1.) World–building must serve the story or it’s only window-dressing.
I love world-building. That’s one reason I wrote a textbook and workbook about it. But if the world-building has no connection to the story, then why bother? Use the cool things you make up to create issues and conflict in your plot.
Make sure your world-building impacts the plot. Doing so will automatically elevate your story and grab reader attention.
Now, I understand that in epic fantasy worlds, creating a vast landscape of shiny things for the reader to dive into is part and parcel. But even then, epic fantasy readers have limits on just how much insanely technical or detailed content they’re going to ingest before they’re ready for it to effect the plot in a meaningful way, whether on a small or large scale. If you have a dragon, at the very least have it attack your hero or have it get a broken leg or something when your hero is riding it (preferably at the most inconvenient time).
2.) Figure out the following major categories for societies: gender, birth, family, marriage, death.
The anthropologist side of me is coming at you now. These five categories highlight key aspects of culture and society. Figuring out these areas will automatically nail down your race in highly usable ways. These five categories are especially important for human or humanoid races. However, I would suggest you subject even your less-humanoid races to this analysis.
First of all, it will help you to make key decisions about how to make your non-humanoid race different from everyday norms.
Second, it will keep you from making your non-humanoid race too inhuman. Is there such a thing in speculative fiction? Yes, if you want to relate to readers and sell books. Even in Lelia Rose Foreman’s Shatterworld, her race of exceptionally odd aliens still show a protectiveness towards their young–a family trait that humans also have. Thus, even though this race has tentacles and other weird things, the reader will still ultimately find a bond of commonality and a reason to cheer for them. Conversely, if you want to make a disposable, blaster-target-practice inhuman race? Make them as different from humans as possible in really odd or repulsive ways.
3.) Always look for contrasts between the world–building and the protagonist’s goals.
Yay for contrasts!
This tip connects to Tip #1 about making the world-building impact the story. In Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, the Hunger Games themselves are a key part of the dystopian world-building. Collins uses the selection of Primrose Everdeen at the reaping to push Katniss into the Hunger Games out of protective instinct. Then, within the games Katniss ends up making choices that directly conflict with the official purpose of the games. Her goals, to survive and to preserve the life of someone who reminds her of Prim, conflicts with the bloodthirsty spectacle of the games. The fascinating thing about Katniss is she is largely reactive through nearly all of the story, yet Collins still manages to push her buttons so that she develops into this contrasting character. Imagine what you could do with a character who is intentionally bucking the system!
4.) Make sure to have fun – put in quirky things like favorite foods, odd body modifications, or flaming unicorns as everyday transportation.
As long as you keep this aligned with Tip #1, feel free to go ahead and stamp your personality all over your world. This is speculative fiction. We can make up all kinds of crazy things and, as long as we execute it well, readers will eat up our stories. Own your favorite things and own what is unique about you. Don’t be afraid to pull inspiration from your own history, passions, and experiences. The authenticity will bleed out onto the page and make your stories that much more compelling.
For instance, I like ice cream…and frozen custard…and whipped cream…and pretty much any kind of dairy-based frozen dessert. Does this show up in my stories? You bet. In fact, I may or may not have written a web comic where the main character partly sets off the whole adventure based upon an argument over a fair price for a certain flavor ($35 is NEVER an acceptable price for ice cream, by the way). And flaming ice cream is the least of the weird flavors I’ve come up with–did I mention I also like things set on fire?
5.) Everyone believes something – know your culture’s worldview.
Worldview is that big, crazy, mixed up pile of beliefs and life experiences and nurture and personality that form into a lense by which we view and make judgments about the world. It’s a pretty complicated thing and not something you can just draw up for a character in one day–unless you’re one of those authors whose stories NEVER change or develop during drafting. However, knowing the worldview of your character or society is a great way to tap into core motivations. From there, you have all the tools to push them into various plots as you choose. For more information, check out What’s Up With Worldview?
Want a quick and easy way to remember these tips? I just so happen to have a limited supply of exclusive bookmarks featuring all five. Share this blog post between now and Saturday, August 13th on your choice of social media and post a link in the comments and I will personally mail you a signed bookmark (I’ll sign the side that doesn’t have the tips 😉 ). They’re shiny, sturdy, and blue! Perfect for marking books or poking someone with…or whacking someone with…not that I’ve done this…