World Building

Adding Flesh to the Bones of Your Story

In any world you are creating, whether it exists in the contemporary times or in some fantastic alien universe centuries in the future or past, the most important focus should be on consistency, and should be reinforced by research, exploration, and an OCD über-geek attention to detail.


Nerd it up. What-if the hell out of it. Follow rabbit holes to absurd places and get lost in the deepest reaches. Play. Push the limits of your imagination. Make sculptures. Make inspirational soundtracks. For the love of all that’s holy, make maps. Go on Pinterest and hunt for images.

Okay, come back. Pinterest can be the 8th level of Hell to a writer who wants to stay focused on writing.

Doodle. Set your alarm for the middle of the night and write down what you were dreaming. Keep a notebook with you at all times and sketch down scenes. Drop your friends’ doppelgängers into your world. What would their jobs be? What do they do for fun? How are they dressed? What does their house look like? Their pet? What technologies would they be using?

Draw more maps. You know you want to. Design the layouts of buildings and other spaces your characters might explore. Do they use familiar calendars in this world? What kind of music do they play here? What kinds of stories do they tell to each other? Design a mythology. Explore what kind of entertainment they have here. Write a play that addresses a current social trend in this world. Write the history of these people who live here. How far do you dare go back in their history?

Does your world have the same laws of physics as the world of your reader? No? Well, that’s a whole week’s worth of fun. Do they have a technology to bend those laws? Is someone working on it? Who? What’s in their past? How will this new technology change your characters’ view of the world?

What parallels can your story have to somethign that already exists? Faerie tale? World creation myth? Biblical story? Current event? True Crime story? Classic movie?

Condense Your Focus

Okay. Hopefully, you have some idea of what your world is supposed to be. The fun part is assigning aspects of that world to your characters. Lord of the Rings did it. Star Wars did it. Dune did it. You can do it, too. Take all the notes you have written about your world and drop your Hero into a setting. Where does he fit? Where doesn’t he fit? Where does he want to fit? Why? Describe that setting. What has to change? What should never change? According to who? What is the society like in the Hero’s part of the world? How is it flawed? How is it healthy? What are the threats to these people’s way of life?

(Cue menacing music.)

Your Hero's Prime Opponent gets his own slice of the world. What does it look like? It should fit his personality the way his minions’ uniforms fit his world view. The way he uses resources should also fit his personality and the technology and bodies he puts to work to get those resources should also fit into your Prime Opponent’s world.

Do they have a symbol to rally behind? Do they have propaganda to support their lifestyle? How do they maintain what they have? What do the soldiers/servants/adherents/slaves use to protect what they own? What do they want out of life? C’mon, get in there and make these people live in your world. Give them motivations. Give them daily chores. What do they hate? Is it safe to complain? Who can they complain to? What do they say to each other? How do they pass messages to each other?


Your hero, obviously must leave his home aspect of this world and travel to confront the Prime Opponent. He could start off stuck halfway to the confrontation, so you never actually see his home world, but you will know where he's coming from. Little of what you created needs to appear in your story, or everything could, depending on how enriched you want your reader's experience to be.

But what is important is that what you do show is important to your Hero’s path through the world. Every aspect you show should reinforce his journey—the landscape, the mythologies, the culture, the architecture, the currency, the music, and the people should play as mirrors against your Hero’s mindset. Give him something to react off of.

It’s not enough to pan the prose camera around and show everyone how clever you are. Trust me. This gets boring quick unless you are already a master storyteller. And if you are reading this now, you’re just a shlub like me trying to pick up helpful hints how to get through your self-generated wilderness. What does your Hero need to interact with to get to the bad guy?

Symbolic Space

Cyberpunk genre stories are typically built on the concept of a mountain—the few rich folks at the top, the common folk living at its base, living off the resources and improving those resources as they are syphoned to the top. The mountain metaphor can also be used in other stories about unequal social strata.

The city as a jungle is a standard for Crime Noir, with everything reaching out to grab and consume characters. Every character has a defensive adaptation, a means to attack when necessary, and some kind of camouflage to fit into specific ecosystems within that jungle world.

Ocean and space adventures are metaphoric chess boards, with the action taking place on planes of contact, above and below, but symbolically on one plane. Islands or planets in these tales are condensed metaphors for society.

The flat plain of a desert or icy wasteland serves as places of death—a proving ground to test the survival skills of a character or people. The desolation focuses the reader on the character in this environment, so you should be mindful of keeping internal action at a premium when the elements are not wearing him down. Could this be part of your Hero’s journey?

The river or road is a linear transition space, changing the character as he passes through different aspects of the world, each aspect changing him. The tricky part of using the road or river metaphor in your story is that the Hero should return to his Home with new insights (if you follow the archetypal Heroic cycle the human psyche expects, that is) and although roads can bend and loop, rivers do not move in circles. So if your Hero is on a river, he’s going one way, and it’s up to you if it is upriver to a better place, or downstream to a darker place.

The Journey Itself

According to John Truby’s Anatomy of Story, there are seven possible stages for the Hero to progress. Pick one for your Hero:


Each of these aspects of your world should have their own flavors and textures. And it is as important to provide transitional worlds between these states.


The truth of the world should have layers for the Hero to discover. This applies to what he actively changes, what the Prime Opponent is holding back from him, and secrets that have been hidden from him by his culture. Each of these layers of truth should parallel the Hero’s evolution. He must be worthy to learn these truths, and each reveal should change him in some way to meet the next challenge to release the next truth to the reader.

It’s all so overwhelming, I know. But these patterns have worked in every story that has resonated with readers over the years. But if you are successful at connecting Hero to world, your story will seem all the more solid and cohesive, and maybe your story will have the staying power of Tolkien or Conrad.

Now go make a map. You’ll feel better.

Fiction Writing


Book Cover Design