Combatting Common World-Building Pitfalls
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Let’s talk about world-building, writers!
Over the past few weeks, we’ve broken down several key world-building elements here on the blog, including the development of fictional cultures, languages, and magic systems — all to celebrate the arrival of World-Building Warrior, our latest writing workbook here at Well-Storied.
Today, however, I’d like to talk less about how to develop your fictional world and more about the common pitfalls that threaten to derail many writers’ world-building success. Shall we dive in?
Defining World-Building Mistakes
To name something a “mistake” when referring to fiction is far too absolutist a take for my comfort. There is certainly a craft to storytelling — and to world-building, in today’s case — but writing is also an art form, and art is highly subjective.
For that reason, I want to define mistakes today not as the hard-and-fast breaking of writing “rules”, but as world-building choices that often don’t translate well with readers. With that established, let’s take a look at some of world-building's biggest pitfalls:
Mistake #1: The world was built without intention.
If you throw paint at a wall, you may create what some will see as a masterpiece — but to most, you’ve just created a mess. No matter how you choose to go about world-building, doing so with intention is key.
Haphazardly crafting governments, cultures, or religions will leave your world feeling flat, while utilizing fantastical or futuristic elements without considering the effects they’d have on your world is a surefire recipe for plot holes and unimpressed readers.
Mistake #2: The world is derivative of its forebears.
Some story worlds worm their way inside our hearts so dearly that we can’t help but be inspired by them as we work. But there’s a thin line between inspiration and piracy — or, at the very least, highly derivative writing.
For this reason, take care to create original and engaging worlds for your stories. If you do plan to use popular elements featured in existing story worlds (e.g. pointy-eared elves or space swords that glow), make sure to twist the trope in a way that feels unique and exciting.
Mistake #3: the world feels disconnected.
Rarely are people groups completely isolated or monolithic in their beliefs, yet many writers treat them as such for simplicity’s sake. Unfortunately, doing so betrays realism and often leaves story worlds feeling false and unfinished.
Remember, most people groups interact, wage war, and engage in trade, while there's plenty of social divide to be found within societies as well. The same goes for religions, political groups, and other such organizations. It's rare that any group would find itself in complete agreement on all matters.
Thinking of our worlds as richly interconnected and in frequent conflict in this way can be complex, but it’s worth the effort for the lived-in atmosphere that makes good story worlds so approachable.
Mistake #4: The world has no personal impact.
It’s easy to create a world on a macro-scale. Sketch its geography, define its major countries and cultures, map its religions, technologies, and magic systems, and so on. But at the end of the day, a world is nothing if it does not serve your characters.
A fictional world should have a sense of nearness and a tangible effect on your characters — the way they see the world, how they live and act, what they hear and see and smell, and far beyond. To neglect these details is to sever any personal connection your readers might have felt when diving into your story world.
So build the framework of your world, absolutely. But don’t forget to view it through the eyes of the characters who will interact with it on every page of your book.
Mistake #5: the world is established without context.
In the thick of world-building, it’s easy to gloss over one obvious question: why? Why has the Dark Lord risen to power? Why are some characters able to wield magic while others are not? Why can’t time-travelers prevent some of the world’s most tragic events?
Readers’ suspension of disbelief allows them to accepts wizards and wormholes and maybe even overlook a few minor quibbles, but it doesn’t forgive a world built without context or a sense of self.
The effectiveness of any story relies on the author’s ability to plant questions in their readers’ minds, questions that keep readers turning pages. But it’s all too easy to drive readers away from the page if you don’t provide the answers to questions that keep the wheels of your world turning.
Every reader will have their own world-building pet peeves, and for that reason, we can’t strive to please everyone with our story worlds. That said, there are certainly some world-building choices that will leave a sour taste in many a reader’s mouth.
In most cases, these choices involve a lack of intentionality or the neglect of certain areas of the world-building process, as we broke down in today’s article. But as we discussed in a recent Story Notes newsletter, no matter how you go about world-building, a fictional world needs a beating heart.
In needs to serve your characters, to lend context to their stories and to extend an outstretched hand that invites readers to come explore. Focus on crafting a world that does just this — that deepens your narrative rather than overwhelms it — and you’ll have little issue combatting some of world-building’s most common and compromising pitfalls.