The World Building Checklist

I want to expand the concept of world building a bit.  The world of a novel consists of many aspects, so many that it is really a universe. This unique universe is populated with its own characters, settings, history, myth, beliefs, social structures, rules, politics, government, science, technology, magic, plants, animals, weather, architecture, and morality.

Depending on your genre, some of these aspects will be more important than others.  My paranormal novel takes place in a contemporary suburban community in Southern California, so that helped me check off some boxes fairly easily (setting, technology, architecture, government, weather), others required more thought (history, myth, magic, social structure, beliefs).  Some came as I wrote, others required days, weeks or even months of contemplation.  Some of the best stuff showed up between the lines, and was fleshed out in revision.

Whether you're a pantser or a planner, your novel's universe is what makes it unique.  Here is a checklist that might be helpful to review, whether your brainstorming a new novel, or putting the finishing touches on a polished draft.

Characters:  Every novel needs characters, and every character must have their own place in the world you've created. A character's unique world view is at the heart of world building.

Sometimes characters just walk into scenes, fully formed, other times we have more latitude to create them based on their role in the story.  For SPIES, I already knew my main character Berry, a teenage private investigator, would have a hard exterior.  I  pictured her as a modern day Lizzie Bennet, smart, sassy and more vulnerable than she realized.  What kind of boy could break through that wall?  What would he have to do to make her love him in spite of her better judgment?  Enter Tanner Halston. Berry would hate his good looks and over confidence.  She couldn't start to like him until he failed at something. And once I understood Tanner's failure, I  understood his place in Berry's world.

Settings:  If characters are the heart of your universe, setting is the spine. Where does the novel take place?  Sixteenth century England? Modern day Huntsville, Texas?  A future ravaged by Aether storms?  Setting is the place and time of your novel, but also the place and time of the individual scenes.  Where the action unfolds is often as important as what is happening.  The setting itself can drive the action.  Is your book set in a ruined city where the remaining human population is ravaged by viruse, or a remote island that is home to a research center committed to regulating human emotions?

The genre and concept of your novel may make certain settings seem like natural fits.  Since my novels take place in contemporary suburban settings, I look for ways to make ordinary places stand out.  In SILVER, some of the scenes are set in a coffee shop.  I could have made it a nondescript shop with comfy chairs and free wi-fi, but instead I created a Jack in the Beanstalk themed shop with a huge silk beanstalk with hanging vines that takes up most of the store.  I named the store Magic Beans and made it the place where my main character first tries her hand at magic.

Setting can be used to raise the stakes as well.  Would you see a climactic battle that takes place in someone's kitchen or on the top of a moving Ferris wheel?  Take a page from movies and think big.  The great thing about novels is you have an unlimited budget with which to create your universe, and no animals will be hurt in the making of a scene.

History: The history of your universe is as important as your main character's own backstory.  How did the world come to be this way?  How does what happened in the past influence your character's behavior?  A world's history is something that is usually revealed to me as I write, but sometimes, it is so central to a story's plot, I need to pin it down from the outset.  History and backstory are great tools to help build a mystery.  The show LOST revealed its characters' history in excruciatingly slow detail, but each revelation added a layer to the plot and kept it moving forward.  The key is to make sure the history is important to the current plot.

Myth/Beliefs:  Closely tied to history are the myths and beliefs that are held by the people in the universe.  These can be a source of conflict or serve to inform the plot (especially in fantasy and speculative fiction).  What beliefs do characters hold that are false?  What myths might be true?  How do cultural beliefs influence characters' actions?


Government/Politics:  This can be be as big as the structure of government in a dystopian society, or as small as the balance of power between best friends.  Whenever people congregate, there will be an element of political maneuvering, and imposition of authority. These power struggles infuse a novel with conflict, whether your character joins an underground rebellion against an overbearing government, or is just trying to navigate the social minefield of a high school cafeteria.  

Social Structure/Rules: Related to politics is the social structure and rules of your novel's universe. Some of these rules will be determined by your novel's setting, but your character's place in the world, will also dictate how she can behave socially.  If your writing speculative fiction or fantasy, your universe may need a set of rules of its own.  In what circumstances can magic be used?  What type of magic is permissible?  In what ways can it be used?  What are the consequences of breaking the rules?

Plants/Animals/Weather: These are all tied into setting, but any by themselves can be a focal point of your universe.  The world of JURASSIC PARK was defined by the animals that inhabited the island.  Our own V's book involves a world decimated by weather.

Magic/Technology/Science:  For fantasy and science fiction writers, the rules of magic, evolution of technology and science of the world are usually a focal point. What powers does magic or technology provide in your novel?  How does that influence the action in your story.

Morality:  Your universe has a moral code. So do your characters.  Is it line with the rest of society or different?  Does it change over time?

Architecture:  How does your world look?  Is it green and lush or do your characters live in a concrete jungle?  Are the buildings tall and lined with reflective glass or short mud huts with leaky roofs.  The architecture of your world extends beyond buildings.  What is the terrain like?  How does the world look? Smell?  Feel?  As you create your novel's world from the ground up, engage all your senses and allow yourself to visualize beyond what makes its way to the page.

Those are just a few of the things to considering as you create and polish the world of your novel?  What things would you add?

3 comments

This is a really helpful post! I always forget, even in a terrain that I know extremely well, I still need to world-build and allow the audience to know the setting really well.

Best wishes,

~Zabrinah

What would I add? Wow, Talia, I'll be surprised if someone can find an additional world-building aspect - this list is awesome!

Totally, Beth. She's a tough act to follow!

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