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From the Blog: How to Make Interesting Worldbuilding Choices

Timeline update for the "Now What?" Novel Excerpt Contest: Thank you everyone who shared their excerpts with us! We received around 650 submissions, so it's going to take us a little while to read them all, pass on the finalists to our guest judge, and then wait for her choices. We hope to announce winning excerpts the week of March 28. We'll announce them here first, in YWP Breaking News. 


We can’t assume that everyone knows the world we’re talking about, right? Luckily, author and previous Camp NaNoWriMo counselor Cass Morris has a few suggestions to help us more deeply explore our worldbuilding:

One of the most powerful things we can do as writers is create a world. What we write holds a mirror up to reality, where we can examine and criticize our own world or try to build a better one. We get to play god with our characters, and in doing so, we exercise a great deal of power in what we choose to reflect, to magnify, to laud, and to condemn.

So how can we make interesting choices, rather than relying on stale tropes, biased perspectives, or common assumptions about “the way things are” or “the way things were”?

Here are five basic concepts I suggest you explore to develop a richly detailed and unique world:

1. Family

What is a family structure? Is marriage tied to finances, or is it a purely emotional bond? Do you live with your spouse? Do you raise kids together? Is monogamy expected? How many people can be in a marriage? Does “legitimacy” mean anything to family bonds? To inheritance? Is adoption common? 

2.Gender & Sexuality

What sexualities are socially permissible? How does your world conceive of gender? Does it accept third genders, nonbinary people, gender fluidity? If your world has rigid gender roles, or if one gender has more power and privilege than the other, make sure that’s a choice you examine, not just something you presume.

3. Race

What do race relations and ideas of ethnicity look like in your world? A historical or invented world may conceive identity very differently than we do today. If you have aliens or fantasy races, like elves, dwarves, or goblins, examine them carefully to avoid perpetuating racist stereotypes or erasing real-world issues with a handwave. I recommend Writing the Other as an excellent resource to help you think through these ideas respectfully).

4. The Afterlife and Religion

What do your characters believe happens to them when they die? This can affect so much else in a society: how eager or reluctant they are for war, how they preserve assets for future generations, how they conceive of sin and virtue. So what’s your basis? Gods or no gods? Ancestor worship? Natural spirits? And how exclusionary is it? Can your various cults play nice together, or are they trying to wipe each other out?

5. Government 

Who has power, how do they get it, and how do they hold onto it? There are so many options beyond “ye olde feudalism” and our modern conception of representative republics. Figure out what your structure is, how it came to be that way, and what other beliefs and structures, like religion or the military, it might be tied to.

These basic concepts will touch many other elements of your characters’ lives, from architecture to economy to warfare. They can also help generate wonderful, inventive plot hooks; in making deliberate choices about your world, you may find new challenges and opportunities for your characters.

While worldbuilding is typically associated with fantasy and science fiction, it’s important to real-world genres as well. The world in your book, whether invented or a version of our own, should be as diverse and complex as the world your readers live in. In historical fiction, the challenge is often in distinguishing what “everyone knows” about a period from the lived reality of people during that time. In a modern romance or thriller or anything else, details as small as what someone thinks of as a “normal” lunch can communicate elements of that character’s personal history and the world they operate in.

Make interesting choices. Your readers will be grateful.

Cass Morris works as a writer and educator in central Virginia. Her debut series, The Aven Cycle, is Roman-flavored historical fantasy released by DAW Books. She is also one-third of the team behind the Hugo Award Finalist podcast Worldbuilding for Masochists. She holds a Master of Letters from Mary Baldwin University and a BA in English and History from the College of William and Mary. She reads voraciously, wears corsets voluntarily, and will beat you at MarioKart. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Patreon. Make sure to check out The Aven Cycle and Worldbuilding for Masochists. 

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