Worldbuilding 101: The key to creating a world readers can experience

Worldbuilding 101: The key to creating a world readers can experience

Major storms are crawling across the Central Plains today. There’s a super high possibility that we’ll see a massive outbreak of tornadoes across South Central Kansas late this afternoon or early evening. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a TOR:CON index this high, but, in typical Midwestern fashion, it didn’t stop anyone from going about the day’s business.

All that meant for me is that I got my two-mile walk in earlier than normal so that I could get my shower finished before the lightning hit. Even now as I’m writing this blog post, my dad is outside tilling up our garden plot (in bare feet and shorts … I probably need to go smack him). Severe weather may mean hail and tornadoes, sure, but it also means rain. No need to let precious moisture go to waste!

But as I was walking this morning, with the fierce south wind my only companion, I listened to the whispering of the wheat heads in the fields around me. The rasping sound they make isn’t as defined as it will be in a month or so. The wheat is still soft and green. In a month, when it’s golden and dry, the rasping whisper will rattle in the wind.

I get to walk along loose gravel roads with the whisper of wheat heads in my ears and the lowing of cows on the breeze. That’s the world I live in. So how can I, as a writer, translate what I have experienced to an experience someone can feel or see or taste through the written word?

It’s not an easy task. That’s what makes worldbuilding such a challenge. Because you can sit and theorize on governmental structures and family hierarchies all day long and not create a world your readers can experience. You can master the art of setting description and vivid vocabulary that paints a beautiful scene without creating a world that affects your readers emotionally.

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The key to creating a world that your readers can experience is character.

Readers care about your characters (or they should), so if the world you’ve built affects your characters, it will affect your readers too.

It’s important to lay the groundwork of a world when you’re building it (government, economics, the rest of the building blocks we’ve already discussed), but all of that work will be for nothing if you don’t have a character who experiences the world. That is what makes a world feel real.

A character who experiences your built world is what makes it feel real.

Building a world the way I’ve described over the last few months, you have a character already in existence. Using this method, you build the world around your character. But now, the final step to bringing your world to life, is to place your character into the world and let him or her experience it.

For example, let’s use Building Block 6: Agriculture. As Celtica was a wealthy country with many fields and different types of produce, individual farmers would sell their crops at local markets. Celticans believe very strongly in individual liberty and community involvement, and the markets are ingrained in their culture as both a source of income as well as a hub for connection with others.

The market overflowed with the smells of baking bread, roasting meats, and heavy spices like cinnamon, curry, cardamom, and cumin. Other more flowery spices like basil and oregano and rosemary were used more medicinally and were more fragrant in the housewares and remedies section of the market.

Some booths sold hand-thrown pottery, smelling of earth and sweet clay. Some booths sold cheeses that ranged in scent from cool and creamy to sharp and sour. Some booths sold woven tapestries for walls and floors, dyed in brilliant reds and blues and woven with intricate detail, patterns the size of pinheads.

Musicians piped, the reedy whistle of wooden flutes cheerful above the rhythmic thud-thud-thud of drums. Children ran and played, faces sticky with the remnants of candied plums.

Have you got a feel for the market?

Can you smell it? See it? Taste it?

Nice isn’t it? It’s a place I’d like to visit. But can be it feel real? Can it become something more than just a nice description?

     Velanna shifted the coarse weave of her sling bag lower on her shoulder to gather the rough green moringa pods from the stack on Shahamar’s market stall counter. The bulbous, balding merchant nodded at her as she sorted through the long, lumpy seed pods, choosing only those with skin like wood.

She exchanged a stack of bills for the sack of seed pods and turned up the dirt street toward the laughter of children ten paces ahead. She central fountain of the Rajahansa Market sparkled in the afternoon sun, water droplets like diamonds scattering across the backs of the graceful white birds that circled a tiered tower of carved marble.

A boy with thick, black hair leaned across the marble step, waving a bedraggled length of rosemary at one of the swans. He beckoned it with hopeful eyes and a bright smile.

The sharp scent of fennel tickled her nose as she glided toward the fountain and the boy. Master Garam stood behind his market stall, wooden counter loaded down with freshly baked naan rolls. Master Garam nodded gravely at her, deep green eyes twinkling.

Velanna diverted from her straight path to the fountain, with a smile and a nod, and handed Master Garam two copper coins. His fingers, worn and wiry from years of bread making and saber training, closed around the coin, and he nodded to the rolls.

Velanna scooped two of the rolls into her hands and pointed herself toward the boy at the fountain. The buttery warmth of the naan rolls seeped into her fingers, the licorice scent baked into the bread a tug at her memory.

She’d been a child the last time she’d indulged in one of Master Garam’s naan rolls. The memory of the salty crunch of the crust, the softness of the bread within, studded with spices and steam, made her mouth water even now. She’d sat on that fountain and savored every bite.

The boy beamed at her as she approached, green eyes shining in the sun. “Mother, the swan stopped to honk at me.”

Velanna sat on the ledge of the fountain. “Here, Tioga. A treat.” She handed him a roll.

The boy set down his branch of rosemary and crawled onto the ledge beside her, taking the roll in his little hands and cupping it close to his face. He inhaled the scent of licorice and yeast.

Can you tell a difference? Which one do you prefer? Which one makes you see the market, and which one makes you feel it and see it?

The building blocks of culture are essential. Setting detail and description are vital. But if you have all of that without a character to experience it, your readers won’t feel it. And one of the greatest joys of storytelling is giving readers an experience they can’t have in everyday life.

A.C. Williams

Amy Williams left a lucrative career in marketing to write novels about space cowboys, clumsy church secretaries, American samurai, and alternate dimensions. Along the way, she also discovered a passion for teaching other creative professionals how to use technology to make life easier. Through video instruction or one-on-one coaching, she teaches software, blogging, basic graphic design, and many other useful skills that help creative entrepreneurs get stuff done minus the frustration.

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