World-building Tip: 15 Details to Remember

Photo credit: Stuck in Customs on Flickr
After building a new planet from scratch for a recently completed WIP, I think it’s safe to say that I’ve spent the past many months learning a hell of a lot about world-building.

While I’ve nowhere near mastered the art (I don’t think you ever master any aspect of writing), I did come to realize through many revisions and devouring many richly built books, that a major factor in building a fully-realized world involves getting to know your world down to the intricate details.

While there are probably hundreds of details that go into building a world for your novel, I’ve narrowed down a list of fifteen particularly important ones (at least to me), to help you develop your world.
  1. Setting. Where is your world? What is the landscape like? If you’re building from scratch, it is a Pangea? An island? Several continents? The lay of the land affects just about everything, and thus should be figured out pretty early on. 

  2. Climate. Does your story take place in a humid rainforest? A desert? Somewhere mountainous with arid, frozen fields? A riverside oasis? Does the climate vary, or is it primarily one type? Climate plays a huge role in the development of culture, food, clothing, etc. 

  3. Other cultures/countries. One of my favorite elements about some of my most-adored fantasy books like Shadow & Bone, The Girl of Fire and Thorns and Graceling is the presence of several cultures. To me, this really helps flesh out the world, because we learn that our MC’s surroundings isn’t all that there is to it. Are there other cultures in your world besides the one your MC is in? Do they get along? Ignore each other? Clash frequently? How are they different? These are all questions you can answer to help to fully flesh out a rich and interesting world.

  4. Social structure. What are the classes like? Is your society primarily one class, or are there different castes? Do the classes intermingle, or is that forbidden? 

  5. Clothes. What do the people wear? Does it depend on social class or culture? Remember that whatever the normal attire is, it should be climate-appropriate. 

  6. Government. Is it one government? Several? Is it a monarchy, democracy, oligarchy, anarchy, republic, some combination thereof, or something else entirely? 

  7. Technology. As far as technological process goes, where is your society as a whole? Are they the equivalent of medieval times? Some form of steampunk? A modern-day equivalent? Far advanced? 

  8. Language. Do your characters speak English or something else? Does everyone speak the same language? Does the language differ depending on formalities? Are there dead languages? You don’t necessarily have to make up a language (although if you’re a nerd like me, you very well might), but language barriers are certainly something to consider when building your world. 

  9. Measurements. This is one I didn’t really think about until it occurred to me that minutes, weeks, months, feet, inches and miles didn’t exist in the world I was building. How do your people measure time? Distance? Temperature? Knowing is more important than you might think. 

  10. Food. This is a fun one, and can be a great reflection of the world. What is a typical meal for your characters? Does it differ depending on social classes or ethnicities? It’s likely that the type of food your characters eat will be heavily influenced by their surroundings (for example, coastal cities will probably eat a lot of seafood while landlocked people will depend more on foods that are grown or hunted), which is why knowing your setting and climate early on is so important. 

  11. History. How did your society come to be? Who are important figures for your people? What historical heroes and villains have played a part in your world? These types of details are great for naming cities, events or months (July and August, for example, come from Julius and Augustus Caesar, and we all know who Washington D.C. and Washington state were named after). This will also affect relationships between countries or territories (assuming you have more than one), laws, customs, legends, etc.  

  12. Religion. What religions are prevalent in your world? Does everyone share the same religion (either by choice, custom or law), or does it vary? Do they believe in science or something more concrete than deities? Do they have monotheistic, polytheistic or atheistic beliefs? Is religion (or not believing in a religion) taboo? 

  13. Customs. This covers just about everything from daily rituals (like shaving, brushing teeth, or even praying) to larger-scale yearly rituals, such as birthdays (if they celebrate them), holidays or other life events that are considered significant. What is a funeral like? Or a birth? Is there an age that’s particularly important to celebrate? Are there significant historical dates or religious beliefs that determine important days? Do they believe that celebrations shouldn’t be done at all? 

  14. Values. What is important to your society? Beauty? Physical strength? Intellect? Education? Athletics? Wealth (and if so, what determines wealth? It doesn’t necessarily have to be currency)? Are material goods important, or is something less tangible like faith, relationships or power more important? Do values clash between countries or cultures? 

  15. Ethnicities. Is your world monoethnic? Are there several ethnicities, and if so, where did they come from? Is it location-based? Are certain ethnicities considered more desirable than others? Are any ethnicities persecuted or worshipped? 
There are just a couple factors to consider when building a world for your novel. What details make a book’s world come alive to you? 

Twitter-sized bites:
Building a world for your WIP? Here are 15 details to remember while developing your setting. (Click to tweet)  
Effective world-building isn't easy, but writer @Ava_Jae shares 15 details important to any richly built setting. (Click to tweet)


Ava Jae said...

Yes! I've used that list, too. Well, some of it's a pretty hugenormous list.

Thanks, Emma!

Jessie D. said...

Awesome list! I never considered whether there were dead languages, strangely. I've made up 3 languages, and never thought about dead ones! It's interesting to think about, as well as dead phrases or words in the modern language. (For example, who uses "thee" or "thou", even though technically they're English words?) Thanks for the tips!

Ava Jae said...

You're so welcome, Jessie! Dead languages can add some really nice texture to a world because it adds implicit history—all with just a mention of a language (or languages) that are no longer used. :)

Relina said...

Great post here! I hadn't thought about climate at all, so it was kind of refreshing to see that mentioned here.

Ava Jae said...

Thank you so much, Relina! Glad to hear you found it helpful. :)

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