World-building

7 Tips to Use When You Don’t Know How to World-build

How can I set my book’s world apart from all the rest out there?

There are some awesome worlds built up by writers out there, and they all have a very distinct world feel. And why is that? What makes them so special? What makes them stand out against all the rest?

Today, we’ll be looking at 7 different things you can include in your world to make it super definable.

Let’s get started!

*Note: Some of these tips are tilted more towards fantasy writers rather than other genres, as that is the genre I most specialize in. Still, I know that these tips can be used and tweaked to your own genre, so it’s still super beneficial for other genre writers to read on!Screen Shot 2019-02-10 at 2.39.03 PM

1. Special Events and Traditions

Let me start off by saying: I have done a whole post on this before. But, as it’s one of my very first-ish posts here on the blog (and therefore fairly cringey and unedited), I’ve decided it’s pretty acceptable to include it as the first tip in this post!

In any case, it’s a really important tip.

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All the time, we’ve got lots of special events that we celebrate, or at least recognize: Christmas, Easter, birthdays, etc.

Traditions are things created on these events which can lead to people repeating them every year. For example, it’s a tradition for my family and my grandparents to get together on Christmas for a big Christmas dinner! 

  • In this scenario, Christmas is an event, a big family dinner is the tradition.

Events can also be related to the seasons. For example, summer starting, spring forwards, etc.

Events and traditions can create some fun events to be able to look forward to in life. And yet, how does any of this relate to world-building? Well, these events and traditions have really shaped our world that we live in. To create a realistic world, you should be doing the same thing:

  • Students go to Hogsmeade (Special event). The characters have butterbear there (Tradition). Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
  • Dusk day happens (Special event). There was no tradition linked to this, but this a cool event related to the weather/outer-space of another, made-up world. Five Kingdoms by Brandon Mull
  • Purge Day (Special event). No tradition is linked to this one either, but this event literally throws the whole plot and book into motion. Unwanteds by Lisa McMann

Some events and traditions can be a cool addition. Some can be a cool seasonal add-on. And some can literally make up your entire book. 

So, ask yourself:

  1. Is there some big event that might plausibly happen in my book? Is this a huge event where maybe something goes wrong and throws the plot into action or maybe just pushes it forwards? Or is it a small event that maybe the characters pass through while in town?
  2. Would this event/tradition shape my world or is it some random thing that might just drag my plot down?

It most cases, it won’t drag your plot. They can be big and important like Purge Day in Unwanteds, or maybe, for example, the humans are just trying to get to know the elves better and someone mentions that elves always wake up at sunrise to sing to nature and help it grow. Something interesting thrown in there like that can really shape different groups and towns and places! The more depth, the more realism. 

2. Specific Words

Guys: as writers, we have the power to write whole new languages. Create our own slang terms! Do something totally new!

Here’s how:

1. Creating Your Own

Something super cool that I read in a book recently was that everyone all around in the world of the book used this one word: “Bangers!” Its meaning is essentially: “Awesome!” Or: “No way!”

To create your own, try and think of words that already exist, and change and pick off from them just a bit. That way readers will be able to easily infer what this new word means.

Again, for example, the word “Bangers”. I’ve heard of “Whiz-bang!” before, which means like “fantastic!”. Banging could maybe remind people of fireworks which bang in the air and are awesome.

  • I’ve always been perfectly horrible at naming things and explaining how to name things (Like, guys, the main characters of my book are literally named Will, Anya, Faith, Emma, Tom, and Hilda. Like, Anya is the most creative. Everything else is so lame *cries at my nine-year-old past self), so totally check out this awesome post by Caleb which – while was meant for naming characters – can also totally be used in this scenario! (Or literally any other post in helping you name your characters – just switch the tips to new words instead!)

2. Use Specific Words to Bring Out Realism

In Harry Potter, the characters are all British, so they’ll say words like “Brilliant!” Or “Blimey”. It really allows the readers to actual hear the British voices even while just reading! So, if you’re characters live in a certain part in the world, consider popping in some phrases or specific words people over there might use.

These words will be affected by the:

  • time period
  • character’s ethnicity
  • culture of the characters
  • place where the characters live

Have you ever read or watched a show where the characters just yell out something in a different language – possibly their native language? (Dora, anyone?) You can also throw that into your book depending on where your protagonist comes from or lives at, although you’ll have to be able to translate it correctly for readers to infer what’s going on, or else have them repeat it in English again for readers. 

3. Create Your Own Language

Okay, so, don’t freak out: I’m not telling you you’ve got to draw out a whole code of triangles and squares and readers have to figure out which one matches up to the whole alphabet.

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Actually, in fact, you can create a whole language in just a few words!

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okay I’ll stop doing Tangled gifs now

I’ll you’ve gotta do is have your protagonist go around their normal everyday life and have someone not from around there walk up to them and start talking. Then, either have the protagonist:

  1. not be able to understand the new character at all as he’s speaking a different language
  2. or (and most commonly used) have the protagonist notice the newcomer’s speech. It could be very stilted or maybe fluent but with a different accent on it, or his verb and subject agreement sort of thing don’t match up.

The second one is more commonly used as you can just have the characters speaking in a made-up language the entire time, yet you as a writer are just “translating it into English” for readers. 

Like, for example, I was going to have my characters speak the language of “Villtor”.

Fairly cool name, if I do say so myself.

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All I needed to do was mention how maybe the elves’ Villtor accent was crisp and clean, surprising as they obviously weren’t from Valor. I mean, I probably won’t keep this as it’s not needed, but it’s a SUPER awesome thing to include!

You can also drop this on top of another language! Maybe each country in your world has a different language, and your protagonist encounters a horseman from a neighbouring country. If I did this in my book, I could say something like “His Villtor accent was stilted, and his vowels clipped; as though he were not familiar with the language and yet was trying to deliver it with authority.”

The reason why I probably won’t use this in my book is because cool for the sake of cool isn’t cool. But, it can be really helpful for readers and characters to decipher between good-guys and bad-guys. For example, if a new character appears in the story and has a heavy accent from a land that the protagonists’ country is going to war with, then the protagonist can realize they’re an enemy. and then there’d probably be a tragic story where the two fall in love and DIE. …I don’t know where that came from.

3. One-of-a-kind Food! (I literally just read that as ‘fool’)

Everyone needs to eat, amiright! Best thing ever! Buttt, in a book, usually that can be pretty boring.

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And yet…what if you created a new, entirely unique and original type of food that your characters sit down to eat? Even talk about it like it’s a normal food in that world?

For example:

  • Keeper of the Lost Cities: Mallowmelt, lushberry juice, cinnacreme, ripplefluffs, blitzenberry muffins, butterblasts, custard bursts, indigoobers, prattles, starkflower stew, and heck there are so many more!
  • Harry Potter: Sherbert lemons, butterbear, every flavour beans, chocolate frogs, and lots more!

For both these books, the food became SO POPULAR that you can now eat the food in real life. For Keeper of the Lost Cities, currently there are three big recipes released recently of her Lushberry rice, mallowmelt, and cinnacreme. And yeah I’ve actually tried all three of them.

For Keeper of the Lost Cities, the food was just such a perfect example of contrast between the elven and the human worlds. In a later book in the series, Sophie eats some human desserts, and realizes that they’re basically super dry and disgusting. Especially compared to mallowmelt, which she describes as “fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies soaked in ice cream and covered in frosting and butterscotch.”

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See why people wanted her food now?

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Creating a food that seems to be a normal thing for characters to be eating in your book can really give a feel that your world is…a world. A normal world where people eat and have favorite foods and stuff! At the same time, it also lets your world be completely different from any other world because it has a never-thought-of-before food.

  • Try it: Try thinking of some of your favorite meals or desserts. Now mash ’em together! See what weird or strangely good sounding combos you can come up with. I suggest looking up descriptions of Shannon Messenger’s food combos as they’re basically human food mashed up together into a pretty good sounding combo. And who knows! Maybe your amazing inventions will blow up so much that readers will start making recipes of it!

4. A Unique Magic System Threaded In

Guys, I did a SPECTACULAR (if-I-so-biasedly-say-so-myself!) job talking about how to create a unique magic system over on Rayna’s magazine this month!

Obviously if you don’t write fantasy, this step can be excluded. But if you do write fantasy, there should actually be rules to your magic. I saw someone say recently: “That’s the great thing! There are no rules to magic!”

I soooo wrote that article for the magazine after that.

Questions can sound restricting, I get it. But these rules actually bring out far more uniqueness than just a general “everyone has powers and is awesome and no rules yay!” idea.

Lots more depth is added, trust me on this one guys. I pinkie promise it’ll work wonders.

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With your own original magic system, unique to your world, readers will definitely be remembering your book over others.

5.  Who Lives on Earth? …And Who Doesn’t?

Alright, so this is getting ever so slightly more directed to fantasy, but hey, this can also be used for a contemporary or historical book if you want to add more depth into the history of your world!

Lets start out simple here: The humans characters live on Earth. Awesome! But in fantasy, what if this other species called elves didn’t live on Earth? What if they lived on a separate planet altogether? If so, is there a way to go to and from the elven planet and Earth easily?

And yet, on the flip-side, what if the elves did live on Earth? How did they get there? Why are they there? How did there become a difference between elves and humans? And how does elves living on Earth effect the Earth? (is it normal, have elves only been around since they fled their planet from a war, are the elves considered higher than humans, or maybe the elves are considered lesser than humans, etc.)

If you’re writing a historical book, think if maybe any armies are invading your book’s country or town, maybe if there are any governments or leaders who’ll get in your character’s way, maybe some people are not allowed into your world’s town because of something…(Example: In Fawkes, if you were plagued, you would be cast out or thrown in jail).

See how these questions bring out new, crazy but awesome ideas?

Whoever lives or does not live on your world can really affect your plot. It’s actually a real neat thing to figure out.

6. When Did Your World Start?

If you’re writing contemporary or historical, this doesn’t apply to you.

But for fantasy writers, we can manipulate anything.

Including: How did the world start in our books?

Did a group of witches and wizards band together and chant an incantation that created a world known as “Earth” which they escaped to and built a civilization on? Maybe thousands of millennium later, people viewed this group of witches and wizards as the guardians of the Earth, and everyone looked up to them and respected them (and they’re still alive ’cause witches and wizards have incredibly prolonged lives). But what if it turns out that these witches and wizards are actually evil and destroyed their home planet and everyone on it, so they created a whole world to hide away in! A world where they’re seen as heroes, when, really, they were villains. And the protagonist living on this Earth created by these villains realizes that everything everyone has been doing for these witches and wizards was really bad.

BOOM.

Guys, I just created a whole book plot for you.

Just because of world-building!

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Questions to help you world-build can hurdle your mind wayyyy over any barriers blocking you from making a unique world! The sky is not the limit, writers. We can create galaxies and worlds, in fact!

And you don’t even need to be a history major, guys. Just answer questions like these and your creative writer mind will do the rest.

7. What Are the “Norms”?

Is it normal for elves to be around? Is it normal for everyone to carry a sword? Or maybe there’s a new normal when the protagonist enters another world – new world, new rules. Different laws are set in place, and different things are expected of the people there. (Example: Sophie in Keeper of the Lost Cities, Harry in Harry Potter, Cole in Five Kingdoms, etc.)

Normal every-day things such as going to school can also be flipped dramatically for your book. For example:

  • In Keeper of the Lost Cities, Foxfire is a school for prestigious elves. Only the best of the best get in, and only those who manifest an ability (which is a big deal to have in the elven world) get to stay in that school going up in levels.
  • In Harry Potter, wizards are invited to Hogwarts, a school for witchcraft and wizardry. A lot of new rules and normal things are pretty different in this whole secret part of the world..

Notice that this is just schools. And yet it makes up a HUGE amount of the world in the book. Normal things you write can have a big impact on your book. So consider some normal things that you do and experience every day, and see how you could turn that around into something really cool.

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Guys, world-building with these tips today literally just allowed us to: a) create events an entire world would celebrate b) create an entire new language for a world to speak or maybe some cool slang terms and c) become epic bakers who developed our own food!

Ah, yes, being a writer is epic.

Long and crazy post today, but did you learn anything cool?

Have you ever struggled with world-building before?

Any cool tips you might have for when you world-build?

Like these posts? Wanna have more? Subscribe to my email list to receive inside info and lots of fun! 

I hope you enjoyed this post! If you have any questions or thoughts, leave a comment down below.

Thanks for reading!

Mary

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26 thoughts on “7 Tips to Use When You Don’t Know How to World-build”

  1. I loved this post and it helped me very much! I’ve been stuck in this same spot on world-building for (let’s see) a month! Tomorrow will actually be the month checkpoint! I’m definitely using these tips! <33

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oooh, this is handy!! I’ve been plotting out a new novel and worldbuilding is one of the things I still need to do.

    Also, I 100% agree about magic needing rules. Having limitations to a character’s magic really adds a lot for character development and plot. That’s also why I write The Science of Magic posts: to give people a map to follow for their fantasy and magic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wahoo, I’m so glad! Ahh, I know right? I dreaded world-building my book, but now it’s been really helping me when I’m plotting!

      Yesss THANK YOU. I know right!? Exactly! Ooh, that’s so cool, I’ll definitely have to check out those posts!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Events can also be used to show differences between various parts of the populace. If I was to use examples from my own project…
    One would be winter solstice. While the common folk usually spends it with friends and/or family, the nobility gathers for a night of dancing (which gets a chapter of “Ballroom gossip/politics” in books two and three).
    Another, not-so-pleasant, is when the MC (and elf) attends the funeral of a high-ranked human soldier and can thus see the differences between elven and human approach to burials.
    Third example coming to my mind, specific to the group the MC is part of, is the initiation – a coming-of-age ritual that bears quite a lot of significance for them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow! These are all AMAZING examples, Tomas! I definitely love how the winter solstice relates a bit to the weather, while at the same time it shows the difference between common folk and nobility, and then the next one shows the difference between elves and humans. It sounds like a perfect use of events! 👏

      Liked by 1 person

  4. These are some really great world building tips! I definitely have always struggled to pin down laws and rules at ALL for my fantasy stories (therefore putting a system in place for me to follow as I’m writing… which would have made things easier… 😂) so this is a great post for world building. 😃

    Liked by 1 person

      1. This was such an awesome post, Mary!!! I CAN’T WAIT to use these tips to help me with some of my story ideas!
        Also, when you mentioned “…they obviously weren’t from Valor” I may or may not have freaked out for a second because one of the characters in my WIP is named that! 😂 I was like, “WHAAAT??? HOW DOES SHE KNOW ABOUT HIM!?!?!? Oh…wait. She’s talking about something different. *coughs sheepishly* I knew that.” XDDD
        (Oh, and I LOOVED all of the KOTLC references!!!!!) 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thank you so much, Victoria!!! I totally hope they’ll help you!!
        Oh my gosh!! No WAY!! Ahahaha! Wow, yeah, Valor is what I’m currently calling my books’ world (although that may or may not change) but that’d make for such an EPIC character name 😱
        (Wooo! Thanks!!! GO KOTLC!) 😄

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  5. MAARRRYYY HOW DID YOU KNOW THIS WAS JUST WHAT I NEEDED?????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! *gasp* *thinking maybe Mary is a mind-reader* *wondering why she never told me she had superpowers* XD Anyway, these tips were sooo awesome and will be suuuper helpful!! I was literally just talking about worldbuilding the other day with this writing club I’m in and we were kinda talking how hard worldbuilding is. So, yes, I’m VERY happy you did this post and ooh, I’m already starting to get soooo many ideas to help improve the world building of Heir to His Crown. EEKK!!!!!
    (Also, another world building thought that just kinda came to me is how you can even throw in the names of the money in the world, like in The False Prince [y’know it had to be mentioned XD] Nielsen names one of the coins a garlin. Yeah, just a thought.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. *flips hair super dramatically* well of COURSE I knew. Obviously I’m a telepath. (*coughs* okay maybe not but WOOO I’M SO GLAD YOU NEEDED IT!) Yayyy, I’m so glad! Ooh hey! Super convenient! Ahh, I’m so happy!
      OKAY, LIKE, YES. DO IT. (ahaha wouldn’t be a real conversation with you if it didn’t include The False Prince amiright? 😂) but, yes! That’s definitely an awesome world-building trick!!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Absolutely YES to creating your own slang! It can really pull me out of a story if a character in a whole different /world/ uses the exact same slang and swears as in this world. It just doesn’t make sense most of the time. XD Plus, made up slang is just so much /fun/.
    I really love how Melody Jackson handled slang in her Dragons’ Bane trilogy. She used just one word that was specific to an area within her world, and then went on to explain what it meant in a show-don’t-tell way that made it believable.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh my gosh, YES, I can super relate. I have been pulled out of SO many stories/movies where they use slang or swear like in this world and it’s just the WORST. Yesss, made up slang is so fun 😆
      Ooh, I’ve never read the Dragon’s Bane trilogy, but it totally sounds like she pulled it off PERFECT!!

      Like

  7. Okay, I can already tell, Imma have to come back to this post with a pencil and notepaper. Worldbuilding is definitely not my strong point, but I think your tips will really help! 😊
    Also… *whispers* I want that story about the witches and wizards now… 😁

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ahaha! (…I think that means I did my job right? 😆)
      I totally hope they help you!!!
      Oooo, I wonder if I should write that…I completely just threw that idea into the post, but hey, I totally wouldn’t mind writing a book like that 😝

      Like

  8. Oooh, thank you! I need to get around to building my world, and these were really helpful.

    I’ve created a map, and sometimes I just stare at it, trying to fill it with various countries and places…

    Story Embers has an awesome article about how to make up slang for your world, by the way.🙂.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re totally welcome!! I’m so glad!

      Ooh, yes, I’ve 100% done that before 😂

      Ooo, that sounds so cool!! Thanks for mentioning it, I’ll give it a read 😁

      Liked by 1 person

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