Some Practical Worldbuilding Techniques

I recently was asked about worldbuilding. To answer the question, I wrote up a list of techniques I’ve used, and seen used, that I thought would be generally helpful, whether you’re writing historical fiction or speculative fiction (or even fiction in a contemporary setting). These are not all the techniques there are; just a few I’ve been considering lately.

–In dialogue, take note when your supernatural beings come up in conversation, particularly if one or both of the speaking characters are ignorant of more than general facts about supernaturals. This is a perfect opportunity to slip in not only information about the werewolves/gargoyles/whomever, but also DISinformation about them that is still widely believed by the humans in the story. Disinformation leads to misunderstandings that can very easily add more tension and conflict. You can apply this technique to historical fiction by creating tension between things the characters believe (a demon causes smallpox) and things your readers believe (a virus causes smallpox).

–“Breaking something”: if you want to describe how something works, break it first, show the problems the broken thing causes, then explain how it works while fixing it. This can also be applied to societies, relationships, etc.

–Use as much significant detail as possible. By “significant detail” I mean searching out generalities, such “he looked horrible” and substituting specific reasons his looks cause horror in the point of view character – which might be that he has a huge nose she considers hideous, or might be that he reminds her of the man who killed her best friend (see how I snuck in backstory?), or might be because he made her shiver in a way she doesn’t understand (see how I snuck in potential sexual attraction?). You can also play with the level of the details you give. For instance, a physical detail that the reader will immediately grasp, along with a more subjective detail that will arouse the reader’s curiosity, but will only make sense once we know more about the point of view character.

–Look for opportunities for minor disagreements between characters. Even something as small as a vampire refusing a bottle of beer because vampires only drink…wine can tell the reader something more about the vampires’ particular limitations. This is a good way to sneak in weaknesses that might be important later in the story, say when the vampire is imprisoned and dying because all he has is a case of beer, which is poison to him.

–Major disagreements are useful, too. If two of your characters disagree, whether politically or morally or in any other way, they can go out of their way to convince their opponent they’re right. Which means you the writer can have them talk about politics, or religion, and have it be more interesting and relevant to the story than if you just laid it all out to begin with.

–When a characters is seeking out information, or asking questions, string them along. The reader will also remain curious and will keep reading, waiting for the questions to be answered. Don’t give the reader all the answers at once, either.

–Use the Rule of Three: if there’s a fact about a character that you want to stick in the reader’s mind, make sure to mention in three times in the text. For example, the fact could be mentioned in dialogue, referred to in passing while something else is going on, and shown indirectly.

About Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen [she, her] currently writes cozy space opera for Kalikoi. The novella series A Place of Refuge begins with Finding Refuge: Telepathic warrior Talia Avi, genius engineer Miki Boudreaux, and augmented soldier Faigin Balfour fought the fascist Federated Colonies for ten years, following the charismatic dissenter Jon Churchill. Then Jon disappeared, Talia was thought dead, and Miki and Faigin struggled to take Jon’s place and stay alive. When the FC is unexpectedly upended, Talia is reunited with her friends and they are given sanctuary on the enigmatic planet Refuge. The trio of former guerillas strive to recover from lifetimes of trauma, build new lives on a planet with endless horizons, and forge tender new connections with each other.
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