Writers as World Builders

Writers are world-builders. We must be. Whether the world is a microcosm of our modern society, an extension of it composed of hidden creatures, or a wholly different planet and civilization than our own–the writer must create the world of their story. Consider works like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, and the depth of the worlds created in those tales; inasmuch as they are not our own, they are. They have that same quality of vivid detail, complexity, and inherent contradiction and drama.

I love world building. In some ways, I love world building as much as I love telling the stories within my created worlds. The process of world building is exciting and full of surprises–whether they relate to social structures, creatures, character histories, or new concepts about the mundane tasks of that culture, the act of world-building is incredibly rewarding. I like to think of the joy I take in world building as an echo of the joy God must have taken when creating our universe.

World building involves not only creating the canvas on which a story can unfold but also allowing some level of darkness or evil or drama to exist in that world for a time, that heroes can rise and the greater good can be served. The greater the evil that is allowed into the built world, the greater the joy in its being overcome (this too, I believe, reflects and echoes a deeper spiritual reality).

But where does one begin this process? How do writers discover the world in which their story takes place. Well, I am wrapping up the first draft of my third novel, and I’d like to propose three methods by which I have developed the worlds of the three stories I’ve completed. These are not the only means by which one can do this, but they are proven methods as far as I’m concerned.

1) Create a character you love then develop everything around their plight. This is something of a concentric circle system wherein you start with a single character and then define their family, their community, their wider society, their world and the various structures within all those groups. This is a wonderful means of contextualizing your character into a fictional framework while also providing them some possible backstory and conflict with the world around him. This was the way I wrote The Traveler’s Tales for National Novel Write Month. I wrote two prologues about two characters with whom I identified and about whom I cared, and then I built the world in which they existed around them, by first defining the local society, then the national culture, then the world, then the time and place in history.

2) Work in reverse of (1). Begin with a concept: The prom. Now, put that prom into the context into a school, then a class, then a specific person within that class–maybe it’s not even a senior but a younger student invited to it or a college student attending with their as-yet-in-high-school sweetheart. Build from the outside world inward in order to find the best character through which to tell your readers what you have to share. This was the method I employed for writing my romance about a church high school youth retreat. I simply began with that concept and focused the story to a girl attending said event, and then I told her story, hitting the notes I thought necessary to explore the general youth retreat experience. In the process I fell in love with the kids in her youth group and the experience of the youth retreat all over again.

3) Simply run down the rabbit hole. Begin with a premise: An overweight man changes his life as well as that of many others when he is moved to help starving children surviving in poverty in another area of his hometown. Then just brainstorm scene ideas that take place over that journey. Hit events and moments that are deeply resonant to the character’s journey, goals, and discovery. See what sticks, what carries with it truth, goodness, and beauty–then use those as a guide to create your outline, arc, etc. In this method, you are wholly focused on the events of the story, and the world designs itself based on fulfilling the needs of the protagonist. As the requirements of the story become clear, the world in which they could occur becomes more vivid and narrow. This was in-part the method used for the creation of Stronghold and is being employed for the sequel.

Like I said, these are only three possible options. What methods do you use? Please share, as I am always looking for new models to implement and integrate into my own process.

Thanks for Reading,



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