How to Build a World — Finding Inspiration

When creating a world, there are many things that can inspire us.  Sometimes it’s as simple as a nagging idea or image, a concept or something we’ve read.  Here’s a list of ten ways to search for inspiration when you’re looking to find your footing in a new world of your own creation.

1. Images

The myth is that a picture is worth a thousand words.  Yet seeing how the average book is at least 50,000 words long, that old adage seems to be a gross underestimation.  A single image can inspire  you to think of insane ideas for a new world.

  • Find a picture of the cracked, parched skin of the desert beneath an empty sky?  That could be the arduous landscape your MC (Main Character) has to trek in order to restore life to the ravaged, dry world.
  • Find an old picture from a decade where clothing more closely resembled today’s Halloween costumes?  Imagine a world where the social elite delight in donning decades-old garb, or perhaps a world where today’s modern clothing would be considered outlandish.
  • Stumble across a picture of something that fools with your perception, creating a stunning optical illusion?  Imagine a world where the laws of physics would allow your MC to live in a place like that.

With modern online resources such as Google and Bing, a few words in a search bar are all that’s necessary to bring up a slew of pictures, photos, and art from other inspired minds around the whole world!

Resources: Google Image search; Old Scrapbooks; Facebook; Online Art Galleries; Online Museum Databases; Articles of Images such as this one and this one.

2. Laws of the Land

So.  What are the rules of your world?  Genre is a good place to start.  If it’s SciFi or Fantasy, try asking some simple questions:

  • What is the gravity of the situation?
  • If there are wild scientific inventions or magic in play, what are the laws that govern everything?  It’s easy to say that your MC can cast spells/use technology, but what are the limitations of the spells; what’s required for it to work; can everyone access the magic/technology?  Why and why not?
  • Is your world a version of Earth or a different land/planet?  What is the length of an average day: 24 hrs, 10 hrs, does the moon set things on fire, do shadows heal wounds, can you only go outside when the oxygen level is optimum?

3. Object/Item

Taking a look at a simple object or item can give you some content for your new world.  It’s a classic trope of novels and stories to have a quested-for item that will save or ruin the day depending on who controls it or gets to it first.  While I’m not encouraging cliches, it’s not always a bad idea to include some sort of object or focus.  You can have a story revolve around a new technology which doesn’t necessarily rule the story.  One of my favorite quotes that I made up myself is: “Just because this isn’t a love story doesn’t mean there isn’t any love in the story.”

So, take a look at what’s around you.  Find the strangest object in your area of residence and ask yourself:

  • How could this object become the focus of my MC’s attention?
  • Is this spoon a rare artifact which the MC must recover before the auctioneer notices?
  • Is this chair the makeshift pilot seat for the scrappy rocket you’ve just built?
  • What would drive an entire nation to worship this microchip?
  • Maybe your MC could start out the scene destroying one of [whatever is closest to you]?

Resources: The room around you; Take a look at this list of mythological objects for inspiration

4. Go Outside And Open Your Eyes: Tactile Experiences

There’s no better way to imagine what your world will be like then to imagine what it feels like.  And there’s no better way to invent the sights, sounds, scents, tastes, and feel of your world then by knowing where to start.

  • Go out and lay on the grass (unless you’re allergic, in which case you could give your MC a grass allergy).  Feel the prickle of the grass as it shifts against your skin and twitches in the wind.
  • Try to explain the sensation of the world tilting as you stare at the sky.  Pick a color (other than blue, cerulean, sapphire, etc. to describe the sky).
  • How does the water feel, taste?
  • If there aren’t any flowers, what does the world smell like?  Concrete, asphalt, pine needles, silt?

Resources: Here’s a progressive list of great Writing Exercises which can offer myriad opportunities to inspire you to come up with new ideas.

5. Preexisting Worlds

Contrary to plagiarism laws, it’s totally okay to steal.  Okay, that’s not even a little true.  Well, maybe a tiny bit.  Let’s start starting at the start:  if you’re creating your very own world, then chances are you already have a certain amount of reverence for worlds that others have created.  To enjoy writing, you must first enjoy reading.  That’s how we learn.

  • Try to figure out what your favorite book is.  Then ask yourself why.  What about the world drew you in as realistic and accessible?
  • Watch movies.  Most movies have huge visual elements, and they can give you a lot of inspiration.
  • Cherry pick details from worlds you admire.  You don’t have to steal them, per se.  You just have to get inspired by them, and take elements from them to create your own world.  Like the idea of a poison apple from Snow White?  Maybe your world has a tree that produces poisonous fruit.  Who planted it?  How did it become poisonous?

Resources: Movies that you’ve put on repeat; books with cracked spines from overuse

6. Laws of the Land Government

A question that might or might not occur, whether you’re writing realistic fiction, dystopia/utopia, fantasy, sci-fi, thriller, etc, is what is the bigger system?

  • Is there a dictator, overlord, secret AI program, king, anarchy?
  • Where does your MC fall in this hierarchy?  Peasant, citizen, royal, lieutenant, teacher?
  • What can get you arrested?  Does your MC break these laws?
  • Is there a curfew?  Is there Martial Law?  Are you free to make your own decisions?
  • How does your MC deal with authority?
  • Does your MC have any power/control in this system?

Take a look at other governments (not just the capitalist democracy).  Take a look at places that are undergoing governmental shifts and uprisings to get a sense of a world in flux.

7. What Fits (or doesn’t fit) Your Character

Sometimes the easiest way to create a world is to create the character first.

  • Have a down-and-out hero aspiring to be brave?  Give him a world where he can rise to the occasion.
  • Have a heroine who wants to find an adventure?  Give her a world full of new and exciting places and dangers.
  • Want to have a story that ends in heartache?  Consider creating a world full of happiness for some good ole contrast, or a world full of tragedy.
  • Whoever your character is, whatever difficulties you want your MC to face, you can tailor your world to fit them perfectly.

As fun as it is to give your character a big baddie to overcome, it’s also an interesting twist to give your character a goal, but a goal which is nearly impossible to accomplish in their environment.  Another spin on this is to change worlds.  If your character has aspirations that extend beyond the confines of his or her society/world, then have your character enter a new world.  It can be anything, such as:

  • a subculture in modern New York
  • a world inside a book (a la Inkheart by Cornelia Funke)
  • a shadow world (a la the Harry Potter franchise)
  • a different planet (a la A Wrinkle in Time), or any other new world.

Very often, a MC is introduced into a new world at the start of the novel.  The reason this works is that it introduces readers to this new world as well.  Think of your MC (if you already have an idea for one), and then think of what sort of world would give them this most difficulties.

8. Religion, Myths, Legends, and Stories

A lot of stories like to enter into myths, religious conflicts, and classic fairy tales and retell them or incorporate them into the modern world.  If you want to go this route, go for it, but if you want to create your very own super special world entirely from your own brain, then consider the following:

  • What do the people believe in?
  • Are there warring religious sects, a mighty Prophet, Prophetess?
  • Is it patriarchal or matriarchal?
  • What tales and stories to parents tell their children at night?
  • How similar/dissimilar are the religions, stories, etc. from the ones in our world?  If you’re writing a story displaced through time, but still on Earth, then you’ll have to do a bit of research.

Resources: Modern Religions; Ancient Religions; Old Myths and Legends; Fables and Fairy Tale Characters

Speaking of research, that brings us to the next category on Who Wants to Create a World:

9.  Research Reality

Creating a new world is no small task.  In fact, it’s roughly a globular, sphere-sized task.  While it’s super-dooper fun to make stuff up as your inspired heart desires, from what’s listed above, it’s clear that there is a lot of work involved.  The more you know about your own world, the more you can twist and change it into the world you want to create.  Things  you can research:

  • Anything that interests you on a base level, be it chemistry, modern art, quantum physics, occult practices, trees, carpets, strange and vague holidays.  Whatever interests you in other areas will help inspire you in all of your thrilling world building ventures.  If you can draw on your interests, passions, and areas of inspiration for other things, then creating your new world around the things you enjoy will be all the easier!
  • Researching things about the real world will help you realize what you might have left out.  It’s also handy to research a person.  Is there someone that you’re modelling your MC or villain after?  Really put in some work to understand all facets of this person’s life, and it’ll really add some depth into your understanding of an individual’s psyche and how they live in their world.
  • If you have an idea, say, a technology for invisibility, it might be handy to do a bit of research and find out that research is actually being done and is progressing!  If you have a bright and shiny idea, then chances are one of the 7 billion other people on the planet might be on the same wavelength as you.  Don’t be shy in doing research and tweaking your unique idea in light of what you learn!

10. Daily Life of a Typical Citizen

When all else fails, put yourself in the shoes of a citizen/peasant/character in your world.  What is the life of the typical character?  Maybe your MC is in the upper echelons of government or in the lowest ranks of the populace, but it’s still important to know how most people in the world live their lives.

  • How do most people make a living?
  • What difficulties do most people go through on a daily basis?
  • Is there a large distinction between classes?
  • What happens to the society’s garbage?
  • Where does the clean water come from?
  • How do they get from place to place (transportation)?
  • How much social interaction is there?

Resources: take a look at your own life, take a look at the average lives of others you know, other cultures and countries.

And when all else fails, feel free to Google more information on what to do, where to go, and how to build a world.  Try out this list of questions, this checklist, what not to do, and this comprehensive list.


One thought on “How to Build a World — Finding Inspiration

  1. Pingback: Finding the Time to Write: schedules, boredom, and binge-writing | The Desultories

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