World Building (An Intro)

Photo by Bethan Phillips

Sometimes those of us who have been gifted with the beautifully written literature of our favorite authors cannot fathom the amount of hard work, sacrifice and loss of sanity that goes into what we read. Take a second and think about your favorite piece of literature. Imagine for a moment the environment of the main character, the culture they experience, the city they explore, the people they meet. All of these details, large and small, make up the world in which the character lives.

And then imagine how much is not written. Writers are known to trim down and remove so many fantastic details that may go unseen. We are taught as writers to keep the reader engaged through concise story delivery and restrain the desire to shower our audience with an overabundance of information. To the writer, the living and breathing world is much more than just a backdrop to a story of a loved character, it is a place their mind resides for the many hours they spend whittling away at their craft.

While I’m sure I could go on and on about the aches or pains of editing, this post is about giving a glimpse into the exciting, exhausting but necessary step in writing. World Building.

What is World Building?

Now I know some will say, “But my characters are only exposed to one city. Why should I waste my time fleshing out a whole world?! Isn’t that just extra work?” I hear you! I do. But when I speak of world building, I am speaking of the process of creating an environment for your characters and story to ‘live’, not the actual application of creating a whole world (unless you really want to!).

In essence it is building an interactive location for the characters of your story to exist and grow. It is the fleshing out of style, culture, language, and many other facets that define your characters’ interactions. It can be as limited as a home, a city or any other of easily traversed locations. But it can also be as expansive as multiple planets in a galaxy far, far away. It’s all up to you and what your story needs.


After interacting with multiple writers, working on my own worlds and investing time to research the topic, I have found that there are two main approaches to world building. Of course with all things creative, each person must find their own way through the process of building their own individual environments and may prefer one method to another.

The first method I call the “Drill Down Method”, which refers to the idea of taking the larger picture or world and drilling down into the details that are necessary for your story to be told. The second method is the “Expanding Circle Method”, which refers to the idea of taking a starting point related to the character and beginning to expand outwards to find or develop the environment they are interacting with throughout their story.

Drill Down Method

My mind tends towards this method for the majority of the worlds I build or stories I tell. The great thing about it is the fact that you will, when you are finished, have a great understanding of your world and its details. The biggest drawback? You will have a great amount of notes, information and time invested in the creation of a whole freaking world! Just scared the pants off of a few of you, I know. It’s easy to get lost in the details, distracted by the possibilities and burn yourself out if you decide you must know EVERYTHING. (Not recommended, by the way.) Though this may discourage some, the value of having a fully fleshed out, literal world or universe can be essential to the development of your characters. I cannot tell you the amount of times I had intended to outline a character one way only to have them become another due to the detail-soaked world’s influence.

The best example of my use of this method comes from one of my current projects. A world sprung from the death of a great god. Simple concept, right? I had wanted an environment rich with gods and their conflict along with the magical influence that waxed and waned depending on the relationship between the world itself, the gods and the mortals upon it. So I started with a sketch of the world and a few ideas. I went from there and broke down the world into a narrative to tell the story about the ages that passed from the beginning of time until the current age of where my characters would appear. I then took this information and broke the world down into large regions, regions into countries, countries into city states and city states into minor locations. I defined a general idea of the religion, the current gods, the culture behind it and any other detail that would influence the shaping of the minds or behavior around my characters.

It was and still is a lot of work, because there is always something to be discovered in my large, vast world. Due to my desire to go from large to small, I now have the ability to take my characters, or create even new ones, and write a completely different story. It gives me the freedom to experiment within my own world limited only by my creativity and rules of the setting I build.

Expanding Circle Method

On the other hand, Jei’s mind tends to lean towards the “Expanding Circle Method”. Over the years Jei has utilized it both in his prose and his storytelling. I have seen Jei’s natural talent with being able to organically grow a story from a single pinpoint into a vast encompassing world with details that bring the characters and their environment to life. And while I admire Jei for being able to do so, it does have its drawbacks as well. While the Drill Down Method suffers from the too-much-information issue, the Expanding Circle Method suffers from the opposite. When you are growing from one point to the next, you may not give enough information for the reader to follow the train of thought or tone you wish to convey.

There is also the issue of having to constantly reconnect your start point to your next circle. Now, practiced authors who are comfortable with this method will be able to trace back their steps of information and make sure it lines up in a way that is acceptable to their narrative flow. Others may find issues such as being forced to rewrite the first circle of information in favor of the fifth circle they stumbled across as their story progressed.

A great example of Jei’s use of this method comes from a collaborative story that we did together years ago. We had decided we wanted to write something together that did not exist in a current narrative world and had no desire at the time to continue our past projects. Instead we wanted to take a shot at something new. So we hashed out the genre, the general theme and a couple of characters we wanted to explore. With only that information to go on, Jei opened up the first few pages with an introduction to one of the main characters interacting with a club that existed within the city he had decided to create. In a matter of four pages, he had outlined the nightlife and the location of the city being on a port. He gave it a name, brought in a minor character and created what was seen as the first circle of the world.

This method of creation continued on for over 500 written pages between the two of us. Now was it all good? No. Did we have some connection issues with the circles? Yes. But with use of this method, the world grew organically and created a thriving world that we did and still explore.

In the end, both methods were effective and created a living, breathing world for the characters we wanted to tell the story. World Building is an essential part of writing no matter what method you may choose.

What kind of methods have you seen? Which ones do you favor? Is there one you’d like to know more about?

3 thoughts on “World Building (An Intro)

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