World-Building: Fantasy OR Reality

I used to read SO much fantasy. From the day I discovered Tolkien, I was on the hunt for more elves and wizards, and McCaffrey introduced me to dragons (and fire lizards), and I never wanted to stop. It was, I admit, a habit–the kind that isn’t all that discriminating, but just needs to be fed.

I can’t remember when this pattern decreased. Maybe when I found mysteries? Or when I started reading new middle-grade and YA books about “real” kids? Not sure. I’ve always been ready to dip back in, as books come along–like with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files and Sharon Shinn’s beautiful YA books. But somewhere/somewhen, the sheer quantity of my fantasy reading dropped.

It may be picking up again. I just read Tamora Pierce’s Melting Stones and I think I’m falling in love again. The characters are wonderful and her prose is just gorgeous. What I really think has hooked me, though, is the world that Pierce has built.

I’ve actually been thinking about world-building lately, because I don’t think it’s justsomething for fantasy and sci-fi writers. In my historical novel, I do have to create the world of 1913 Chicago that my MC lives in. Yes, I have to base this world on true facts, but I need to find the right balance with which to weave those facts into her story. I also need to make sure that I get the right balance between historical details and the specific, particulate of that world in which Caro lives.

So I’ve started thinking about how to do this, and I’m trying to pay attention to the writers who are doing it well. Like Pierce. I’m looking for the way this world-building shows up in, but doesn’t take over, the story. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

  • The details/information that are important to the story world are introduced fairly early on. This establishes for the reader where/when we are and that this story is not taking place “here,” or”now” wherever the reader’s here and now might be.
  • Those details are concrete and specific. They are SO shown, not told.
  • The details are woven, not dropped in. They show up in dialog, in action, not simply in internal thoughts or narration. And they are scattered across the scenes and pages, never clumped.
  • The details feel at once alien and natural. In other words, they are called out for the reader so that we see and know them as different from our world. On the flip side, they are taken as almost matter-of-fact by the characters–recognized as, not dull, but every-day or at least familiar.
    To put that badly, but perhaps more clearly, a character does not come into the room, note the pottery bowl and wooden spoon on the table, and say, “Wow! Look at that!”  Instead, they say something like, “Hey, clear your eatingware off the mat, will you?!”
  • In the same vein, special powers or abilities–just like unique personality traits–are not called out, highlighted, for the reader’s attention. It’s the changes in these powers/abilities that seem new and important to the characters, and that’s how they need to feel to the reader.

What about you? Do you world-build as you write? What are your techniques for finding the details, and what are your craft goals for making those details part of your story? I’d love to hear your takes on this! AND any fantasy-author recommendations, as well!


  1. Shawna says:

    Hi Becky,

    Wow you’re on a roll with the awesome posts!

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. But before I go on I have to gush. The whole Circle Opens series is wonderful! I loved every one of them and the previous Circle of Magic series as well. Pierce is one of my all time favorite authors and, you’re right, an awesome example of how to build a world.

    I’m more of a pantser than a plotter and I have to confess, my characters tell me a lot about their world and leave it to me to sort out the details. I usually decide the basics before I start writing: monotheistic? Currency? Level of technology? Magic?

    I think the trick is to weave these details into the characters so thoroughly that they become unobtrusive so that you write from their pov, not yours. They wouldn’t need to explain their world; they show it to you by living in it.

    Another good world-builder is Patricia Briggs. Ilona Andrews is also excellent. Probably the best world building I’ve read recently is by SM Stirling. (I’ll be blogging about that one next week) : )


    • beckylevine says:

      Shawna, I think you’ve really hit on it–it’s a point of view thing. One of those things we forget about when we get all wrapped up in first-person, third, present, past, etc!

      I think my age had something to do with not reading a lot of Pierce. She may have just been starting out when I was phasing from fantasy into mystery, or maybe even when I got myself dug deep into English Lit classes in college. That’s okay, it just means there’s a whole stack of books for me to read now!


  2. I think you make a really good point, that world building is NOT just for fantasy worlds…we need to remember it for our contempory stories as well as historicals. Setting is often another character in our books. (For a good example of this see Melissa Wyatt’s latest YA, Funny How Things Change.)

    For me it is a matter of completely immersing myself in the details of my place, so much so that I start to think about it when I am not sitting at my desk. Then I put all the reference stuff away while I write a first draft. Later, when I am ready to revise, then I can go through and see if I need to ice the cake a little more.


    • beckylevine says:

      Susan, I’ll take a look at Wyatt’s book. Thanks! And it is setting and so much more, perspectives, habits, etc.

      I think I’m fretting a bit about it because I’m trying to get the story down in the first draft and knowing I’ll have to get that world in along the way. Another time I just need to push that future-thinking out of the way!


  3. Linda says:

    On my wall near my computer is a poster my son sent me after I started writing ‘seriously”. It says, “Why yes, I am God. Build Worlds. Tell Stories.” He got it I think at a gamers’ or computer event, geek that he is, but gushed that it was really for a writer…awww.

    Building worlds is what writers & illustrators do, whether a PB or YA or what have you. Whether it’s contemporary, in the past or future. The fun is in the creating and weaving as you all have said.

    A possibly related aside: As a terrible typist, I often make spelling errors. I started collecting some of them as words for a MG fantasy I have been working on & off on for yrs. Not that I plan to create a language ala Tolkien, but some “foreign” words are necessary. One simple example, I typed yesterdray, and thought it could be the name of an aging animal. My funniest mistake (or maybe not) was typing ploticians for politicians!


    • Keely says:

      I agree, I think world building is really important to any writing because really you are inviting your reader into your own version of the world.

      So when I was writing Fragments, which is an urban fantasy, I needed to pull the reader through the gothic under ground world of subterranean tunnels and ghostly misdeeds as well as the grim of modern city living, and now I’m writing Jake, which is totally set in the burbs in a world many readers will be familiar with, I still need to make both worlds ‘real’ and true’. In fact I think it’s much harder to paint a real world creatively and much more fun to paint an alternate one — for me anyway!

      PS Loved the ploticians mistake!


    • beckylevine says:

      I love that you’re collecting words, even if/when you started with a “goof.” I hadn’t thought of words–slang yes/timely language, but there are those very specific words…


  4. K.M. Weiland says:

    Thanks for sharing. Your insights are good reminders. I write primarily historical fiction, and I’m accustomed to deeply researching my historical “worlds.” So when I started writing a fantasy two years ago, I felt at a loss because I had nothing to research. I stumbled across a great world-building questionnaire. It’s incredibly in-depth. Really forced me to stop and think about this fantasy land I was creating out of thin air. Here’s the link, if anyone else is interested:


    • beckylevine says:

      Thanks for the link! I’m off to check it out.

      I’m kind of doing the reverse from you–when I was writing a mystery set in Santa Cruz, I knew the town well enough (live 20 minutes away) that I could write without thinking too much about where/what, etc. I could get the feel, then I just had to visit a few places and really get the details accurate. Writing a historical for me feels so much harder, because I just can’t wing it as easily, I don’t think. Oh, it’s all a challenge! 🙂


  5. Linda says:

    The World Builder site seems wonderful and as stated, “in-depth,” but looks wonderfully helpful. Thanks!


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