When you hear the word “worldbuilding,” you probably think of complex maps, made-up languages, and alien species. That is a type of worldbuilding that is common in science fiction and fantasy, but it’s not the only kind.
Worldbuilding is something every author engages in. Whether you’re writing a contemporary romance set in the real world or a high fantasy story set in a world of your creation, worldbuilding is an essential part of the writing journey. By approaching worldbuilding intentionally—no matter your genre—your story can feel more real and keep readers hooked.
What is worldbuilding?
Worldbuilding is the process of making your world feel real.
Every writer should include worldbuilding in their writing process, but the amount of effort needed may differ depending on your genre. Moreover, it depends on how the story’s world differs from our everyday world. For example, a story set in space would need more worldbuilding than a story set in a contemporary American high school.
No matter your story’s setting, it needs to feel real to the reader. In order for your world to feel convincing, the reader needs to understand how the world is shaping the events that the protagonist is experiencing. For stories set in our everyday world, we can intuitively understand how the world shapes the protagonists’ actions and reactions. But in a fantastical world, we likely need more detail to understand what is happening and what impact it has.
Worldbuilding can help you create an immersive experience for your readers by putting effort into making your world feel real. It helps you hook the reader and bring them into the space of your story. It’s important to transport and immerse your reader into the world of your story, but not to overwhelm them.
Types of worldbuilding
World building can be broken down into four main types, depending on how complex the world is.
“Normal world” worldbuilding is what we see in contemporary romance, contemporary Young Adult, New Adult, and college stories. These stories are set in the everyday, regular world that we know. In this kind of worldbuliding, we want to get a sense of the distinct details that give this place its character. For example, if your story is set in a high school, we want to have a sense of this individual high school, its social makeup, its weird traditions, etc.
Ask yourself: What are some features of your setting that are particular to this place and make it different from similar kinds of places? What’s important to the people here?
Niche Normal describes a type of worldbuilding that is still set in our regular world, but has an added layer of specificity that informs the plot of the story. We see this in sports romances and workplace romances, for example. Everything is the same as the regular world, but there’s a bit of extra context you need to convey to the reader so that they can understand what is going on. For example, if you’re writing a sports romance, share the structure of the league, what it means to win or lose any given game, and how the game is played. This information is needed to set the stage for the romance story.
Ask yourself: What particular experiences do your characters have because of the setting that they wouldn’t have outside of it? How does the setting shape the story’s conflict?
Trope World describes a worldbuilding where the story’s setting deviates from everyday life, but it deviates in established ways that are grounded in subgenre. Examples of this include regency romance, mafia, and werewolf. All of these subgenres take place in worlds a bit different from our regular world, where the rules of the society are slightly different from what the reader experiences in their everyday life. The settings vary from our everyday world, but there is little variation in the worlds of different stories or books. And this is a good thing—readers are passionate about Trope Worlds because the worlds are similar from story to story.
Ask yourself: What do you think readers like about this kind of world? What elements do they need to recognize the world they’re reading about?
Alternate World is the type of worldbuilding where the story world is completely different from our regular world. This can either be a fully invented different world like Middle Earth or the “galaxy far, far away”, or it can be attached to our contemporary world but with a lot of distinctive magic or tech elements. Alternate World worldbuilding is distinguished by its complexity; the reader has to take on a lot of new information in order to understand how the story works. As with all worldbuilding, the goal is to make the world feel emotionally real to the reader.
Ask yourself: What features of this world are unique? How does the magic or tech work? How much do the characters understand about how the world works? What is the history of the significant places in this world?
The purpose of worldbuilding is to make the world of the story feel real and emotionally engaging to the reader. Be sure to worldbuild with your character in mind. Be intentional with your details and shaping your character’s journey around the world they reside in. Use our breakdown above to figure out which type of worldbuilding your story needs and what details are key to transporting your reader to the setting of your story. Lastly, always remember that successful worldbuilding is about transporting and immersing the reader, not overwhelming them.
Learn more about how to write a story that immediately hooks your reader.