In A World… is a series of posts about world building, where our contributors share strategies and tips for creating well-rounded worlds.
For someone who loves writing science fiction and fantasy as much as I do, it’s surprising that world building has always been one of the most challenging aspects of writing for me. Just recently, I had to do a major revamp of a manuscript to strengthen the world building. Through the course of that monstrous revision (seriously, I hadn’t done that much heavy-lifting since revising the very earliest draft of this book) I started to reflect on what it actually means to have strong world building.
As I was figuring out what pieces of my world to change, what to cut, and what to put more focus on, it occurred to me that what makes a world compelling is the same thing that makes a plot or a character compelling–conflict. Once this idea crystallized, I was able to tackle my revisions with an eye toward using every aspect of my world–from the magic system and mythology to the politics and institutions–to hone and deepen the conflict of the overall story.
You may already be familiar with the idea that all stories can be boiled down to a few categories of conflict, usually summed up as person vs. self, person vs. nature, person vs. society, person vs. person, and person vs. the supernatural. With the exception of person vs. self, each of these classic story conflicts can be mapped onto an aspect of world-building. By asking a few broad questions about these conflict/world categories, you can build conflict into your world from the start.
- Political (person vs. person): Who has power and why? What do they use it for? Who has had power in the past, and what, if anything, has changed? How do people in this world show their power?
- Magic (person vs. the supernatural): Where does magic come from? Who wields it and how? How have the potency/frequency/kinds of magic that exist in this world changed over time?
- Nature (person vs. nature): What forces of nature do people grapple with? How do they adapt to these conditions? What resources have people benefited from? How have they designed their communities and societies around these resources? Who has access to these resources? Who doesn’t? How might access to these resources change?
- Culture (person vs. society): What are the key values and principles of this culture, and how did they evolve? How does this culture respond to outsiders? What other cultures has this culture either come into conflict with or been influenced by, and how? What type of person would have a hard time fitting in in this culture? (Quick note: the point of these questions is to think about culture broadly as a source of conflict, but it should be stressed that if you’re planning to base something on a real-world culture, you should do extensive research and seek sensitivity reads).
You can begin to see how these categories all start to tie together, and how frictions between them can create conflict. For instance, maybe you have a culture in your novel that persecutes magic-users, and another culture that reveres them. In this world, magic creates cultural clash. Or maybe magic in your world comes from a natural resource, and one kingdom has greater control over it than another and that gives them greater power. In this kind of world, conflict stems from magic and nature, but also impacts politics. By creating friction between these different aspects of your world, you can complicate and raise the stakes of your story conflict.
Another common thread in these questions is change. Change inevitably generates conflict, which is why most stories begin with a sudden change in the protagonist’s life. But characters are not the only thing that should change throughout the course of your book. The most enthralling three-dimensional worlds are ones that are undergoing some kind of shift, or have experienced such a shift in the recent past. A resource that’s running out. An empire that’s crumbling–or one that’s on the rise. An isolated culture suddenly opened up to a wider world.
Our own world is in a constant state of flux, so of course a made-up world should also reflect changes, advancements, and transformations. The history of your world can and should shape its present. Some writers like to go full George RR Martin and invent six centuries worth of detailed history for their world–and if that’s you, more power to you! If that’s not your style, that’s okay–but you should have some sense of how culture, resources, politics, and magic (if there’s magic) came to be in your world, how those things have shifted over time, and how those shifts have impacted your characters.
Some of my favorite fantasy books tackle these different areas of conflict through their world building. Here are some of my favorite examples from recently published YA and Adult fantasy: (since I’ll be talking primarily about set-up, you don’t need to worry about spoilers.)
- The primary conflict in Marie Rutkoski’s WINNER’S CURSE trilogy is politics. The very first scene of this book involves the protagonist Kestrel, purchasing another character as a slave. From this scene, we get the main set up of this world — that Kestrel’s people are conquerors who have colonized another land, and that they keep these conquered people as slaves. Rutkoski also uses multiple points of view to flesh out this conflict, so we see this world through both the eyes of the conquerors (Kestrel) and those they enslaved (Arin). Thus, the personal conflicts between these two characters, which play out over card games, society picnics, and ritual duels, are developed and deepened by the larger political conflict between their two peoples.
- N.K. Jemisin’s THE FIFTH SEASON asks, what if the world was threatened daily by terrifying, dangerous earthquakes? Every aspect of Jemisin’s world is influenced by nature, from her magic system, which allows a select group of people (called orogenes) to control earthquakes, to her culture, which fears and ostracizes these orogenes even as they use them to keep their communities safe. The layering of these different elements creates a compelling and dynamic world with a lot of inherent conflict.
- While many fantasy novels include some form of magic, not all of them root their conflict in the question of what magic is, where it comes from, and what its consequences are. Tara Sim’s TIMEKEEPER has a very unique take on a conflict that stems from a magic system. In the alternate Victorian world of TIMEKEEPER, time itself is controlled by clock towers. When a clock-tower breaks, time in the surrounding area stops. This is the problem facing the protagonist Danny at the beginning of the book — he must find a way to rescue his father from one of these “Stopped” towns. Thus, the magic system itself becomes a source of conflict that sets the rest of the story in motion.
- Culture is often tied quite closely to political conflict, but books with cultural conflicts usually focus on protagonists that are outsiders to their community in some way–either because they themselves come from a different culture, or because they don’t fit the standards and expectations of their people for one reason or another. One of my favorite examples of a character in conflict with her culture is Jessamy in Kate Elliott’s COURT OF FIVES. Jessamy and her sisters are a product of the love between a high-born Patron father, and a Commoner mother. Jessamy’s life is a precarious balance between these two worlds, which Elliott writes with great nuance and depth. The events of COURT OF FIVES surround an athletic competition, but the conflict stems from the complicated rules of class and privilege that Jessamy must navigate in pursuit of her goals.
World building will likely always be somewhat intimidating, and definitely challenging for me. It’s a messy process full of research tangents, wrong paths, and endless lists of details. But when I contextualize each of my world building choices through the lens of conflict, I see how the many, varied threads of a world can be woven together in service of telling the most compelling story possible.