World Building for “Our World” Fiction
Recently I stumbled upon the beginnings of a fantasy story I started writing back in 2014. I crawled into the back of my closet and dug out the map that went with it of a country I had entirely made up. It was my first ever attempt at world building (heavily under the influence of Westeros and Middle Earth) and it was extremely fun. What stopped me from continuing was the imposter syndrome, as I was basically “making up” things with a GRRM or Tolkien influence to it, and fear of a lack of imagination relative to those authors and J.K. Rowling. I mean, those guys literally invented new languages!
Putting full-blown fantasy writing aside has not stopped me from world building, because, here’s the good news: All fiction writers are world builders. It just might not be in an alternate world—it can be right here on Planet Earth.
World Building in Reality
If you are writing a story that takes place in either a real setting or a fake setting based on a real setting, you should understand that setting inside and out. If your story takes place in New York City, get a map and find all the places your characters go, where they live, what path they take to get there. Where do they avoid? Where do they want to go but never do? Where does your character’s one-night stand live? Where does your character’s boss live? I’d even go as far as drawing out the interior of main areas, like characters’ homes and places of work.
Once you see the setting and understand it, you won’t feel forced to write descriptions. The places will just be inherent, like your own childhood bedroom or the route you take to work.
Get a drawing pad, get a big piece of poster paper, some colored pencils, and create your world!
I recommend that you take ideas from what you know. This makes things a whole lot easier. GRRM admitted that Westeros began as an upside-down map of Ireland and, similarly I’ve taken inspiration from U.S.A. state formations to create imaginary pieces of land. But, since we’re writing fiction, the rules of reality don’t apply, anyway. That’s the beauty of it.
Once you’ve got the land down, figure out how large it is. Use a ruler to measure it and make a key. For example — every inch is a mile. If you’re not sure of how big it is, imagine one distance in your world from another in relation to a distance you know in real life, then search for directions on Google to see how far away it is. I.e. I want my character’s house to be as far away from the forest as my house is from the grocery store. I Google the addresses, and voila! 0.8 miles.
Next, map out the main settings within your world that major and minor scenes take place. If you don’t have any in mind, then reverse that — make up a place on the map and then use it in your story when you start writing.
When To Call it Quits
World building is very fun, but the problem is, you might go a little overboard and spend too much time making up a setting, procrastinating from writing the actual story itself. The same can be said for building characters.
My advice is to spend a day or two on it, no more than 5 hours total. As long as you have a good base work, it’s enough to help you shape the setting in your head and begin writing.
As you write, you might add new places in, or forget places that you drew on your map, but that’s okay… Just keep writing! The first draft should be all about writing and little about stopping to review and fix, that’s what the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and so on, drafts are for.
The pub where a lot of scenes in my novel takes place doesn’t really exist, nor does the street I put it on. Whenever I walk by the area in real life that I based my pub’s location at, I almost do a double-take when I realize my pub doesn’t exist. It’s so engrained in my head, right down to the last slime-covered toadstool—I mean stool (random Shrek reference), that it feels more like a memory to me than a fiction.
Does drawing out a map for your story sound like fun? Leave a comment below and let me know what kind of landscape your story is set in.