World-building is for everyone (In-depth guide)
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, even those writing contemporary romances set in the real world. Approaching your worldbuilding deliberately, no matter your genre can help your story feel more real and keep your readers hooked.
Worldbuilding is the process of making your world feel real. How much effort you need to put into this depends on how different the story’s world is from the everyday world. A story set in a space station needs way more worldbuilding than a story set in a contemporary American high school, but both settings need to feel real to the reader. The world is the setting for the story, and in order for the story’s events to feel convincing, the reader needs to understand how the world is shaping the events the protagonist is experiencing. For stories set in our normal world, we understand pretty intuitively how the world shapes the protagonists’ actions and reactions, but for stories set in fantastical worlds, we need a bit more detail to understand what is happening and why. But even stories set in a familiar, contemporary setting need to feel real. Think of it as the difference between a painted backdrop and a fully rendered CGI backdrop. The first one is going to feel a little flat, while the second is going to feel more immersive. It takes more work for a spaceship backdrop to feel immersive compared to the high school backdrop, but you still need to put effort into making the high school backdrop feel real.
Types of worldbuilding
Worldbuilding can be broken down into four main types, depending on how complex the world is.
“Normal world” worldbuilding is the kind of worldbuilding we see in contemporary romance, contemporary Young Adult, New Adult, and college stories. These stories are set in the everyday, regular world that does not require specialized knowledge to understand. In this kind of worldbuilding, we want to get a sense of the distinct details that give this place its character, because we basically already know how the world works.
If your story is set in a famous city like New York or Paris, we want a sense of the things we know about those cities. If your story is set in a high school, we want to have a particular sense of this individual high school, its social makeup, its weird traditions, etc.
Examples: high school, coffee shop, small town, college, etc.
- What are some features of your setting that are particular to this place and make it different from similar kinds of places?
- What are common features of your setting that everyone there recognizes?
- Who are the background characters in your setting?
- What particular traditions, rituals, catchphrases, and shared understandings do people in your setting have?
- What’s important to the people here?
Normal world examples on Wattpad:
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. Examples of this are sports romances and workplace romances. Everything is the same as in the regular world, but there’s a little bit of extra context you need to convey to the reader so that they can understand what is going on. For example, with a sports romance, the structure of the league, what it means to win or lose any given game, and how the game itself is played all matter to how the romance plays out because it sets the stage for the romance story and informs the events of the story.
Examples: sports teams, office/workplace, firefighters/medical, courtroom, niche hobbies
- What particular experiences do your characters have because of their setting that they wouldn’t have outside of it? How does this shape the story?
- How does the setting shape the story’s conflict?
Niche normal examples on Wattpad:
Trope World describes a kind of worldbuilding where the story’s setting deviates from everyday life, but it deviates in particular established ways that are grounded in the subgenre. Examples of this are 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 knows from everyday life, but in each subgenre, there is a lot of shared understanding in how the worlds are “supposed” to work. The settings vary from our everyday world, but there is not a huge amount of variation in the worlds of different books. This is not a bad thing! Readers are passionate about Trope Worlds because the worlds are similar from story to story. Readers love the combined sense of familiarity and excitement that comes from a world that is different from our own, but that still plays by a knowable set of rules.
Examples: mafia, werewolf, regency romance, horror
- What do you think readers like about this kind of world? What elements do they need to see to recognize the world they’re reading about?
- How does your world deliver on those reader expectations?
- What details make your world different from the regular world? How do those details shape your characters’ emotions?
- How does the setting shape the story’s conflict?
Trope world examples on Wattpad:
An alternate world is a type of worldbuilding where the story world is completely different from our regular world, and there’s not a lot of overlap in how the world works across different books. This can either be a fully invented different world like Middle Earth or the Star Wars “galaxy far away,” (sometimes called a Secondary World) or it can be attached to our contemporary world but with a lot of distinctive magic or tech elements, like Harry Potter or the Anita Blake series. 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, and there’s not a lot of overlap with other books in the same subgenre. Part of the pleasure of this kind of story is seeing how the world is different from other worlds in the same genre, whereas, with a Trope World, the pleasure comes from seeing how the world is the same. Neither is better or worse, it just depends on what story you want to tell. As with all worldbuilding, the goal is to make the world feel emotionally real to the reader. With Alternate Worlds, there is an additional challenge of conveying complex information to the reader in an organic way, so that they understand what is going on but aren’t overwhelmed or bored by long passages of explanation.
- What features of this world are unique? How does the magic/tech work?
- How much do the characters understand about how the world works?
- How much does the reader need to know about how the world works?
- What shared culture exists in this world? What conflicts about culture exist in this world?
- What is the history of the significant places in this world?
- How does the setting shape the events of the plot?
Alternate world examples on Wattpad:
Making the world feel real
The purpose of worldbuilding is to make the world of the story feel real and emotionally engaging to the reader. This undertaking is more complex for Alternate Worlds than it is for Normal Worlds, but the principle is the same.
So what makes a world feel real?
Shaping the plot
The setting provides the context for the story to happen and should shape how events unfold. Grey’s Anatomy wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t set in a hospital; the setting fundamentally shapes how the plot progresses and what kinds of things happen in the story. We want to get a sense that your setting matters to the story. What events happen in this setting that couldn’t happen anywhere else? That’s the foundation of making your setting matter to your reader.
Think about walking down the street in your hometown. You probably have a lot of memories and feelings associated with that environment. In addition to your personal history, the history of the place is embedded there—think about street names, monuments, and how the street has changed over the years. These two things combine to give us a sense of this place, and the same is true for your readers. Making your world feel real is a matter of making it matter emotionally to the characters, and thus to the readers. When characters notice and react to the world around them, this draws the reader’s attention to the world and makes it feel real.
When you are drawing the reader’s attention to the world, you want to make sure that the detail you’re including matters to the story. More is not necessarily better. How much detail you need, how to understand what kinds of details are relevant, and how to incorporate them into the story all vary by the genre you’re writing and the type of world-building you’re doing. When you’re sharing details with the reader, it should generally either move the story forward or enhance our understanding of the characters and the world. In other words, it should be either plot-significant or emotionally significant. One or two really distinct, punchy details give us a significantly bigger impression than a big paragraph of description that’s hard to sift through.
It can be really tempting, especially if you’re writing in a Trope World or Alternate World, to just explain how everything works in the beginning to get the reader up to speed, and then get into the story. However, this can actually cause your readers to bounce off the story because they have to onboard all this information without any emotional context to hang it on. Also keep in mind that for a lot of readers of Trope World and Alternate World stories, discovering the world is part of the pleasure of the story. Revealing the world through the characters’ interactions with it increases the sense of curiosity of the reader and the sense of immersion in the story.