Three Worldbuilding Lessons From Bestsellers

by Bess McAllister
published in Writing

There’s nothing better than getting lost in the world of a book, swept up not just in the story but the rich setting, a place so real you could imagine yourself there. Whether it’s an actual time and place in history, the far distant future, a modern city or a completely imagined fantasy world, a setting can become a character in a book. Deepening your worldbuilding is a powerful tool to enrich the reading experience. Let’s take a look at some questions to ask to deepen your world–and how bestselling authors have used these techniques to great effect.

1) What Happened Before This Story Started?

One of my favorite threads in the Harry Potter books is the story of the Marauders–Harry’s dad, and his three best friends, Sirius, Remus and Peter. They have a harrowed history with Harry’s potions professor, Severus Snape, and were having adventures at Hogwarts long before Harry was born. However, we learn about them slowly, over the course of several books. Rowling doesn’t even introduce the Marauders until the third book, but she nods to them earlier–in fact, Hagrid mentions Sirius in the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone. As a reader, it’s delightful to realize there is a whole story before the story, one the author knows and is planning to tell you more about.

No world exists just in the timeline of the story (unless it’s some very specific science-fiction-y universe, or you’re writing about the beginning of Time). Take an afternoon and think about what happened before the inciting incident of your story. What was your protagonist’s childhood like? What about his parents? His grandparents? Now, ask the same for your secondary characters. Meriadoc Brandybuck isn’t the hero of The Lord of the Rings, but Tolkien had a deep knowledge of his family history, one that pops up in small ways throughout the book, creating a richer experience for the reader.

2) What are the Legends of Your World?

This might sound like it only applies to certain types of stories, but it can apply to any of them. Myths, legends and heroes create and shape the culture of a place, whether it’s a high school still obsessed with the beauty queen who graduated last year or a fantasy world that worships a hero who once slew a dragon. Knowing what these stories are–regardless of if they make it into the final book–will make the world richer and more believable. It also helps you dig into what makes your characters tick.

For example, take Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. Although Hobbits are known for–and celebrate–being predictable, simple and not doing anything unexpected, Bilbo’s mother was a Took. The Tooks have a legend that one of their ancestors married a fairy, which made them less Hobbit-like. Tolkien refers to this part of Bilbo’s ancestry as being key to his reckless decision to follow Gandalf on an adventure. In one stroke, he deepened the world and his main character in a delightful and interesting way that didn’t bog down the book.

What are the stories the people in your book tell? What kind of stories appeal to your protagonist? What about the secondary characters? Do these stories influence their decisions? How?

3) How Does Your World Celebrate and Commemorate?

Some of the most famous scenes in books center around weddings, parties, ceremonies or funerals. The way a culture commemorates these milestones in a person’s life says a lot about that culture, and often without words. It’s a concrete way to show how the world of your book is unique. Who doesn’t remember the scene in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince when all the students at Hogwarts raise their wands in homage to a fallen character? Or the first time the people of District Twelve raise their hands in the three-fingered salute to Katniss?

Do you have a moment in your book where a character dies, says goodbye or celebrates a huge milestone? Ask yourself how your specific characters would commemorate this. Repetition, here, can be incredibly powerful, so it can be useful to seed these symbols or sayings in early. For example, look at the salute in The Hunger Games. By the third book, that gesture means something powerful to the reader, not just Katniss. The same goes for Arya’s tutor in Game of Thrones. He asks her, “What do we say to the God of Death?” and she repeats, “Not today.” It’s a simple training tactic, until they’re in a life-or-death situation. Then the words, “Not today” take on a greater meaning for Arya and the reader.

There are so many more techniques to level up your world-building, and it can be a fun and useful exercise to explore them. Have fun with it! Dive deep. And remember–none of this information has to be in the book. In fact, you don’t want to load the narrative with backstory or details. But having a working knowledge of what else is going on in your world will inform your writing and strengthen your story.

Bess McAllister writes epic books in expansive worlds from a tiny town in the Midwest. Previously, she lived in New York and worked as a fiction editor at Tor Books. Now, she spends her days telling stories and helping other writers tell theirs. Her work is represented by Brooks Sherman of Janklow and Nesbit Associates.
Check out her editorial services and connect with on Instagram.

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