Building alternate worlds (In-depth guide)
What is an alternate world?
An Alternate World is a type of story setting where the world of the story is drastically different from our everyday world, and there’s not a lot of overlap between stories even in the same subgenre. In each story, the author is introducing the reader to the world from the ground up.
In Trope Worlds, there are specific conventions the reader is expecting to see as part of the worldbuilding and that shape the story, whereas in Alternate World worldbuilding, the genre conventions are more relaxed and reader expectations are not as strict. Alternate Worlds can be new places or universes like Middle Earth or Westeros, or they can be attached to our contemporary world but with secret tech or magic, like in The Mortal Instruments series, or the Anita Blake series. Alternate World world-building is more complex than Trope World world-building and requires the reader to take on a lot of new information that doesn’t necessarily port across books the way Trope World world-building does. Part of the pleasure of the story lies in discovering the new elements of the world and experiencing the unfamiliar and unexpected.
Where to start with building alternate worlds
When you’re thinking about writing an alternate-world story, it can sometimes be overwhelming to think about doing all that world-building. But Middle-Earth wasn’t built in a day! You don’t need to have the whole history of the world planned out before you begin. There are many guides to worldbuilding out there, but here are our tips for getting started:
- What images, ideas, or elements feel core to the story? When you think about the story, what do you keep returning to? Start here. Explore this central image or idea. What does this image state or imply about the world? What would need to be true about the world to make this possible? Start from this and expand outward.
- How do your characters experience their world? How has their world shaped them? If you’ve got a character who is an exiled prince, you’ve got at least one monarchy on your hands. Think about what characteristics you want your characters to have. What forces and experiences might create those characteristics?
- What types of conflict do you want to have in your story? What might need to be true about the world for those conflicts to come about? If you want lovers separated by opposite sides of a war, you’ll need at least two factions with enough conflict and resources to turn to armed conflict. From there, you can begin to build out your world from that central conflict.
- What are the most emotionally relevant details and processes? Don’t get bogged down in details. Pick up your phone and go to text someone. How does texting work? What happens to allow your words to reach someone else instantaneously? Chances are good you don’t know, and it doesn’t matter, because the salient point isn’t how telecommunications work, but what is said, what is meant, and what happens as a result of that communication. Similarly, there are probably a great many processes in your world that your characters don’t understand and don’t need to. Decide what the important processes are (i.e. the ones that are plot and character-relevant) and develop those, and leave the rest alone.
As you work on world-building, here are some common issues to keep in mind.
Cultural appropriation is when a member of a dominant culture takes elements of a marginalized culture out of context and uses them for their purpose. In worldbuilding, this often shows up as using elements of mythology, art, or history from a culture that is not your own, particularly if you’re doing it to add an element of the “exotic” to your world. Even if you are taking elements of another culture because you think it’s cool or you want to pay tribute to it, it can still have an overall negative impact because you are taking cultural elements out of their original context. This is especially harmful if you are taking elements from a non-white culture and using them for a story with white protagonists.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to determine if including a cultural element is okay or not:
- How is this culture represented in media?
- How did I come to know about this culture?
- Are people from this culture punished for expressing their culture? Do they have reduced job opportunities, increased criminalization, stigma, or other forms of discrimination?
- What is the history of this culture? Have people like me colonized people from this culture?
- Is this culture endangered? Why is this the case?
- What research have I done about this culture?
- What is my intention behind including this culture in my worldbuilding?
- What do people from this culture have to say about outsiders using elements of their culture?
The twin issue of cultural appropriation is cultural uniformity—that is, everyone in your world is the same. If everyone in your world is white, straight, and nondisabled, you may want to rethink some elements of the world you are creating. The real world is almost unimaginably diverse, and if your world is not similarly diverse, why is that the case? Including cultural diversity is part of what makes a world feel real and inhabited.
Sometimes “historical accuracy” is put forward as a reason why a fantasy set in an analog of medieval Europe can’t have people of color in it. This is wrong on two fronts. The first is that medieval Europe had people of color in it, and to say otherwise is an ahistorical myth. The second is that when we’re building a fantasy world, historical accuracy is at best a suggestion. We are picking and choosing what elements of the real world to include. If the element you want to include is the idea that everybody is white, it may be worth digging a little deeper and examining why that is. Learn more about why including diversity in your work is important.
If you’re worried about “getting it wrong,” that’s understandable! But don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If you’re interested in resources on writing outside your experience, check out our resources on writing outside your experience. And in the meantime, you can ask yourself: “How can I make my world just a little bit more diverse?” Whether that’s including secondary characters, enlarging your world’s fictional history, or describing more diverse background characters, think about the way you can enlarge what you have on the page.
Worldbuilding, once you get into it, is really exciting. The only limit is your imagination, and it can be fun to dig into all the detailed aspects of your world. However, keep in mind that the world exists to serve the story. Consider the text message example above. Digging into the hows and whys of telecommunications might be interesting, but it’s not necessarily serving the story or enlarging the world in a way that is going to be useful. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your world, or by the task of worldbuilding in general, it might be because you’re focusing on the wrong pieces. Developing an alien language or detailing exactly how the magic system works can sometimes get you mired in details you don’t necessarily need to get the world to a place where you can begin working with it. While it can be fun to deep dive into aspects of your world, it’s not necessarily going to serve your writing. Make sure the details you delve into as you develop your world are linked to the development of the story you want to tell.
Writing the world
Once you’ve developed your world, you have to begin writing it and sharing it with the reader. It can be tempting to start your story with a big block of exposition to explain how all the relevant parts of your world work. This is called info-dumping and should be avoided. While info-dumping seems like a good idea (the reader will know exactly what is going on), it doesn’t work well in practice. Infodumping a lot of worldbuilding at once actually makes it harder for the reader to retain important information, because everything is presented in an undifferentiated block. Without emotional significance and a slow introduction, it’s hard to hang on to a lot of detailed information. Starting slow and ramping up allows your reader to gently get in the water, rather than cannonballing into the deep end.
The other danger is under-explaining. When you’re writing an Alternate World, you know way more about the world than the reader does, and things that you as the writer take for granted may not be obvious to the reader. While it can be tempting to throw the reader in and let them figure it out, a bit of judicious, brief, and carefully placed explanation of world elements can be really helpful in grounding the reader in what is going on. Keep explanations brief and focused on the present moment of the story so that the reader has enough information to go on without being overwhelmed by information.
A great rule for explanations is that they should always increase the sense of possibility in the world, rather than shutting it down. A reader should be excited and intrigued by an explanation, not disappointed by or bored of it.
The key here is to be reader-focused in how you convey information about the world. All the rules of making the world feel real apply as much to Alternate Worlds as they do to any other type of world. Ask yourself: What does the reader need to know at any given moment? Reader interest in a text is primarily emotional; readers want to feel things. So if you link worldbuilding information to emotional moments in the text, it will stick out in the reader’s mind because it has emotional resonance. The information you’re conveying should matter to the characters and the reader and should enlarge the reader’s interest in and understanding of the story.
Approachability is especially important for Alternate Worlds. Keep in mind that readers are likely to be turned off by dense worldbuilding in the first couple of chapters. Focus on establishing the protagonist’s GMCS and expand the worldbuilding as you go. Stories that do well on Wattpad are easy to get into at first. Even if they become more complex over time, starting simple and hooking your reader’s emotions is the easiest way to keep a reader engaged.