and some key details and you’ll be fine. You’ll be able to get the flavor and ambiance without making it such a match for the real place that you get in trouble.>>

    I was at work in the lab when I read this post, David, and I have to admit I sat there and cried. My boss walked in, and then I got tickled. (grins) That’s why I was so flustered. But honored. Oh my. Yes.

    I think we all have strengths and weaknesses as writers, just as artists and photographers and musicians have strengths and weaknesses. Mom is an artist, and as a child I used to sit across the basement in the dark, watching her paint. (Across the basement because she *never* allowed us to watch). She would blend the paints, adding a dab of this color, a dab of that, swirling her brush to mix the colors *just right* before applying them to the canvas. She had a dozen brushes in use at any one time. The stink of solvents filled the air. I was horribly jealous of her gift, while I sat there in the dark, a kid with no talents.

    When I discovered the joy of writing, I used the lessons absorbed from mama, the words like pigments on the palette of my mind, mixing and swirling and then applying them to the paper. This *painting* method of writing makes world building and description far easier for me than, say, plotting. Plotting is just plain ol’ *hard work*.

    Shawna, I second David’s advice. When the AKA (Gwen Hunter) wrote the Rhea Lynch MD series, I took Chester County, and the county seat, Chester, off the SC map and replaced them with Dawkins County and Dorsey City. But I used the map of the city, county, and buildings, political structure, history, and then changed anything I wanted. It made things so much easier for me!

  • Faith, that makes total sense. My brother is an artist and was a prodigy, painting magnificently by the time he was 15. I was six years younger and envied his talent. I already loved writing stories, but I was a long way from being an accomplished writer. And yes, I see so many similarities between what he does and what I do. I love the analogy of mixing pigments on a palette.

  • Shawna

    That’s a brilliant idea! That halfway approach never even occurred to me, but that sounds like an excellent way of getting down the flavor and detail of a place without having to fret over inaccuracies. And I do fret. I fret like it’s my job. That’s probably why I’m so fond of fantasy. It’s seems much easier making a world out of whole cloth rather than risk missing an important detail in your research.

    Honestly, I think this is what has been stalling me so hard on this novel; now maybe I can start moving forward on it again. It’s a huge weight off my shoulders, thanks guys!

  • Sorry to be so late and to have so little to say other than, yes, totally agree. Great post 🙂

  • Glad to help, Shawna!

    Thanks, A.J.

  • Young_Writer

    Shawna, that’s what I’m worried about! And thanks, David. And I think I might need a more modern setting… I’m confused. I need to teach my characters how to actually converse. 😉

  • Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar was my escape. What can I say: I was a horse-lover growing up.
    But as far as world building… Maps! I love creating detailed maps, especially on yellowed paper with burned edges and in black pen and watercolor… And to create it properly I have to think about everything from tectonic plate shifts, geology, air and sea currents, all of which effect climate and weather and vegetation; then there is city placement in reguards to land structure… perhaps I get a bit too caught up in it. LOL But then I can see the world, and imagine my character there, and it all comes together. Then the problem is trying not to over-describe things…

  • My biggest problems with using my hometown is that my hometown is, frankly, boring. And for one of the works I’ve got going, I needed a subway. Well…technically, I don’t NEED a subway, but it works for the scenes and my experiences in traveling the subway in NY on a vacation kinda stuck with me and was begging to be used. That’s an item that’s not easy to take and transport to a fictional town, along with China Town, for reason that everyone knows that very few places have one. So, I either stick with what I know and/or can learn of NY or make a whole new fictitious city that happens to have one, or scrap the subway and use another scene entirely.

  • Alexa, yeah, this stuff isn’t easy. But changing the town names to protect the not-so-innocent can be a good place to start.

    J, I’m with you. I LOVE map making. I have a Ph.D. in environmental history and so am fascinated by the ways in which terrain and climate influence human behavior, including settlement patterns. In a way it’s good that I’m working in the real world now, because I used to spend weeks on my maps….

    Daniel, there is something to that, although lots of cities had “Chinatowns” — L.A., S.F., N.Y. to name just three. And many cities have subway or “L”s or metros. So you could combine them into a fictional town or use any one of them. Or you could take a vacation to NY and explore (and eat in good restaurants) all in the name of “research.” Personally, I like that last option… 😉

  • Oh, if I could afford it I’d definitely take a trip to NY again. Went a number of years ago to a Fangoria Convention. Yeah, this foodie was in gourmand heaven with the restaurants. Just like I was in N’awlins. It was the New Orleans French Quarter that gave me the taste for chicory coffee with raw turbinado sugar.

  • And what you’ll end up with is something like the dioramas that you see in the background of a display at a natural history museum. It might be pretty. It ought to be accurate in what it represents. It will certainly look better than a blank wall. But it’s not compelling or exciting; it’s not alive.

    This part really stood out for me, probably because it sums up the post.

    As for which settings have stood out for me:
    Tamora Pierce’s Alanna: the First Adventure, where she describes the city of Corus – that felt alive. So did Robin McKinley’s description of the colonial town of Istan and its desert landscap in The Blue Sword. In both cases, the characters seemed to weigh themselves against these new-for-them settings.

    And it makes me realize that I haven’t been doing that as much as I could. Maybe a brief setting that the character is passing through doesn’t need a lot, but maybe that necessitates making the chosen words that much more evocative and specific. Good thing I’m doing rewrites right now; this seems a vital thing to remember. Thanks!

  • J (and David), that’s awesome. I thought I was the only one who spent time on maps because of my geography degree. It really does help me for the spatial setting; I like having details about where my characters live, are going, and came from. 🙂

  • Daniel, we took our girls to NYC last summer and had more wonderful meals in four days than we’d had in the previous 10 months. Amazing food of any and every ethnicity.

    Moira, thanks for the comments. I’ll have to check out the books you mention. And I think you’re right: I make a point of trying to rid my writing of “throwaway” characters. Everyone should have three dimensions, from the main protagonist down to the least important person my hero meets. And perhaps I need to take more time to make certain that I also have no throwaway settings. A new way to challenge myself. Thank you!

  • Alan Kellogg

    I’ve been slowly organizing my apartment and I came across World Builder by Gary Gygax and Dan Cross (ISBN 1-931275-22-X) From Troll Lord Games. It’s a book about the things you may find in a world. It’s divided into three parts — Stock in Trade, Geographics, and Dwellings — and covers subjects such as material hardness, common uses for wood, and construction costs. It’s a supplemental work meant to be used to help flesh out a setting and give it more depth. For instance you have a list of cloth and clothing material types on p42, ranging from buffalo hide to worsted wool.

    Then you have Living Fantasy by Gary Gygax (ISBN 1-931275-34-3) which deals with the physical and culture landscape of the typical fantasy world, but which could be adopted for most any kind of world depending on how you approach your task. “A Day in the Life” p141 gives an overview of daily life for folks such as beggars, laborers, and mages.

    There are more in the series, but it doesn’t look like Troll Lords has then in stock anymore. You may be able to find them used on the Web.

    Finally there is the World Builders Guidebook by Richard Baker (ISBN 0-7869-0434-8 out of print), which covers actual world creation from cosmology to physical and cultural geography. Involves a fair amount of dice rolling, though you can always pick and choice as you so desire.

    I have more books on world building if anybody’s interested.

  • Thanks very much for the book titles, Alan. Those sound great.