World building is one of my favorite parts of writing. It’s a great place to really let your imagination play, and that, my friends, is the best kind of work.
A few months ago I was asked to speak to some high school kids about what I do, so I came up with this down and dirty way to explain world building to them. I thought I’d share it with you guys in case anyone is interested in incorporating the concepts into their own work.
For the record, world building is not just the work of fantasy novelists. Pretty much every story has its own world building rules. It’s just that different genres require different types of world building. Whereas my novels require things like magic systems and origins stories for vampires, a mystery novelist might focus their efforts on creating a small town form scratch for their cozy detective Similarly, a thriller writer will need to establish the rules of a spy agency or a women’s fiction writer the politics of a circle of friends.
The Five Ps
1. People (characters): Gender*, sex*, sexual orientation, age, regional background, profession, religious beliefs, socioeconomic background, education, outlook, zodiac sign, Meyers-Briggs type,e tc, etc.
2. Place (setting): Region (North, South, East, West), city/town/village/planet; architecture; seaside, desert, tundra, mountain, etc.
3. Problem (conflict): What sorts of problems are the people in this setting faced with, i.e.fighting for resources, defending against roving hordes, global warning, winter’s coming, etc? How might they influence the direction of the story?
4. Practices: What is the culture of this world? Are there many or does one dominate? How might these cultures drive the action or problems explored in this story?
5. Peculiarities: These are the twists on worlds we already know. Vampires in space! Aliens in Albuquerque! Wizards fighting cops in a fictional Rust Belt Town!** A nun is a detective! Or perhaps is something less sensational–a twist on a common theme. In Jerry Maguire, the world is agenting in pro sports–something we’ve seen in a shallow way that gets an in-depth exploration. Character twist here is an agent who finds his heart.
The common theme is that each of your Ps must carry a lot of weigh. Combined they paint a picture and each contributes to the conflicts and relationships explored in your story. World building is not about painting backdrops. Characters don’t act in front of your world. They not only live fully in it. They affect and are effected by the world you create. World building is as integral to your plots as conflicts and characters.
Questions about the 5 Ps?
*Before anyone asks, yes, gender and sex are different. Gender is a social construct; sex is a biological construct.
** This one’s been taken.