Tuesday, April 19, 2016

6 Worldbuilding for Contemporary and Speculative Fiction

There's a misconception about world building. Beginning writers often think it applies only to speculative fiction, but that couldn't be further from the truth.

The best contemporary books, the best books of all types, create fictional worlds that are complete with all the elements of the finest fantasy. That's how they become so vivid that readers see them clearly and want to continue living in them. If you've read Laini Taylor's DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE series, you know that the world of Karou's Prague, including the Poison Kitchen, the art studio, all the places that Karou shares with Zuzana, are as magical and memorable as Brimstone's shop and the magic world of the chimaera. Blue's house, Monmouth Manufacturing, and Aglionby Academy are just as magical in their own ways as Cabeswater in Maggie Stiefvater's THE RAVEN BOYS. Think of the world of the Scottish Highlands created in Janet B. Taylor's INTO THE DIM for a more recent example.

So what are the elements of world building? Here's a brief list, in what happens to be my favorite order.

  • That Which Makes It Different: Every successful book begins with something unique, something truly original. The world either helps to create this difference or helps to illustrate it. What can you add to your world that is different than any book that has ever been done before?
  • That Which Makes It Relevant and Relatable: This includes not only the "What If?" question that probably got you started on the story in the first place, but also the emotional hook that makes you feel for your characters.
  • People: Who are the characters? Who are they as individuals? What do they look like and how do they live and behave? How do they work? Eat? What are they afraid of? What do they believe in? How do they pay for goods and services? They're not going to be homogenous, so consider the depth and extent of their differences on a physical, moral, cultural, economic, and social level. How do they perceive the difference? What separates the haves from the have-nots? What do they look down on? To what do they aspire? How does that effect the story?
  • Community: Great books often have a group of people who are connected through events and shared experience, past or present. They develop their own codes of communication based on bonds of family, enmity, and friendship, and that code separates them from outsiders. (Think of "No mourners" from SIX OF CROWS.) What language and experiences do your main characters share? How does this bond them and how does it distance other people? What problems and solutions does this community create within your book?
  • Rules: Every community has rules. In fantasy, there are usually rules of magic, but beyond those, societies, families, schools, religions, friends--they all have rules that the characters adhere to, fight against, and work around. In speculative fiction, you have to get even more basic, of course. Science fiction and fantasy may have different physical rules. Even something as basic as gravity may be different. There may be a very different amount of water in your world, a different environment, a different sky. You need to discover these differences and record them, either before or while you write.
  • Locations: Within your larger world, whether that is Earth or another planet or universe, you will have locations where your characters interact. These have to be unique. Whether they are on this planet or another, in this time or another, make them characters in their own right, different from similar establishments and locations within that world. Here's where you become your own entrepreneur. Whether you're creating a restaurant, a school, a beach, a shop, a plantation, or a palace,  set your imagination loose and make it a place where your characters will love, or hate, or aspire to be, or dream of escaping from. As long as they aren't indifferent to these locations, your readers won't be either. Make sure you create that emotional connection for the small places, and you'll be creating one for the world in general.

World building Begins With the Very First Sentence

Jessica Brody, author of THE BOYS OF SUMMER, the UNREMEMBERED trilogy, and a slew of other wonderful books, and Janet B. Taylor, author of INTO THE DIM--both of whom create wonderful fictional worlds!--join me in a new video talking about some of their favorite opening lines. At the end of the video, I share the opening lines for upcoming new books from Laini Taylor and Sabaa Tahir.

What do these openings have in common? They begin to reveal the uniqueness of their worlds right from the opening line.

About the Author

Martina Boone is the author of Compulsion and Persuasion, out now in the romantic Southern Gothic Heirs of Watson Island trilogy from Simon & Schuster, Simon Pulse. Illusion, the final book, will be out in October of 2016. Martina is also the founder of AdventuresInYAPublishing.com, a three-time Writer's Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers Site, and YASeriesInsiders.com, a site dedicated to encouraging literacy and reader engagement through a celebration of series literature. She's on the Board of the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia and runs the CompulsionForReading.com program to distribute books to underfunded schools and libraries.

What About You?

What are your favorite fictional worlds? What makes them unique and special?


  1. There's a little book called Rainbird, about a civilization built inside the bones of a continent-sized dragon that crashed from the sky. They use one of its eyes as a sun, hooked to a track that runs along the underside of the spine. Notice I didn't say the dragon was dead. Fascinating setting. Those kind stick with you long after you close the book.

    1. Wow. I'm going to have to check that one out. That's insanely cool! Thanks for sharing, Kessie!

  2. Love seeing you in video, Martina! And the "first lines" topic is always a favourite of mine.

    1. Thanks, Lia! Hope you'll share some of your favorites sometime soon. : )

  3. Oh, I did love Karou's world, which made me want to visit Prague even more than I already did. And I'm still enjoying Blue's world. Cabeswater is beyond description, except in the hands of Maggie Stiefvater.

    1. Right? I'm dying for my copy of THE RAVEN KING to arrive. Actually, I already have the digital, but I'm afraid to start before I turn this book in to my agent.


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