World building is one of the most important factors of a good story. It puts the reader in a place they've never been otherwise, so it's imperative they grasp the full concept laid down by the author. Unique details make this place its own universe filled with distinct (and oftentimes inhuman) characters, a government with unusual politics, and an unfamiliar social structure. The author has to take into consideration factors like the weather, varying laws, architecture, landscape, history, settings, biological factors such as animals and plants, mythology and so on. The more fantastical the world, the more building is required. The reader must have a good grip on your reality!
Some genres involve greater attention than others. My paranormal novel (The Willows: Haven) takes place on earth, but involves some non-human characters in enhanced places. The primary focus of my world building revolves around the social structure of this new society, the biological aspects of the beings themselves, some ancient history, a little architecture and mythology, and the law. This means I don't have to worry about creating animals like a chimera or filling the heavens with a purple moon. A good look at your story will determine which aspects affect your world-building.
This is a longer post, but I wanted to include everything I could!
Social Construct/Law: This is an extremely important feature in Haven. The characters don't live under the same rules as humans. They have their own social constructs and hierarchies. Different laws govern most aspects of their lives, and it's very important that I make those laws clear to the reader. If the weight of their choices isn't felt, it defeats the purpose and loses power. What laws govern the world you've built? What are the consequences of breaking said laws?
Characters (Biology/Science): I don't want to get into "what" my characters are as I don't want to spoil it, but you already know they aren't human. While they have human traits, their biology is entirely different. The way they react to things in their environment, their preferences and requirements to thrive, are different from humans. It makes them what they are! This is one area where clear detail is imperative. If typical things such as food and sleep don't sustain them, something else does. Just like humans, there are requirements and limitations to flesh out here. The characters are as much a part of the "world" as the trees, unicorns, or space stations!
History: The history behind my characters' lives and situations is the basis behind the whole story. It's the thing that drives the plot. If there isn't reason for the characters to behave the way they do, then the story is going to fail. The events leading up to my protag's current state are the drive behind their social structure and law. Even if you don't have the history in your story, it's important to have it in your head. Cause must drive action, otherwise it's unrealistic. How did your world come to be? Is it a utopian society? Dystopian? What happened to land your world in its current state, good or bad?
Architecture: For most of Haven, the architecture is modern but hints at the life my protag experienced during her life. As the story unfolds, she's introduced to a society where the beings value nature and bend it to their purposes rather than destroy it. In a world where the characters are as much a part of nature as nature itself, I had to find a way to incorporate that. If you have a story set in the future, what about the buildings makes them unique? Is it their design? Is it some valuable or rare material that's never been seen or is at risk of disappearing entirely? What makes it special/scary/peaceful/exciting in your world?
Climate/Weather: For a lot of writers, weather isn't a big part of their story, but it's a part of your world nonetheless. What happens if your character gets caught outside in a storm without an umbrella? In my characters' world, nothing. They get wet. In Julie Kagawa's world, they get melted by acid rain. How does the weather affect your world? Is the ozone layer gone? Sounds hot and dangerous! Has the ocean risen to threatening levels? Have years of pollution damaged the Earth or is your character on a planet where it never snows?
Magic/Technology/Nature/Science: Do you have faeries walking around? Can they make potions? How about cyborgs? Do they have laser vision? Can your mermaids enchant people? Or do you characters live in the 21st century where iPhones are a dime a dozen, and like the rest of society, your guy can't function without telling his peers his every move through Facebook? Explore how magic, technology, and superhuman gifts play out in your world.
Religion/Morality/Beliefs: Heaven knows we as people know where we stand on these issues. Why are these things important in your imaginary world? Are your characters at war over varying beliefs? Are your characters willing to go to the mats over a moral injustice? Or do they live in a world where immorality (by your unique world standards) is rewarded? Your world must have some code of standards to operate under, otherwise there will never be conflict.
Entertainment: How do you characters kick back after a hard day at work? What do they enjoy doing on the weekends or with their friends? Are they risk takers or bookworms? How does their playtime affect their lives?
There are countless aspects to consider when world building. Every tiny facet of life has to be addressed in some form or fashion and characterized if you want a believable setting. Find the balance in what to include.
Ask yourself a few basic questions and think about how it relates to your world.
(borrowed from Janice Hardy)
- What is a normal day like for your protag? Your other characters?
- Who are your protag's enemies? (not just the antag, but people who don't like them) What social or economic group do they belong to?
- Who are their friends? What social or economic group do they belong to?
- What are the things your protag tries to avoid on a regular basis?
- What are things they try to get on a regular basis?
- Where do they fit on the social and economic ladder?
- Where do they live?
- Where do they work or go to school?
- What are some challenges living in that world present?
- What are some advantages living in that world present?