Numerous books, blog posts, and worksheets claim that filling in hundreds of categories makes a story world complete. But without a goal at the center, your brainstorming will lack direction, and the details you come up with won’t fit together.
Worldbuilding doesn’t have to feel like assembling a thousand-piece puzzle with shapes that refuse to interlock. If you integrate your story world into your plot and characters, every aspect of the culture will have a purpose. By following three steps, you can pull readers deeper in.
Step #1: Identify Your Story World’s Core Elements
The most memorable story worlds focus on only a few distinct elements. In Brandon Sanderson’s futuristic sci-fi Skyward, aliens use extra-dimensional communication and an army of drones to keep humanity under control. In The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, flesh-eating water horses haunt the shores of Thisby every year.
These technological advances and mythical creatures influence customs. Skyward’s post-apocalyptic civilization values warriors, so pilots hold great honor on the protagonist’s planet. In The Scorpio Races, men gather to race the water horses once a year. The event involves traditions, taboos, and terror. One character knows enough about water horses to stash holly berries in his pocket that can kill them.
The introduction to Story Embers’ worldbuilding questionnaire explains this concept more comprehensively. Worldbuilding isn’t about throwing a bunch of random, fantastical ideas together. Instead, you weave one or two into every area of your story world. And when those elements spawn moral dilemmas for your characters, readers are able to reimagine hard issues.
Skyward’s alien-versus-human dynamic creates a war-based society that judges actions according to bravery or cowardice. When a cadet dies after refusing to eject from her crippled starfighter, Spensa questions her friend’s decision. Would she have been a coward if she’d saved herself? Is dying for honor a sign of courage or stubbornness? Because Sanderson embedded conflict in his story world, the characters experience thematic struggles through it.
In The Scorpio Races, stable masters treasure captured water horses, especially fast ones like Corr. However, the creature’s viciousness and relentless thirst for the sea makes him unruly. His trainer, Sean, loves him and spends the entire story fighting for ownership. Sean finally gains Corr near the end, but only after the horse breaks his leg, never to run on land again. For the horse to ever be happy, he needs to return to the sea. Readers don’t see Sean wrestle with keeping or releasing Corr, but his sorrow shows how painful the choice is.
When you incorporate moral dilemmas into your story world, you have a chance to change readers’ perspectives. People tend to view complex issues as clear-cut until they’re in a situation where the right option leads to heartbreak. For instance, none of us would condone animal abuse. But as we stand in the shallow surf beside Sean, we don’t want him to let Corr go. Our emotions are swirling in tempo with the protagonist’s, and the line between right and wrong becomes blurry.
Predicaments that stem from your story world humanize the characters, bring situations to life, and give readers compelling issues to grapple with. As a result, your worldbuilding becomes more than a list of facts—and if you carry what you’ve learned a little further, it can even turn into a plot device.
Step #2: Find Ways for Your Story World to Intensify the Main Conflict
A peaceful environment, no matter how exotic, won’t be relevant to your plot. If you insert magical plants or humanoid animatronics just to fascinate readers, the combination will feel wrong. But when you set these elements up as obstacles separating your character from her goals, you have the opportunity to make your story world meaningful.
Story world conflict can trigger plot points and engaging scenes. Puck needs a water horse to enter the Scorpio Races, but the sellers won’t strike a deal with her. After scouring the beaches, she finds a man desperate to get rid of a piebald mare. She almost mounts the water horse, but after it tears a dog apart, she instead decides to enter her pony into the competition meant for murderous beasts. This lowers her odds of winning and heightens the risks.
Though fantasy allows writers more creative leeway than historical fiction, the past is riddled with cultural fault lines that can enhance your plot. Jane Austen’s romances highlight the tension between Victorian social classes. Shakespeare’s plays dwell on seductive power that enticed kings to murder their families. And many emotionally moving stories revolve around the racism that was prevalent in Nazi Germany and the Civil War.
Look for niches in your targeted era where your characters could face challenges. For instance, you could examine how a mother in the late 1800s fought to raise awareness for mental illness after her depressed daughter went insane due to ill-informed treatment. Or you could depict the trials of a Japanese-American family who tried to avoid being relocated to an internment camp during World War II. When you explore the nuances of moral issues throughout history, you’ll rivet readers to the setting.
Both real and fabricated cultural conflicts are ideal for exposing a character’s nature. Does he oppose the injustice and corruption around him? Or does he ignore it? Messy story worlds enable you to convert forgettable details into emotionally charged conflicts that propel characters and readers forward.
Step #3: Put Your Characters on a Collision Course with the Story World
When your characters clash with your story world’s core elements, their surroundings act as an antagonist. But sometimes characters need an extra push to fall into the traps you’ve laid for them.
In Skyward, Spensa discovers she can hear alien communications while dogfighting. This gives her an edge over her enemies, and it may be the only way she can save her planet. But it makes her mind vulnerable to deception. Forcing her to use her gift—and confront the dangers associated with it—takes the story in more compelling directions.
Spensa is somewhat of a chosen one, but your characters don’t need to save the universe to interact with their story world. In The Scorpio Races, Puck initially isn’t interested in competing. But when her brother announces that he’s leaving the island, she enters the race to delay his departure, which hurls her into a thousand other story world obstacles.
This technique works for historical and contemporary fiction as well. Jane Austen’s protagonists often rebel against a culture that tells them their class determines their value. In The Scarlet Letter, the merciless Puritan culture ostracizes Hester and Arthur for their adultery. To keep scenes realistic, let your characters deal with the story world through their personal problems instead of trying to change their culture all at once.
To link your story world’s core elements to your protagonist’s quest, ask yourself a few questions. Can the core elements solve her problems, like the Scorpio Races solves Pucks? Or are they the source of her problems, like the class system in Austen’s novels? Once your story world directly relates to your protagonist’s journey, readers will care enough to hang on.
Story Worlds Have Power
The Christian Storytellers Manifesto states, “We resolve to look for ways to explore meaningful themes while delighting our readers, avoiding futile attempts to depict truth devoid of beauty.” Without a captivating story world, entertaining readers is impossible. And without conflict, you can’t reveal truth. But when you develop the heart of your story world before expanding outward, you can achieve both.
Skyward and The Scorpio Races are not morally flawless, but their intricate worlds demonstrate principles Christian writers should strive to emulate. Their raw universes are a stage on which the characters grapple with specific manifestations of universal questions. Sanderson and Stiefvater are not the only ones with the tools to create such wonders. Don’t let the mass of possibilities scare you away from creating an experience readers will enjoy again and again.
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood.