The Psychology of World Building

by Gabriela Pereira

Most writers think world building is the artistry of creating a setting for your story. They imagine fantastical lands with dragons soaring over castle gates or the intergalactic battles in a “galaxy far, far away.” But the truth is that world building is essential in any story, even if that world seems ordinary or mundane. World building has less to do with your story’s environment and more to do with the characters you put in it. You must build around your characters, and this means adopting an ecological perspective on what your story’s setting really is.

This ecological approach to world building draws inspiration from Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory of child development. In Bronfenbrenner’s model, the child is at the center of the ecosystem and the surrounding layers have different levels of impact on that child. When we apply this same approach to world building, we see that different layers of the story’s world impact the characters in different ways.

As we work through this ecological model, we will start at the center with the main character, then work outward through each of the other layers. Keep in mind that this is a dynamic model, and no one layer exists in a vacuum. Decisions you make at each layer will influence and affect both the circles within it and the ones beyond.

Layer 1: The main character

Whether you are writing contemporary fiction or high fantasy, your main character anchors your story and gives your world a point of focus. A detailed world without a main character might be fun to explore, but readers won’t get invested in your story because of setting alone. Your character serves as a lens to draw your readers in.

Many promising writers get derailed in their world building because they focused too soon on setting and not enough on character. Detailed drawings, elaborate caste systems, and sprawling maps might be fun to sketch and brainstorm, but don’t let these trappings distract you from what really matters. The best way to give your readers a window into the world of your story is to give them a character to care about.

Depending on the point of view you use, your character’s perspective will also shape how readers see and experience the story’s world. If you have a first-person or close third-person narrative, your readers’ impressions will be affected by the point-of-view character’s emotions, opinions, and experiences. Your character is a filter for how the reader engages with the story’s world. How your character feels will affect how she sees and describes the world around her, which in turn will also affect your readers’ perceptions of that world.

Exercise: Your character is a filter. How you describe your story’s world will change depending on your point of view character’s state of mind. Your character’s emotions will affect not just how he or she sees the scene but also how you (the writer) describe that scene for your readers. This exercise will help you practice using your character as a filter for your descriptions.

Think of a setting that is familiar to your character: perhaps her home, workplace, or school. Put yourself in your character’s shoes and imagine walking into that space. See the scene, hear the sounds, breathe the air. Now write a description of that space, only you must describe how your character would see that place after being threatened and fearing for her life. Repeat this same exercise, but now describe the scene as your character would see it after just meeting the love of her life. Do the exercise one more time, but now write that description as though the character has just suffered a deep loss.

Remember that the space itself and all the objects in it will be exactly the same in each version, but the way you describe the scene will change because the character will be in a different state of mind.

Layer 2: The supporting cast

Your protagonist is not the only character who affects the world of your story. The supporting cast also plays a part because they influence your main character and that character’s journey. If the protagonist is the character who drives the story forward, then the supporting characters exist primarily to support the development of that main character. This is why we call them supporting characters and not “side” or “secondary” characters. They may not be the central focus, but these characters still serve an important purpose in your story.

The supporting cast can influence your story’s world building in many ways, but the two most common are either by helping to establish the status quo or by shaking it up. Supporting characters who are allies to your protagonist (e.g., friends and family) often help to establish what’s considered “normal” in your story’s world. For example, in the opening chapter of The Hunger Games, the author brings the world of Panem to life via interactions Katniss has with her best friend, Gale, as well as her mother and sister. These scenes give us a baseline for how that world works, so that when Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place during the reaping scene, we know things are now going to be very different.

At the opposite extreme, we also have supporting characters whose job is to shake up your protagonist’s world and create obstacles. These are often villains, but they can also be allies of your main character. Continuing with our Hunger Games example, President Snow is the classic super-villain of the series but, interestingly enough, we see little of him early in the trilogy. Instead, Katniss’ enemies in the first book are the career tributes she must defeat in order to survive. It is only in the later books that President Snow becomes a more visible and prominent enemy. Right away, it’s easy for readers to root against the career tributes who are trying to kill Katniss in the arena, but it’s much harder for us to despise the far-away super-villain who has helped maintain that unfair system for his own selfish ends. Only after Katniss has emerged as victor from the Games does it makes sense for this super-villain to become more present in the story.

Exercise: Follow a supporting character off-stage. Choose a supporting character, follow him or her “off stage,” and explore some aspect of this character’s life that would not appear in your actual story. Craft a full-length scene where you show the supporting character’s experience from his or her perspective.

When you get to know your supporting cast more deeply, it will inform how these characters relate to your protagonist. What you discover through this exercise can ripple out to other scenes in your manuscript where this supporting character appears. As you explore these new facets to your supporting cast, consider the roles these characters play in your protagonist’s life. Do these characters help to establish the status quo of your story’s world? Or is their primary job to create conflict and make life more difficult for your protagonist? Your supporting cast not only helps enrich the development of your protagonist’s character, but they can also help make the story’s world more vivid and engaging.

Layer 3: The surroundings

Now we arrive at the layer that looks like what we would traditionally expect from world building. This layer and the two that follow are where we turn our attention from the characters to the environment that surrounds them. In this layer, we look at your character’s immediate surroundings. This is scene-level world building where you give readers an impression of your story’s world by showing your characters in that world. World building is not about props and backdrops; the best way to make the setting come alive is through scenes where your characters navigate spaces and interact with objects in that world.

At this layer, it’s important to create an immersive sensory experience for your readers. It’s not enough just to tap into all five senses as though checking boxes off a list. Instead, you need to be deliberate as you decide which aspects of this scene-level world you will choose to describe and which elements you will let fade into the backdrop. Remember: Too much detail and information can overwhelm your reader.

Consider the objects and artifacts your characters might encounter. You do not need to include every single detail. Instead, ask yourself: What information and detail does the reader need in this moment to understand this scene? Focus on those elements. Also, depending on your character’s state of mind, different details will capture his or her attention. Your characters anchor your descriptions of your story’s world and have enormous influence on how you convey that world to your readers.

Exercise: Five senses, minus one. Writers often rely more heavily on one of the five senses than the others. Write a passage of description in which you do not rely at all on the one sense you usually overuse. In other words, if, like most writers, you tend to rely on sight more than the other senses, then you can only use sound, touch, taste, and smell throughout this exercise. This is not to say that your character has suddenly lost that sense; rather, you are simply choosing to omit any description using it. A variation on this exercises would be to pick the sense you most often neglect and use only that when writing a short passage. This is a challenging exercise, but it will give you a window into your own writing process. You will discover which descriptive techniques you lean on too much, and you may also unearth some untapped creative resources you didn’t know you had.

Layer 4: The society and culture

This is my favorite layer of world building because it is where you figure out the culture, society, and politics of your world. This layer includes everything from your world’s history, mythology, and religion to the languages your characters speak and the foods they eat. This is also where you determine the society or caste system of your story’s world, like the districts in The Hunger Games, the houses of Hogwarts, or the factions in Divergent. This layer of world building is not just for speculative fiction, however. Suppose, for instance, you are writing a contemporary novel about an NYC restaurateur. In that case, you would need to introduce readers to that foodie world and help them understand the hierarchy of a fancy restaurant kitchen. Even a world that to you might seem mundane and familiar can be mysterious and exciting to someone not familiar with it. Be careful not to take your insider’s knowledge of your story’s world for granted.

Language is another fascinating element of this layer. Keep in mind that you don’t have to be like J. R. R. Tolkien and develop entire new languages and alphabets. Instead, you can play with language on a subtler level simply by adjusting how your characters speak to their peers. For example, in his book Feed, M.T. Anderson gives us a sense of his futuristic world through specific words characters use in dialogue. The teens in the story call each other “unit,” just as we might use the words “man” or “dude.” Some stories might also modulate how characters speak to their peers versus authority figures, thus using language to reflect the social systems of that world.

Whether it’s food, music, language, or a complex caste system, make sure you test out your concepts by writing scenes. Don’t just brainstorm ideas in the abstract. Your vision for that world should work within the confines of your story when you put your characters in action.

Exercise: Create a world-building grid. If your story has a caste system, as in the Harry Potter, Divergent, or Hunger Games series, you can create a chart to keep track of the details for each group. While the grid will differ for every story, some items to consider are the group name and the personality or characteristic traits of the members, as well as symbols or colors associated with the group. Don’t worry about creating a chart like this until you’re well into the drafting process. Allow some of these items to appear organically in your manuscript first; then, once you have a good sense for your characters and story, fill in the gaps and create your chart so you can keep track of your world building.

Layer 5: The setting or landscape

Finally, we turn our attention to the story’s grander universe. Here is where you establish the landscape for your story. If you’re writing high fantasy, this is where you map out the different kingdoms. In a space opera, you do the same thing, only with planets and star systems. For historical fiction, this step is especially important since you need to understand the history of that landscape and make sure your story fits around the historical events of that time. You don’t want to set your story in a town only to discover that during the time period of your story, the town did not yet exist.

For contemporary fiction set in a familiar environment, this layer is not nearly as crucial, but you still need to fact-check the geography. For example, if your story is set in New York City and your characters must travel from one point to another, you need to make sure they are not driving the wrong way on a one-way street or switching subways in a place where the lines don’t connect.

This landscape layer is one I recommend focusing on when you reach the revision stage. Whether you’re writing speculative fiction or a story rooted in reality, let that world take shape organically as you write your manuscript. Make notes to yourself as you draft so when you come back during revision, you can fact-check or research certain details. Whatever you do, though, don’t let your story’s landscape distract you from what matters most: finishing your manuscript.

As you can see, your story’s world is so much more than a beautiful backdrop. When you adopt this ecological approach in your writing, not only will you anchor your story around your characters, but the world of your story will become more vibrant and engaging.

This article originally appeared in The Writer magazine.