5 Critical Parts to Building Your Novel’s World

Just as important as it is to know the parts of writing a novel, you need understand how to build a solid world in which your characters will live. This can take as little as a short afternoon to cover critical points as related to your story all the way up to spending over a decade just creating the world in which you will tell future stories.

In my previous article, So You Want to Write a Novel – A Brief Overview of 7 Key Elements, I shared with you the most important parts you’ll need to write an intriguing novel. One of those key elements was about location and how worldbuilding is essential if you want to draw your readers into your story. Worldbuilding is an entire course in itself, and should be given some of the highest priority. To get you started, I’m sharing what I see as the 5 most critical parts that need to go into the creation of your world. In future articles I will talk about each more in-depth, but this overview can help you begin.

1) Geographical Regions/Lay of the land

Of course your novel’s world needs to have a landmass. Whether it all takes place in a single city, a haunted bungalow, or a planet with rivers, mountains and deserts, forests, plains and more, you need a physical location for your characters to live out the story. It would be beneficial to at least decide on some preliminary settings before you begin to write. Describe what they look like. Not in your story, but in a separate document that you can refer to when you need it.

2) Races and creatures

For a fantasy/sci-fi/paranormal novel, you’ll need to decide on what the primary races of characters are. In Game of Thrones you basically see only humans, whereas in Elfstones of Shannara there are elves, humans, dwarves, demons, among others. Even paranormal books may have humans, vampires, werewolves, and/or ghosts. Are the creatures going to be standard creatures you’d find on Earth, or do you want centaurs, unicorns, goblins, or dragons?

And if you stick with Earthlike settings, you still might have to decide what groups of people inhabit which geographical regions. Are there different countries or nations, like on Earth? Or is the world a one-world government with no breakdown of regions?

3) Economy

This is something that is often overlooked. How do people determine the value of items, services, or knowledge? Does the entire world use the same currency? Are there areas that trade instead of using money? What about inflation? Supply and demand? Are any of these elements important in your world? They may not be to you, or to the reader, but I’m sure they are to the people who live in this world you’re creating.

4) Class System/Society

Is everyone equal in the eyes of the law (or in the eyes of God, if you prefer)? Are there people in authority? One or two warring governments, each with their own laws and societal makeup or are customs local? In most cases there will likely be a difference between the rich and the poor. Kings or presidents and their citizens. What rights are bestowed on everybody, and how do you determine if certain rights are provided for a few select people?

5) History

Unless you are starting the story with the creation of everything that exists, there is history. How old is your world? What are critical past events that have happened? You don’t need to include any of this in your novel, but knowing for yourself why things are the way they are will help you determine important parts of your story. Are there any legendary leaders that have helped forge the world the way it is? Past wars that have caused alliances or divisions? These are important to know.

Bringing it Together

As we can see, there is a huge amount of work that can go into building a quality world. You could spend years or decades forming the perfect place for your future characters to live out their adventures. But you also need to balance that with time.

If you have a story that you are ready to start writing, you still need to make sure some of these elements are covered. If your story only takes place in a certain town you don’t really have the need to decide how the river on another island has changed course over time. But you do need to figure out the layout of the town, and the layout of the key locations within the town (such as the bakery’s layout). You need to figure out who the main groups of people are, how they relate to each other, and any historically significant events that might be important to your plot.

Although this list is certainly not exhaustive, it’s a great place to start and be able to figure out the basics of the world in which your story will take place. In the following months I’ll be going more in-depth on these 5 parts of building a great world, and touching on other worldbuilding elements as well.

And now for a challenge!

I’d love to hear your experiences or your preconceptions. In the comments section, share your favorite part of creating a new world, or why you prefer to use pre-existing places. If you have never built a world, what part sounds the most exciting or daunting to you?