This week at the SFF Seven, we’re sharing our top five worldbuilding tips. Since I just returned from WorldCon in Chicago, where I gave a workshop on worldbuilding from a character-driven perspective, I’m going to cheat ever so slightly and pull from that.
1. All stories require worldbuilding
Even a story set in our contemporary world, written as realistically as possible, still requires worldbuilding because it’s impossible to to replicate the complexity of our world. You will always be picking and choosing relevant details. Choose wisely. (And see Tip #5.)
2. Don’t allow worldbuilding to be displacement activity for writing the actual story
Worldbuilding is fun! Writing is hard. It’s easy to spend tons of time on research and worldbuilding and kid yourself that it’s writing. It’s not. Don’t become the person with megabytes of maps and details and no actual text.
3. The world is yours to shape however you like – build it to challenge your characters
Story is about characters facing conflict. The world they live in creates external conflict for them and informs their internal conflict. Since you get to play deity here, build the world with challenging your characters in mind.
4. RPGs – role-playing games can distort your worldbuilding sense.
Many creatives learn worldbuilding from gaming, which can be a great exercise, but – as dedicated gamers have pointed out (I am not one) – game worlds often don’t make any internal sense. Use caution in emulating that model.
5. Use the iceberg model
While you should know – or discover – all about your world, most of that detail should be like the iceberg beneath the surface. Only the tip of all that knowledge should show up in the story. If you’ve done the work and your world is internally consistent, that tip of the iceberg will be representative of the rest.
ROGUE’S POSSESSION is out today!! Otherwise I’m talking about worldbuilding from a character-driven perspective and being aware as an author of what readers want for your characters.
Good morning, everyone! This is Jeffe Kennedy author of epic fantasy romance here with my first cup of coffee.
But delicious today is Tuesday July Twenty Sixth um last working day week of July for me, not day week. Um, yeah. Kind of short week for me as I mentioned yesterday tomorrow I fly to a polyon word. The transcript cannot handle and. See if I do some podcasts from there or not. We got some rain last night. So everything is looking sprightly this morning sprightly and happy. And yeah. Ah, so I got a lot done yesterday. I was happy with what I got done yesterday I got a full hour of words in before I even met up with Darynda and so I was done by um I could tell you what time I was done by. Love being done early in the day I was done by 1130 had my 2000 words in by 1130 and that’s just the best. Um I really love having my words done by noon and I think iquito think I might have to go back to that. Kind of schedule. Um, it means getting up earlier. Sorry for the squirming around if you’re on video thesquitoes are getting me. Ah yeah, just really helps me to. Have words done before noon so that the afternoon is then for business I hear some writers talk about that they do like writing in the morning and then editing in the afternoon. But for me editing takes very much the same muscle as drafting. So. I think um, it it draws from the same world. So it doesn’t work that way for me sounds like a nice way to do it. But sorry for the scrape there decided to scoot you a little closer so I could sit back sit back and relax so um one thing that I did make some notes while I was gone of things I wanted to talk about I was reading a book. Ah I’ve I’ve discovered that.
It’s growing harder and harder for me to talk about the books that I’m reading because and it may be partly the podcast because I want to be able to dissect them and talk about what doesn’t work for me in them. And I feel I’m torn because I want to support the authors of the books by talking up their books. But then if I’m talking about their books. Critically I don’t feel like I should say. So I read this book that is by ah, it’s a fantasy romance. The romance was very thin um slow burn and picks up in the next book. But I didn’t. Didn’t care enough to keep going. Um, you know so that’s like not something I would ever what to say publicly about a book tell you guys which book it was tell you all which book it was ongoing effort to flense “guys” from my. Vocabulary. So so one I wanted to talk about I don’t need to go down this rabbit hole of this specific book and what worked and what didn’t for me but one thing I want to talk about is being aware and it’s a delicate line to walk of what your readers want for your characters and and this is. It’s dicey right? because you don’t know what you don’t know what your readers want necessarily but you do have to know for guess sense. There’s a certain amount of fan service in satisfying the readers with what they want a character to be able to have and do and. There’s a lot of joking that goes around all the time about um, authors torturing their characters I shared a meme a little while back that was pretty funny. Ah it was from a movie that I have to he’s.
So and there’s our hummingbird. Ah so a lot of activity out here this morning. Sorry the birds distracted me so thinking in terms of oh the beam. The meme. Ah it was from a movie that I recognized but couldn’t identify. You know what? I mean but it showed. Ah. Driver of the car ah with a manic expression on their face. Um the car clearly hurtling out of control and two people in the back seat screaming and it said ah when oh I’m not going to do a good job of explaining it. Ah, it said basically ah when ah when my when a favorite character dies and it’s shows you know the person driving the car is the author me my best friend screaming in the backseat I thought it was funny. So so but there are a lot of jokes about. Authors torturing their characters and I see authors talking from time to time about you know someone once called me out on that saying see someone talking but you see somebody talking and writing right? I. You I’m distracted this morning and I I saw an ah I see authors talking often about how they love to torture their characters and it never feels that way to me. I’m always on the side of my characters. Um the the world does terrible things to them sometimes but I’m always on the side of my characters figuring out how to deal with it. So I feel like I’m riding in the car too. I think that would be more accurate. So.
Ah I probably should have formulated this idea better before I start talking about it. But I figure out things as I talk about them just as I figure out things as I write about them. There’s a theme there right? So So this book. Let me go back to my concrete example that eventually the author did deliver on what I wanted but there was an extended period of the character being thrust into a role. That they did not want and being unhappy about that and longing for their old life which is I mean that’s heroo’s journey so you know it’s It’s certainly a a standard trope you know resisting. Call to action. But as a reader I really wanted this for this character I wanted this um responsibility this position and I didn’t like that. So many of the other characters. This is another thing about characters being mean to each other but I’ll come back to that. Hopefully if I remember I didn’t like that So many of the other characters were so against this person. Having this position. Um, and I felt like the world building was a little weak and I just taught this class for ah the clarion White Riaththon and I’m gonna be teaching it at Worldcon I just got noticed I’m gonna be giving this workshop at Worldcon. Which is world buildinging from a Character-d Driven perspective. So. It’s really cool that people want to to see this workshop and find it valuable. Basically it’s my approach that setting up the world in order to. Ah. Best put your characters through the crucible right? So which I suppose is is me driving the car to be fair. No, it’s me picking out the worst possible car I don’t know we won’t go. We won’t spend a lot of time on that analogy. But in this particular book. The there was this sense that the protagonist.
Could not have this position because of their gender and but the rest of the there were elements of that. But then the rest of the world didn’t necessarily support this and this is something I talk about in that workshop a lot.. It’s like. Okay, if you decide that you want females to be second class citizens and because of gender. Then first of all, be aware that you are Kneejerk Mimiic mimicking our patriarchal society. Which has been. You know our history has been extensively massaged to support that idea so be aware of those things and and if you’ve listened to me for a long Time. You’ve heard me talk about this before. But also know why you’re choosing that I mean are you choosing that just to sort of keep your your female characters down. Um, if there is a. It. It just has to be supported and and I realize I’m getting myself into a muddle because I’m trying not to give Details. So This isnt like an alternate fantasy world where the the lord of of the of the Land. Um. Yeah, which is basically it’s sort of like a a feudal. It’s It’s kind of like a Victorian England type society. Ah so it’s sort of as if the the duke were chosen by a magical means and the. Female protagonist is unexpectedly chosen and there’s a sense of that. No the world can’t that there’s There’s a dueling sense of that. No. She can’t. Be this because she’s female but she has to be this because she’s magically chosen and it was sort of halfway done. It was like well be can can a woman hold this position or not ah and I felt like the author just and it was a first book So you know. There’s something to that. The son is coming after me here I have just good over. Um, in fact I think I’ll just commit and do that That’s better. So You know it’s like either females have rights so they don’t.
Either females can be in positions of power or they can’t and obviously we’re talking a binary here. But so that’s that’s one piece is like when you’re creating a world even if you’re creating a world that is a close fac simile of our world or what we believe our historical world to have been. And you all have if you’ve listened for a long time. You’ve heard me talk about ah the de faux medieval fantasy setting which has very little to do with what the medieval era was actually like I had one um, really interesting reader contact me and talk about. Ah, gave me some interesting feedback where she um I believe she was a she her said that she was an historian and that she could talk about all of this stuff. You know like of how our ideas of what medieval. Society and culture and daily life were like are so incredibly wrong and have been so extensively massaged and really um oh what’s the word I want denigrated um, made to see much much worse than it was anyway, that’s another topic. Ah, but I will touch on this that when you do have a society where rights are based on gender which does reflect our society but you have to look at why and. How this is a very very long complicated history and how it affects people’s interactions you know is it exactly against the law or is it custom in this book. It wasn’t clear is it is there a higher law There wasn’t a sense of there being any higher law to the land. Um, it’s just it’s not devastating but it’s just slightly weak world-building you know it’s different whether or not things are actually illegal or whether they’re custom. Ah, but also how do. The other if things are very gender based how do other people react and this kind of comes around to my thing about characters being mean to each other I have a problem in books where where every character.
In the book is aligned against the protagonist and that was not the case in this book but there were a lot who who either were or were just sort of tangentially oblivious and it’s. In cases like that people do form alliances. You know like for instance, if females generally don’t hold positions of power and a female is thrust into a position of power ah by magical decision. The other females are going to have opinions about this. The males are too. But the other females are going to have feelings and many of those will be feelings of solidarity and again if you’ve listened to me for a long time. You know that I have that it’s one of the things that I complain about a lot is when female characters in a story. Are not supportive of each other that they don’t have real friendships. Ah I feel like this comes from fiction tropes rather than from real life because at least I hope because in real life. Especially where when rights are threatened people who are being deprived of those rights band together to protest right? That’s what we’re seeing. You know we see it with black lives matter. We see it with ah the protests against the overturn of Roe versus wade in the us. The other people who are being similarly oppressed are going to have feelings about this you and I realize that in a fantasy story. You may not want to get into all of that but it it has to be part of that world building iceberg right? There’s that great diagram with. The tip of the iceberg being like the things that show in the story. But then there’s all that stuff underneath. So so yeah I think um, but then the other piece is and I talked about this in that workshop as well is being. Aware of what your reader wants for that person and what your reader is bringing to the page because one person asked me if there were tropes I felt like were outdated world building tropes and I said well like one that I personally have a lot of trouble with is the. Fantasy story where the female characters are not allowed to have the education where they’re not allowed to go to the academy where they’re you know not allowed to get x y z and yes I know I have written this with ah.
Chronicles of test area that women are universally not taught anything even how to count and I did that for very specific reasons but I and and I made it extreme on purpose for that reason because when a reader. Picks up a book where the female characters are not allowed to go to university where they’re otherwise educated but not allowed to go to university it begins to feel a little unsupported it begins. It’s hard for us to identify because. Well I know there are parts of the world where females are denied education. It’s pretty rare now and so it’s a leap you want to keep in mind what your character what your reader wants for the character and in my case I really wanted my character. To be to seize this opportunity and not be all oh woe is me I wish I had my old life back I’ll ah allow a little bit of it. But then I wanted and eventually that change did happen. Um, but I want to. Ah, wanted more and maybe more would come in the subsequent books. So ah, that may have been a slightly muddled explanation I’ll keep thinking about it. Ah, but maybe I’ll weave it into the worldt building from a character driven perspective wforkshop at WorldCon if you’re going to world con or which you should be able to attend virtually as well and I’m realizing that I should have led with this today’s release day for Rogue’s Possession! Woohoo so it’s out in the world now. Um. So now you can buy the first two books and the third book comes out in a few weeks which means I need to get my act together and make my tweaks on it. So um, it’s weird having these releases of books I’ve already written because it feels like ah I don’t know. It’s it’s slightly anti-climatictic um, but I’m really pleased at how well these books are selling. It’s great to see a book that’s been out for ten years by any new readers. So on that note I am going to go do a few release day things. And I am going to get more words and get ready to fly to world con tomorrow if if you’re going to be there and you see me, please please say hi would love that every once a while I um.
Like I talked to this gal online and she said you know I wrote in an elevator with you at a conference and I was I wanted to say hi but I was too ah too shy like ah like oh please don’t be shy I am I try to be nice I think I’m nice. I love talking to people so do say hi and I will um, maybe talk to you all on Thursday maybe on Friday probably not on Monday because I have jury duty right. So certainly a week from today if nothing else you all take care bye bye.
Worldbuilding isn’t just for fantasy authors. Every genre requires that the world of that particular story be groomed and refined to support the story without bogging it down. Knowing how to create a convincingly realistic world and then how to pare away unnecessary explanation is an important acquired skill for any author. And one way to discover this perfect balance is to go at the problem from a character-driven perspective.
In this Master class, rather than starting with worldbuilding, we’ll start with character—and then build a world to maximize the character arc. Whether you write in a speculative fiction genre—like fantasy, science fiction or paranormal—or something else entirely, this class will teach you how to choose setting, magic or tech systems, history of that world and the social dynamics that drive it. You’ll learn how to choose relevant details, how to discard others, and how to drop hints that are sufficient to immerse the reader in the world without drowning them.
Over the course of this day-long online class, we’ll explore worldbuilding from a character-driven perspective, break for writing and brainstorming exercises, then return for discussion. Then we’ll add to your knowledge and repeat that cycle. At the end of the day, you should have a fleshed-out world for your story, and a feel for when and how to provide information to the reader.
Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is politics and – no, wait! Come back!!
Politics in FICTION, okay???
We’re asking how politics and the political landscape of the world flavor the outcome of stories. This is my particular catnip as the political landscape of my books is always as important – if not more so – than other facets of the worlds I build. I even teach a workshop called “Worldbuilding: Political Systems in Conflict.” Why politics? Because they are about the conflicts that affect an entire society – and societies beyond them, too. As we’ve all learned from the political turmoil of recent years, politics affects the bedrock of our lives, our very rights as sentient beings. Come on over to learn more.