World Building 101

One of the readers of this blog wondered how much time and detail one should put into description in a fantasy or science fiction story. I am sure every writer would answer that question differently, and there is no one way, or right way, to do it. However, because I’m a firm believer that you should write the books that you’d enjoy reading yourself, I’d suggest that you look to see how the authors of your favorite books use description in their stories. Thus, if you study how your favorite authors tell their stories, noting both the parts you like and those that you don’t, you may get an insight on how you might want to do it in your stories. In my case I didn’t so much study the books I read and liked, as I sort of absorbed what I liked in them over the decades of reading.

For a more concrete answer I’d propose that one of the most important elements in world building is the voice of the narrator. The voice of the narration sets the whole tone and mood of the setting and story. The point of view of the narrator(s), the choice of words, the length and type of sentences, and the “attitude” of the narrator(s) paint the world you’re creating in broad strokes. And it is the narrator(s), be it third person, or first, who determines what gets described and how.

In my case, I write first person narratives, and I must admit that the narrators of all my stories sound very similar because they share, in part, my attitude and outlook on life. This is one of the limitations of my talent. I can’t get into some other mind, nor do I care to. That said, they’re certainly not me – you’d never catch me doing anything my characters do – but I’m certain that my attitude towards life colors the worlds I create. This is both a limit to the imaginary worlds I create, and a strength, in that it defines the “brand” of my stories.

As for actual world-building, well, I write science fiction and fantasy stories, so world building is important. However, I have one small handicap in that regard; I don’t have a visual mind. I can’t see the worlds I create, at least not clearly. They’re an impression of a place rather than a vision of it. Perhaps, if you can picture your imaginary worlds in great detail, you would not only be able to describe them in great detail, but want to do so as well. In my case, my primary purpose in descriptions is to either create a mood, or describe a stage setting in order to accommodate the action that I have in mind. I might begin with an idea of the mood I want, and a vague, impressionist picture in my mind of the setting, and then begin to flesh out the details, all the concrete, mundane items that I would expect to find in the setting and work these little things into the narration to imply the broader world beyond the immediate setting. Some of these things I’ll invent and describe, others I borrow from the familiar world, and thus they’ll be familiar to the reader without much or any description.

I’ll conclude with a concrete example of how I use description. I’m certainly not saying that this is how it should be done. It’s just my approach to building an imaginary world.

I have a couple stories set on tropical islands. In one story my narrator is returning to his island home after seven years abroad. He has to walk up a hill from the harbor to report his arrival. The office that he needs to report to is high above the harbor because there are many volcanic islands in the sea and tsunamis are common. The fact that the office is set high on a hill to avoid being carried away by a tsunami is a little element of world building. The path up to the office is made of crushed seashells which crunch beneath his footfalls is another little detail focusing on the island and the sea — and sounds. As are the seagulls weaving overhead, calling to each other. He stops to catch his breath halfway up, because he is not yet used to the moist heat of the islands. It’s getting near dusk, so the sun is low in the sky and its golden light gilds the masts and sails of the ships in the harbor, all of which is designed to create a mellow atmosphere. He looks around. All is familiar, but after his long absence, he’s looking at it with different eyes, which allows me to have him recall the past and note the differences, giving me an excuse to toss in more description than if he had seen it just yesterday. Basically, I use little details that the narrator can reasonably take note of, and find a reason to comment on without getting too much out of the head of the in-story narrator. Still, there are times when I will need to cheat a little and describe or explain things that everyone in the imaginary world would otherwise know, but the reader won’t. Hopefully I’ll find a place and an excuse to do this — and do it entertainingly — so that it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb.

I know that we have many accomplished authors looking in on this blog. I, and I suspect many other readers, would be interested to learn how all of you approach world building. We would welcome your ideas and suggestions.


  1. Like you, Chuck, I can endorse the absorption by reading method of developing fiction writing skills. I also agree that the narrative voice can supply elements of the setting in a subtle and non-intrusive way. And thanks for the example; often, bloggers who supply advice don’t bother illustrating it with examples. This is a useful post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. chucklitka says:

      It was only after I had finished writing and published my first three books did I discover all writing advice you can find online. I read some of it out of curiosity, but I had already decided on how I wanted to write, so it was idle curiosity. That’s the advantage, if I can call it an advantage, of writing in your 60’s after reading books for 40 some years. If you’re in your 20 & 30’s, it is possible that all that advice is helpful. Did I just knock getting writing advice on the internet? Oops.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. kingmidget says:

    I think one of the reasons I generally stopped reading fantasy and science fiction is the world building element. As a reader, I’m not a fan of excessive description. In a lot o respects, the less the better for me. A lot of science fiction and fantasy crosses the line for me because there has to be so much description to describe this world that isn’t like ours. It frequently gets to be too much, overwhelming the story and the characters.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. chucklitka says:

      Thoughtful world building is pretty essential to fantasy & SF. Thoughtful use of it is essential as well. However proud of the world you create, it is probably wise to spoon it out when the scene or situation requires it for the plot. Often, as you say, less is more. Readers of fantasy and SF are used to using their imagination, so a little in the right places goes a long way.

      Liked by 2 people

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