Do you have any questions for me about creating worlds? #worldbuilding

Long-distance runners (and a whole bunch of of other folks who do long-term intensive things) talk about hitting the wall. I’ve done it with novels.

Yesterday, I hit the “build a better website and get everyone and all their stuff into class” wall.

Big wall. Very hard. I spent most of the day horizontal with the Nightmare Migraine. Read a little, played a little Terraria on my laptop, (yay, Halloween version).

Work, though? Not so much.

I realized that I could not remember the last day I had off. (Didn’t even take off on my BIL’s wedding, which we attended. I worked on the site in the morning.)

Funny thing is, I took a day off, and the world did not come to an end.

And I got a chance to do the two things I really needed: Rest, and think.

I realized that:

  1. The new site is live.
  2. It mostly works.
  3. The parts that do not work are things like buy-now links in the Flash Fiction classroom that are broken, and the missing BIG COURSE student discount shop.  These are fixable, and they’re on my list…
  4. BUT they do not get to preempt my writing.
  5. I will do them as I can get to them, AFTER I have written.

So today I came back, and for the first time in a little under a year, I cleaned off my desk.

There was significant shredding. (Matt got me a shredder for my birthday. I’ve always wanted one.)

(Have I ever mentioned my thing for office supplies and office equipment?)

I’m going to do the HELP DESK stuff today, but nothing on the site. Instead,

I’m going to lay out my plan for finishing up the last part of CREATE A WORLD CLINIC. 

Yes. I’m getting back to writing.

Tomorrow is the kid’s birthday. I’m taking the afternoon off. Saturday and Sunday, I am going to be gone, gone, gone. I may stretch out on the couch and knit. I may do a little playing around with my world-geek demos for WORLD CLINIC. But if it isn’t play, I’m not doing it.

Monday I’m back to writing CREATE A WORLD CLINIC in the morning.

With this is mind, if you have any burning questions about:

  1. HOW to build worlds,
  2. WHY you must build worlds for your fiction to work (and here I’m talking directly to every romance, suspense, mystery, and and other non-SF/fantasy writer out there)
  3. When you build worlds,
  4. Or any other worldbuilding-related question…

…Please ask in the comments below.  I want to make sure I don’t miss anything.

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24 responses to “Do you have any questions for me about creating worlds? #worldbuilding”

  1. Q. C. Avatar
    Q. C.


    I am an independent non-fiction writer (freelance journalist) taking my first shot at a novel. I’m loving working on it, and your site has been an awesome tool for me. However, I’m having a frightening crisis with my world and characters, it’s making me uncertain about my entire project.

    My world is inhabited by sentient animals. They live in cities/towns, have ships, develop industry, maintain religious beliefs, carry weapons and most wear clothing. There are no humans in the world at all, the animals (cats, dogs, rabbits, otters, etc) take the place of humans in this fantasy setting.

    This is an action-adventure with violence and some romance, so it’s aimed for adult readers (18-30). Am I making a mistake by using animals to replace humans in my world? I’m very scared that adults may dismiss the book as childish or be otherwise put off by the animal characters.

    1. Holly Lisle Avatar
      Holly Lisle

      Hi, Q.C.

      Animals replacing humans have led to some of best and best-loved stories ever written. Think Redwall for kids, Watership Down for readers of all ages, and Animal Farm for incredibly depressing political satire.

      Treat your characters with respect, write for yourself and make it the book you want to read, and have fun with it.

  2. Chalan Avatar

    If you plan to do two books with different characters in the same world, but they experience significantly different sides of the world, is it better to build both first, or just the one your working on first, and build the other later. An example is if the world has different planes and people can travel between them and one character is on one side and the other is in a completely different plane.

  3. Liana Mir Avatar

    If you’re doing an Earth-like setting and choose not to change all your characters’ names, how do you balance that combination of you’re clearly not paralleling any one country directly to an Earth-country but the names come out of a mix of original and Earth-language traditions? How do you not break disbelief? I started that way kind of on accident. I developed a world quite thoroughly as Earth, then realized I did NOT want to impute certain national crimes to certain nations and changed nation names, several ethnic markers, and languages. I initially forgot about names and religious books (though I nixed all non-religious literature) and now, they’re enshrined in canon. As the world grows, this becomes more and more difficult to try to work with.

  4. John Barnes Avatar
    John Barnes

    When worldbuilding, when should you be willing to break from “tradition/familiarity” and when should you embrace it? For example, it’s stereotypical that fantasy novels work in an idealistic medieval European setting. How much can you change before you alienate your audience? As an example, could you add giant birds (like the extinct moa, or elephant bird) without making it seem like people are riding giant chickens (ala Final Fantasy series).

    1. Holly Avatar

      Answering by example here.

      In the SECRET TEXTS trilogy and Vincalis the Agitator, I tossed frikkin’ medieval Europe out the door entirely. Set my initial story in a jungle, built a setting that was a cross between the Sicily of the Renaissance and Central America, dropped in an ancient apocalypse, and ran with it.

      In Glenraven and In the Shadow of the Rift, I used medieval Europe in a crossover fantasy, and did the naughty. I showed what it was really like in a world lit only by fire, with filth and starvation and disease and death.

      There are NO rules about what a fantasy novel should contain, where it should contain it, or what the writer must include for it to be fantasy—other than things need to happen in fantasy that could not happen in the physics of the real world (which is why GRR Martin’s ICE AND FIRE is fantasy, not alternative history—it has dragons and zombies).

      I detest Stereotypical Medieval European fantasy, I loathe building original creative work on tradition/familiarity—and I knowingly pay a big price for this.

      I have never hit the NYT Bestseller List. I am a writer for readers who want to step outside the comfortable and the known—and there are a lot fewer of those readers than folks who want to settle into the fantasy of being a prince or princess in a clean, warm castle (they weren’t either clean or warm—and neither were the folks who lived in them).

      So the question you’re asking is more “Who do I want to be as a writer” than “Should my characters ride ostriches?”

  5. Johanna Avatar

    What do you do if, when you’re asking yourself all the questions, and building your world, you suddenly ask the one question that shatters the whole premise and now nothing makes sense? And you can’t figure out how to fix it?

    If I can think of a general example, let’s say you have an urban fantasy with a hidden magical world. And you come up with all these cool ideas about this world and its magic, and then suddenly you ask — why is it hidden? And you can’t come up with a good answer. Now the whole thing seems so silly, because there isn’t a good reason.

    I have this problem a lot when I’m brainstorming story ideas. Like I’m developing a character’s powers, and I’m adding tricks and traps and all that good stuff, and then I ask the question that breaks some significant story moment I had in my head. And the biggest problem I have is that once I’ve asked this question, I usually cannot find a good answer. And then I get discouraged and feel like I might as well start from scratch because nothing is working.

    I don’t know how you can teach me to answer these questions, but maybe you have some more tricks up your sleeve about brainstorming, or knowing when to step back and take a break, or knowing when to just give up and move on (if ever). If we’re only allowed 1 “gimme,” how do we know what would be acceptable as a gimme, and what we definitely need a good answer for?

    1. Johanna Avatar

      Forgot to say I’m really glad you took a day off. It’s so easy to get so wrapped up in the things you feel you “must” do that you let yourself get sick, physically and mentally. It annoys me that I must schedule fun/relaxation or else I go crazy, but that’s just the way of it.

    2. Holly Avatar

      Hi, Johanna,

      This one is also an easy question (and an easy fix), so I’ll answer it here, too.

      You asked exactly the right question: Why is it hidden?

      You just forgot that the reason you ask the question is to find the conflict.

      What’s the conflict when something hides?

      It is that something else is seeking.

      Figure out what you have that is trying to find what you’ve hidden, and then ask yourself what it intends to do with that hidden thing once it finds it, and you’ve both eliminated the silly aspect to your worldbuilding, and given yourself an awesome story to write.

      1. Varina Suellen Plonski Avatar

        holly, I realize this is YEARS after you wrote this answer, but I wanted to tell you what an EPIPHANY this was! The reason you ask the question is to find the conflict. Awesome.

        1. Holly Avatar

          I’m glad you found it helpful. 😀

  6. Michele Avatar

    First off: Yay, days off!

    Second off: The serious stuff.

    The series I am writing takes place in the future, a couple of centuries after an event that killed off the majority of humans. I plan to use real world locations, some which have been rebuilt with advanced technologies, some which are inhabited but are destitute, and some that are in between. There are also many humans that can perform what could be considered magic, which is also the source of the advanced tech.

    Basically, I have the same sort of question towards those two parts of the world building in my universe:

    Are there certain essential questions to ask when it comes to “rebuilding” these locations in the ways I described, and are there certain ways to make the magic part work well when being used to make advanced technologies?

    Thank you for your time, and all of the work you put into all the clinics and courses you have made. They’ve gotten me farther than anything from anyone else.

  7. Thea van Diepen Avatar

    Days off are indeed wonderful. 🙂

    My question is: Is it possible to define a line between rich worldbuilding and worldbuilding gone mad? If so, where is that line?

    While I appreciate minimalistic worldbuilding, and am working on a story where I’m purposefully building as little as I can possibly get away with (because experimenting with writing is fun 😀 ), I’m drawn to deep, beautiful, detailed worlds due to their immersive qualities and their ability to make what is alien seem both comfortable and familiar. At the same time, I’m aware that it’s possible to go down the rabbit hole with that and I want to be careful not to let my worlds get away on me.

    Thanks! And, yes, shredders are awesome. They’re definitely on my wish list. 🙂

    1. Holly Avatar

      Hi, Thea,

      “Is it possible to define a line between rich worldbuilding and worldbuilding gone mad? If so, where is that line?”

      The answer to this question is, in fact, the entire “Create A World Clinic” book. 😀

  8. Felicia Avatar

    My question is how to take the world you built and transfer it to your writing without info dumps? How do you know when to say what and how much to say? Is there a way to make your description of setting active?

    I’m glad to hear that you are focusing on writing again. As much as I love the website and appreciate all the hard work you pour into it (you also have fantastic customer service), it is your writing, both fiction and non, that keeps me coming back year after year.

    Happy birthday to your kid and I hope you get lots of rest and play this weekend 🙂

  9. Selene Avatar

    (During revision)-How to make your world different/better, while not breaking the existing material? Or rather, how to break as little as possible, and be sure you don’t break what really matters?

    How to determine the best setting for a story idea (without planning too much–planning makes the book feel “written” to me, and then I lose interest in writing it…)

    How best to worldbuild a contemporary setting of a place you’ve never visited? (Or a job you’ve never had etc.) And related, how not having to stop and research all the time in the middle of the first draft, while avoiding taking the story in an realistically-impossible direction?

    How to identify the questions you don’t know you need to ask? For example, contemporary cultural things that will not occur to you to look up, like whether you actually answer questions about how you feel, is it OK to mention death, should you say “goodbye” or “thanks” when you leave a store…


  10. Felicia Fredlund Avatar

    I can come up with many cool ideas, but how do I make sure I take them the whole distance? With that I mean that world-building should have a ripple effect, one change can/should change a lot of things. Is there a system, or some questions or something, I can use to see if I’ve made sure to cover all the changes one idea makes?

    Oh and tracking details! Do you have a system for it? That would be awesome.

  11. Rebecca Anne Avatar
    Rebecca Anne

    Holly in fiction when you world build can you use the actual names of locations or do you have to change there names?

    1. Holly Avatar

      This one is both easy and short, so I’ll answer it here.

      You can use the real names of places. You may not wish to, however.

      If you use the real names of places, readers will expect you to be familiar with those places, and to get the details they’re familiar with right.

      If you’re writing in the past, same issue. There are folks who love the place where they live (or wish they lived) and are as familiar with its past as with their own.

      If you’re writing in the future, you can do any damn thing you please. Ditto alternate universes, so long as you make it clear up front (line one, scene one, or close to that point) that you are writing an alternate universe.

      Finally, if you’re going to be really hostile toward the place (because you are familiar with it and hate it) consider changing not just the name, but the location. You SO don’t want to be sued by the Chamber of Commerce.

  12. N. Shaffer Avatar
    N. Shaffer

    My biggest world-building issue at the moment is trying to create a convincing world while following the demands of the plot. My novel is an urban fantasy story that takes place in a real life U.S. city, with fantastical creatures living in it who don’t make themselves obvious to the average person. The characters in the story are (somewhat) normal people who discover this “hidden” world-within-a world over the course of the novel.

    But of course, they don’t discover the whole entire thing, which is beyond the scope of the novel. Much of what they see is the tip of the iceberg.

    After extensively outlining my story and writing the first draft, I realized the tip of the iceberg they see is still too thin to give the reader a sense of fully-realized fantastical underworld.

    Now I find myself in the position of having to dream up additional ways this underworld might show itself to my characters and tack them onto pre-existing scenes.

    I don’t want to re-envision my *entire* novel to create a better “sense” of a hidden world-within-the world we already see. There’s got to be a way to do it within the story I already have plotted.

  13. Liza Olmsted Avatar

    Hi Holly,

    Yay for a vacation! I recommend it! (Meanwhile, I beat myself up when I don’t work on saturdays and sundays… I need to recalibrate my sense of what’s appropriate for me versus everyone else.)

    I love world-building, and I think I’m fairly good at it. But sometimes I get stuck at the beginning, with initial decisions. I often have a point in my story where my characters are coming to a new city or planet, where the nature of that place isn’t inherently obvious to me, and it could be *anything*, and if I pick something then it’s just random and I don’t know if it’ll be interesting or serve the story or end up shooting me 500 miles in the wrong direction.

    How do I find the *right* world to start building?

    E.g. I’m writing a story about a couple of spaceships that end up stranded on the other side of the galaxy together, in a place that neither of them knew was inhabited. The point of the story is that the crews of the two ships need to rely on each other and work together, even though they don’t want to. They’re in a solar system that’s part of a multi-system empire, and I know a lot about the empire, but I don’t know about this *particular* system… what’s the planet like, what are its people like. This is their first introduction to the empire, and by (my) design they’ve ended up in a remote backwater of the empire. So … where do I start in this world building? How do I not just pick something random, out of all the possibilities in all the universe? How do I know what needs to go there for the story to be strong?

  14. Nicky Stephens Avatar
    Nicky Stephens

    Hi Holly,

    So glad you’re taking some time for yourself. It’s important to recharge those batteries and spark more awesome. 🙂

    With regards to World Building: how important is it to know what’s physically possible in OUR world, in order to create a world where the impossible becomes possible?
    I think most of us have read books that leave us thinking, “huh?” because the world just literally didn’t make sense in any way whatsoever. Then there are others that don’t make sense, but do, because although it’s not possible here, it is probable and the author has taken the time to explain, without really explaining, how it’s become possible.

    Also, how do you set the scene of your world without actually going into tedious detail in the story itself? I have this issue with Culture as well. In trying to depict the culture of my characters and world, the story gets lost. But without the elements of culture, there is no story.

    Thank you for all the help and the amazing resources you offer. I’m not online often, but the courses I have are used regularly.

    Take care of yourself!

  15. Maureen Morley Avatar
    Maureen Morley

    It is good to take days off and just do nothing. The world will not come crashing down and you will feel so light and well you know! I find taking a self day a good habit makes me less crabby.
    I do have a question about World Building. I have an idea and have been putting little pieces into place and just by chance I happened to read a book that had a few ideas that were not totally like mine but very close. On going forward I don’t want someone to think I am ripping someone else off. I know I have read several stories where they seem to have similar ideas isn’t this still almost a rip off and what if you have an idea and again you find one that is similar that you did not know about? You can’t possible read everything. That is my concern on world building.
    Thanks for your time and all your efforts! I really enjoy your site and all your classes I always feel challenged.

  16. Angela Chen Shui Avatar
    Angela Chen Shui

    I don’t have any questions, Holly. If any occur to me today or before Monday, I’ll add them below.

    I did just want to say that I’m SOOO HAPPY you’re taking some time to yourself.

    You are worth it and YES, happy also that you’re getting back to writing. The website stuff will get done. When it does.

    HUGE HUGZZZZ and ENJOY your weekend off. 😉

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