Worldbuilding Tips from the UK Editor of The Martian
In this Reedsy Live Chat, book editor Michael Rowley shares some awesome worldbuilding advice, and answers all your questions on writing, editing and publishing! Find out more about him here
'Worldbuilding' is a term you’ll hear from a lot of writers – especially when you’re talking about the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres. Great authors can create a living, breathing environment for their stories, invite readers into another world and make us homesick for a place we’ve never been.
Reedsy professional Michael Rowley has collaborated with numerous authors on building science fiction and fantasy worlds during his time as Editorial Director of Del Rey UK. He was the UK editor for The Martian, Andy Weir’s bestselling novel – now an Oscar-nominated film starring Matt Damon – and Django Wexler’s critically acclaimed Shadow Campaigns fantasy series.
Michael recently hosted a Reedsy Live Chat on the very topic of worldbuilding. You can re-watch his video or jump to a summary on the following topics:
There are two basic types of writers: those who plan and those who make it up as they go along. Planners sit down and work all the details out beforehand, determining the geography and history of their world before starting the first draft. The other kind of writer is often described as a “pantser” who “flies by the seat of their pants.”
Naturally, each approach has its advantages and pitfalls.
Planning can quickly turn into over-planning, where the writer becomes so engrossed in worldbuilding that they constantly find reasons to delay writing the book itself. Have you ever told yourself that you'd definitely do some writing, just after you tidy the kitchen or hoover the bedroom? Over-planning is the same thing, but with creating character bios and crypto-cartography in place of domestic chores.
Writing yourself into a hole
Writers who prefer not to make copious notes beforehand will often start with an idea or a character and simply get on with the business of writing. Without the need to slavishly stick to a detailed plan, 'pantsers' often find it easier to squeeze out their first draft. The downside is that your revision process will take longer, requiring a lot more work to deal with continuity issues at the end.
Does your story take place in our world?
Broadly speaking, your book with either take place in our world or belong to what’s often called ‘second world fantasy’. That’s a way of saying that it’s an entirely fictional place. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar cycle are classic examples of ‘Second World’ fantasy: those writers have the freedom to do whatever they want with their books, untethered by historical paths or rules.
You, the worldbuilder, now have the responsibility of giving your location a sense of history and geography. Every aspect of your world requires some attention:
What are the characters like in this world? Is there more than one sentient species? Do they all speak the same language? Is this a planet just like Earth? Or a desert planet of some sort? Does magic exist? What’s the technology like?
Setting aside 'second world' fiction for a moment, ‘real’ worlds require just as much preparation, if not more. After all, you are somewhat constrained by historical specifics, technology, and politics. If your book takes place thousands of years in the future, in a post-apocalyptic landscape like Terry Brooks’ Shannara novels, you should figure out what’s happened in the intervening years, and how the geography may have changed.
Writing historical fiction and historical fantasy will require a decent chunk of research. While some amount of historical license is accepted –if not encouraged– in these genres, your readers will notice something’s wrong if your book has Atilla the Hun kidnapping Florence Nightingale without the help of a time machine.
Draw a map
Lots of fantasy readers like referring to a map on page one whenever the characters are going somewhere new. They’re not always necessary but are useful for defining a sense of distance and space. Drawing a simple map can be a useful part your worldbuilding process.
Writing your own history books
Civilizations are defined by their history. Okay, that’s a very broad statement, but it contains a kernel of truth. Writers should have a solid grasp on the history of their world, regardless of genre. If you’re writing a detective novel set in New Orleans, for example, the history of your ‘world’ is waiting to be discovered at a local library (or on the internet, more likely).
Taking inspiration from the past
The line between historical fiction and fantasy is somewhat blurred, and with good reason. A good fantasy world will have a history that’s every bit as interesting as the one we have here on Earth Prime.
Your inspiration can come from anywhere. Going back to A Game of Thrones, Martin famously patterned his book's central conflict after The War of the Roses. Using a veiled version of English history as his starting point, Martin then fills in the rest of his rich history with dragons, mad kings and ice zombies.
Between now and the future
Let’s say you’re dealing with a futuristic version of our reality; there’s still plenty of work to be done. You need to have some idea of what’s happened between now and the time when you set your book. Start speculating on developments in technology and society. Then, crucially, figure out how these changes have affected the characters and cultures in your book.
Many Alternate History books stem from a single ‘what if’ question. Think of a single point of divergence: a moment in history that shifted ever-so-slightly, leading to changes that ripple forward through time.
In Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle the point of divergence comes with the assassination of President Franklin Roosevelt in the early 1930s. It results in a continuation of the Great Depression and American isolationism, allowing Germany and Japan to win World War II. The book then answers the question “what would 1960s America be like if the Allies lost the war?”
Or, to cite another example from popular culture: “What would happen if a bully from 1950s Hill Valley received a Sports Almanac bought by a teenage time traveller named Marty McFly?”
Worldbuilding and Developing Cultures
In science fiction and fantasy, it’s common to see writers adapt cultural archetypes from history or existing mythology – be Arthurian, Norse or Aboriginal. It’s good practice to avoid cliche and stereotype: don’t just copy-and-paste existing cultures into your second world fantasy. Use them as a jumping-off point but quickly make them your own and have fun creating something new.
‘Real World’ science fiction allows you to speculate how a culture might realistically change over time. Michael posits the idea of an Icelandic generation ship – a spacecraft designed to travel to new worlds over the course of generations. If we were to rejoin this ship centuries later, how will the Icelandic culture have changed? Certain parts of their society could become more dominant thanks to technology or the culture might revert to the old Norse religions (or some misremembered version of them)?
Mind your language
When talking about language and worldbuilding, most of us will probably jump to thoughts of Tolkien’s Elvish languages or enthusiastic fans barking to each other in Klingon. But language is something that applies to books across the board.
If you’re writing a mainstream novel where your protagonist (a Medical Examiner for the NYPD, let’s say) goes to Cuba to on a case, will she be able to speak Spanish? Will the local detectives speak perfect English? Your decisions here will affect how the story develops and can make the difference to whether your book is believable.
The Common Tongue
In genre fiction, it’s sometimes easier to put language to one side. Maybe everybody speaks the same language, or perhaps there’s a standard galactic language which has reached supremacy. In science fiction, you can make language problems disappear by adding a ‘whatever device’ like the translator in Doctor Who’s TARDIS or Douglas Adams’ Babel Fish (see below).
Languages can be an interesting and exciting avenue of worldbuilding. The spoken word is a reflection of the cultures that spawned them, and the evolution of the language will often indicate some societal change. The youths in Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange speak a dialect called “Nadsat” which mixes Russian and English words. That choice alone implies a lot about the dystopian world of the book, suggesting a future where Soviet culture had spread further West.
How much science should go into science fiction?
Obviously, science and technology loom large in science fiction, but that doesn’t mean you need a Ph.D. before you start with your worldbuilding. Let’s look at both sides of the SF spectrum:
This is a brand of writing with a particular basis in technological fact. Best known for his screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke is perhaps the greatest pioneers in this field. Many of his stories are rooted in science fact. Fun fact: Clarke started his career in science journalism and is often credited with popularizing the idea of geostationary satellites. Countless Hard Science writers thrive on technical details, but the great ones also weave compelling stories with great characters.
The important point is this: if you choose to write about science and technology, you need to get your facts rights. Many fans of the genre will likely know more about science than you do. If you get the details wrong, they will call you out on it.
You can always seek advice. The internet is a wellspring of information: there are science forums and Subreddits with members who will be more than willing to help you out. If you are genuinely shy about contacting people, Wikipedia is not a terrible place to start your research.
Dammit, Jim! I’m a writer, not a physicist!
If you’re not exactly science-minded but still want to write in the genre, you can always take the lead from writers like the late Iain M. Banks. His beloved science fiction novels are about The Culture, a post-scarcity society where all work is automated, and the citizens leave all the big decisions to a benevolent A.I.
Banks’ universe is full of science fiction tropes like droids and spaceships but he doesn’t really explain how any of it works. It makes perfect sense from a storytelling perspective: novels set in modern day rarely how iPads work. To us, they’re simply a function of everyday living. Banks makes a conscious decision to focus on story and character and he proves that you don’t need to know much science to write great science fiction.
Play your ‘get out of jail free’ card
You’d rather not ignore the science? Well, this is still fiction we’re talking about, so there’s an option to make a whatever device which relies on fake science that no reader needs to understand.
Ursula Le Guin created the “ansible” in her Hainish cycle of books which is a device that allows instantaneous communication between systems of planets. There’s no particular basis in real world science, but readers have accepted it largely because it aids the story. Since she first introduced it in1962’s Rocannon’s World, the ansible has become a staple of science fiction, with many other authors like Orson Scott Card using it in their books as well.
If your characters want to travel to between galaxy in fewer than three million years, you’ll want some faster-than-light travel options. The best-known example is Star Trek’s “Warp Drives” which would reshape pockets of space, allowing the Enterprise to travel great distances without technically moving faster than light. The science is fuzzy at best, but most fans don’t seem to mind.
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If you’re looking for inspiration, Wikipedia has a pretty decent entry on FTL travel.
Technology in Fantasy
You can’t escape science and technology, even in fantasy fiction. Depending on how advanced your world is, there may be black powder weapons like bombs and cannons. There could be steam-powered machines or devices powered by magic. Consider all these aspects, and if you decide to introduce any of these into your world, they will require consistency and sound internal logic.
As with science, if you’re going to have magic in a fantasy book, it should have firm rules and boundaries (or a ‘system’) – whether it’s in our world or any other. There must be a solid sense of cause-and-effect, or you risk alienating your reader. With an ‘anything goes’ approach to magic, your characters’ actions will cease to have consequences: you can bring anyone back from the dead, time can be reversed, your hero can escape from danger just by ‘magic’. Have a good idea of how magic works in your world, who can use it, and what limits there are to its power.
Take inspiration from the books you love and see how their magic systems work. The sorcerers in David Eddings’ Belgariad manifest their willpower through a system he calls ‘The Will and the Word’. It doesn’t require any potions or scrolls, but there are rules and limits: resurrecting the dead, for example, is forbidden.
If magic is widespread, how do people learn how to use it? Trudi Canavan’s Black Magician trilogy has the idea of a Magician’s Guild, where people work their way up through a structured hierarchy. Wizards in Harry Potter attend boarding school and end up with soul-crushing jobs in magical middle-management. By imagining how magic would function practically in your world, your book will become all the more believable and relatable.
Also, consider what it means to have magic. What are the consequences on both your world and the people using it? Maybe it takes a physical toll on the user. If your protagonist is the world’s only sorcerer, would that him or her an instant celebrity? Remember your ‘cause and effect’ and you won’t go far wrong.
There’s no need to follow any prescribed model – the great joy of genre fiction is the freedom to invent new ideas. Just stick to your rules, maintain consistent internal logic and readers will be happy to accept the reality you’ve created.
Do we need to know how the magic is made?
As with science fiction, you can choose not to explain how magic works and allow it retain some of its mystery. After all, as soon as you explain all of Magic’s secrets, it almost ceases to be magic.
Star Wars fans remember the ‘midichlorians’ debacle, where George Lucas revealed how a Jedi’s sensitivity to ‘The Force’ was a result of microbes in their body. Previously happy to accept the concept of The Force, fans were presented with the solution to a question they never wanted to be answered.
Getting to Grips with Politics
Whether you set your book on a spaceship, on a cruise liner, in a village, a vast metropolis, or a newspaper office, you will have to deal with internal and global politics.
How do your characters maneuver through a given system and achieve their agendas? People are inherently political creatures, so authors should always ask: what will those in power do to retain control? And how can those without power go about achieving their goals?
Of course, politics in worldbuilding will often refer to a radical change of social order like in Orwell’s totalitarian state in 1984 or the radical Christian theocracy of Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. By considering the political setting of your book, you can make your book relevant to modern society and –dare we say it?– socially conscious.
Worldbuilding isn’t just for SF and Fantasy
Even in a contemporary setting, worldbuilding is still essential – though it may not seem like it at times. With a good sense of history and current events, you can avoid writing something that’s patently false.
Mistakes commonly occur when an author writes about countries where they do not live. If your book is set in Jamaica, plan a ‘research trip’ to this island (or just go use Google Streetview to get the geography right).
If your book is a police procedural, like Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels or Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, find out everything you can about police procedure in Scotland, or California, or wherever your setting is. The British Police Operational Handbook can be bought on Amazon and many US cities make their local law enforcement manuals available to download. A quick web search is an easy first port of call.
While you don’t have to reside in France to write a book set in Marseille, some topics are harder to bluff. Should you write about the law or engineering without adequate preparation, you risk coming off like a dilettante.
Using characters to build your world
Whether you’re using an omniscient narrator or writing an epistolary where the story is told through diary entries, consider how information about your world is relayed to the reader. Does the narrator assume the reader knows nothing of this world and explain details accordingly? Or will they speak to them as if they already live in the world, which means that the author has to convey the world’s history and geography through context clues?
Michael mentions Lee Child’s Jack Reacher character as an excellent reader proxy. In Killing Floor, the first book of the series, we learn that Reacher is an American who was born and raised abroad, living on military bases all of his life. He’s effectively a tourist in his own country which allows readers to discover details of this world through his eyes. It helps to create empathy and provides a reasonable excuse for the character to ask questions regarding his new environment.
Miscellaneous Suggestions for Worldbuilding
Michael offers a few tips to help first-time writers with their worldbuilding.
Take lots of notes
Anytime you make observations that you think may inform your story or world, write it down because – without exception – you will forget a good idea at some point in your writing life. Many writers still carry around a notepad but there are also great options like Scrivener or Evernote that let you sync notes between your phone, tablet, and computer.
Start with a story, and not a world
Readers love a vivid world, but without a compelling story and characters, your book will never come alive so make the world compliment the story and not the other way around. Use your worldbuilding process to help the plot and the characters and to bring out the best from your ideas.
Think about conflict
The basis of all drama is conflict, so try out elements of local or global conflict in your world. Even if you’re writing about a perfect society, there almost certainly will be a hidden undercurrent of tension can form the spine of your narrative.
Unless you want to be like Garth Marenghi, the cult British TV character and horror writer who professes to have written more books than he’s read, you should take in as much as you can. Enjoy the books, but remain critical: analyze what you’re reading and form an idea of what’s working in your marketplace.
- Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff Vandermeer
- Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction by Lisa Tuttle
- How To Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card
What is your approach to worldbuilding? Do you plan ahead, or do you prefer to make it up as you go? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below.