World Building by Bill McCormick

World Building
Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash

Before we get into the meat of the subject I’m assuming you’ve read Strunk and White and learned grammar and studied Steven King’s On Writing and learned how to craft content. If not those specific tomes then I’ll presuppose you’ve read, and devoured, similar. It all comes down to this, world building isn’t where you start your journey as a writer. You need to have the basics well in place before you throw yourself off this mountain.

When you create the world your characters are going to live in it can be something simple, like Toledo, Ohio, or something amazing like the gas clouds of Orbius Prime. No matter which, you’ll need ground rules to get started.

  1. Let’s say you picked Toledo; you’ll need to mention the Mud Hens, the city’s devotion to sausages, the national museum of the great lakes, lunch at Grumpy’s and so on.
  2.  If you picked the gas clouds of Orbius Prime, then you need to let readers know about how light refracts in the gasses, what does , and does not, work as a means of propulsion, whether or not the beings living there are corporeal, and how communication is achieved. I would assume varying shades of illumination would work best, but you have options.

In other words, it’s not just a name you toss out it’s a place you bring to life. When the reader closes the book they should feel like they were there. Maybe even bought some souvenirs.

I have found that detailing the world I’ll be creating first, and then adding characters works best. I didn’t do that for my first novel and ended up having to go back and do so since there were glaring inconsistencies in locations and tone. I, literally, had a desiccated desert near a lake.

Before you ask, yes, that was a huge pain in the ass.

So, to save yourself the irritation, lay things out in a simple graph.

  1. Where: Name your place and then detail, at least, ten things which make this place unique.
  2. When: Based on a current reader’s perspective, is this something that happened before or after their existence. If it’s current, try and avoid pop culture references. Since they won’t be current when your book comes out they immediately place the story in the reader’s past.
  3. Tech: It’s well known that any tech sufficiently advanced enough would appear to be magic to a less developed society. The same holds true in writing. If you introduce the “multi phased Frombulator” you have to be clear as to what it does, why it exists, and be able to give a rudimentary idea of how it works. You need not get into the physics of the thing, unless you feel it’s required, but you do have to be able to make readers believe it could exist. Contrariwise, if you’re setting is medieval Europe, you can’t give the princess a Buick to make her life easier. The tech you add has to fit the rest of your universe.
  4. Consistency: Despite popular tropes, it is not the hobgoblin of little minds. Foolish consistency is. Now, whether you’re creating a magical fairy kingdom, interplanetary battles featuring alien warlords, or a whimsical a rom/com starring Satan, you need to set out the rules that guide your universe. And those rules need to apply to every character, and in every event. Remember, it’s not the suggestion of physics, those are laws for a reason. If your characters can violate them, you need a believable reason. This is less true in comic books where characters can fly unaided. Yet, even then, the rest of the universe follows basic physics leaving the flying people as outliers.

One easy out from all this, that lazy writers like to use, is to create a universe of gods. Since their characters are all gods they can do whatever they want. Unless you have multiple iterations of Yahweh, that won’t fly. And if you do, where’s the conflict? Even Satan doesn’t directly challenge God. In fact, in many interpretations, he’s fulfilling a function required by God. So, you’re back to needing some rules, and characters to live within them.

Another thing to look out for is accidentally creating multiple generations of morons. A wildly popular series of books, and a related TV show, have characters who, according to numerous plot points, have been at war, and fighting dragons, for eight thousand years. In that time the only weapons they have come up with are variants of a pointy stick. Some large, some small, some metal, some wood, but, at the end of the day, they’re all just pointy sticks. You would think that, given the fact there were constant airborne threats, someone might have given artificial flight a try. All of the needed materials are right there. And the inspiration is literally eating their livestock.

However, there was also an abundance of naked boobs, so that made up for a lot.

World building can be, and is to me, fun. There are lots of guides you can use to help they’re just not marketed as such. Books on mythologies will help you create believable powerful beings. Dungeons and Dragons is a great guide for your magical realm. has tons of free research online that will help you build realistic alien homes. And, if you want to bend some brains, don’t neglect the various conspiracy sites.

Once you have your feet firmly on the ground, let your imagination loose and see what it brings home.

Author Bill McCormackBILL McCORMICK is a critically acclaimed author of several novels, graphic novels, comic book series, and has appeared in numerous anthologies. He began writing professionally in 1986 for the Chicago Rocker Magazine in conjunction with his radio show on Z-95 (ABC-FM) and went on to write for several other magazines and blogs. He currently writes a twisted news & science blog at That provides source material for his weekly appearance on The Big Wakeup Call on WBIG 1280 AM (FOX! Sports). You can find out more about him at

Splice by Bill McCormack

6 thoughts on “World Building by Bill McCormick”

  1. I’m not convinced world building is the place to start. Myself, the world building has developed around the needs of the story. Depending upon whether I had a plot driven or character driven story, my world building is created to serve and explain one, the other, or both.

    Too, I’ve known a few writers who become so involved in world building, they create maps, religions, governments, trades, flora and fauna–ad nauseam–that they never get around to creating characters or deciding what (of a potential multitude) story they’d like to tell. Invariably they’ll choose a story line with human characterizations within just a different that conventional setting, or they’ll never begin an actual story at all.

    Chances are they could just as easily skip the whole world build allegory and just tell their human story in a conventional human setting (in which case they’d be “literary” not genre writers.

    In my first novel I (rather arbitrarily) made my aliens resemble gazelles. Bright intelligent, spacefaring gazelles who felt they had a manifest destiny to expand to other habitable planets, displacing the natives if need be. As they were my main villains, I had to answer why. And the answer had to come from their home world and early experiences.

    So I built their home world and their entire solar system around their behavior in my story. They were herbivores, so I made them farmers. They were determined to acquire other habitable planets, so farming the became the be-all and end-all of their existence, their motive. They had incredibly advanced technology, so I had to give them a special motive to expand technology beyond farming. I gave them a neighboring planet within their own system, with another intelligent species that they could observe, establish communications with, and aspire to meet.

    Finally, since I made them politely aggressive and gave them a strong feeling of superiority, I made their explored universe devoid of any other intelligent species advanced enough to challenge them–to let them build their confidence and cockiness. All these world builds were created specifically to support their character–as needed for my story. For good measure I researched all the scientific underpinnings to keep everything within the realm of current scientific theories.

    At least for me, this approach seems more practical and far less time consuming. You only have to build what you need, and can add a few garnishes later.

  2. Yeah, I like to have an idea what I’m writing about before I do any world building. My main point, no matter how you tackle it, was bifurcated; First you need to have mastered the basics of writing before wandering into the desert of universe creation, and, Second, no matter the order you work with (I like your idea, but am more comfortable with mine), the resulting world must be recognizable to the readers and make sense consistently.

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