Monday, June 3, 2019

For Writers: World-Building is in the Details

by Ralene Burke @RaleneB

If you ask any speculative fiction writer what the differences are between "normal" writers and spec writers, we can give you a whole list of fun things. (Don't get me wrong, we have much respect for all writers—it's a tough job no matter your genre.) But one of the biggest, most fun, and perhaps hardest difference in being a spec writer is world building. 

Contemporary writers have the advantage of writing about a world we're all familiar with. Historical writers have the benefit of being able to research their time period and basing their story world on that research. Even writers who set stories in different countries/cultures can use research/trips/etc. to add authentic life to their stories.

Fantasy and sci-fi writers don't often have that luxury. Middle Earth, with such different races and cultures from the Shire and its hobbits to Mordor with its orcs and goblins, is a fantastical world that still fascinates readers (and now viewers) today. Star Trek was popular in part to the various worlds and cultures the humans (and a few aliens) of the USS Enterprise got to explore. We even have people out there today who can speak Elvish and Klingon. 

Speculative fiction writers become experts at world-building. We have to take a blank canvas and create a whole new world, complete with its own geography, climates, races, cultures, customs, etc. A lot of people think we have it easy because we get to "make things up." And while that's true, it's only true to a point. Everything we create has to make sense, everything we create has to fall under the natural state God created things to be. And if it doesn't, we have to have a reason for it not to be like that.

World-building is in the details!

As I designed the world of Olam for my Sacred Armor trilogy, I got to dive into world-building full-scale for myself for the first time—I had already edited several manuscripts for other authors—and I learned a lot. 

The Physical World

In the first book, Armor of Aletheia, from an environmental and topographical perspective, the kingdom of Aletheia is much like Alaska. The northern and western part is a frozen, mountainous tundra, while the southern and eastern sees more seasonal changes. There’s a large forest in the southeast, and a barren wilderness that forges a path between the mountains and the river that divides Aletheia from the other 2 kingdoms.

While we don’t see much of them in this first book, Soter is mostly made up of wetlands, and Tzedek is a plateau of grassy plains.

When it came to naming these kingdoms, I took keys from the premise of the book. A young queen is charged with retrieving the 6 pieces of sacred armor in order to defeat an ancient evil infecting her world.Each piece of armor has a power attached to its virtue. For instance, the Belt of Truth gives the wearer the ability to see a person’s past and present to see why they are the way they are (also a way to see if people are lying). In Greek, Aletheia means truth. Also, Soter means savior/deliverer in Greek. Tzedek can mean righteousness (as well as justice). 

The Cultural World

Each kingdom has unique aspects of their culture. And it is pinpointing those unique traits and how they apply to everyday life that help the world come alive. 

Popular among my early readers, Aletheia has a tradition that is used both as a hello and farewell in more emotional situations, called the Blessing of Three Kisses. A kiss on each cheek for love and joy and one on the forehead for wisdom. Also, as a highly religious people, Aletheians often send off people with blessings like “May the Creator’s might be with you,” or “May the Creator’s strength be with you.” 

Because their world is so cold for most of the year, much of their clothing is made from heavy wool and is lined with fur. While this doesn’t get highlighted much in the story, it is one of those facts that story enthusiasts may pick up on. 

I had so much fun creating the world of Olam as I wrote Armor of Aletheia. I especially enjoyed learning about the Aletheian people. As I wrote Sword of Soter, Book 2 in The Sacred Armortrilogy, it was interesting to see how vastly different the Soteran people are from the Aletheians. They have different priorities, different ways of doing everything from receiving guests to worshiping their Creator. Now that I'm writing Book 3, which is about a repressed people who live in terror of their king, it's a whole new experience.

No matter what genre you write, though, there's a good deal of world-building that has to be done. Every community, big or small, has their own customs, lingo, values, etc. And those are details are based on everything from environment to history to current events. Cultures and communities are as unique as one individual is to the next.

Take the time to get to know your world before you begin to write your story.

For Writers: World-Building is in the Details - @RaleneB on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Tips on world-building for writers from @RaleneB on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Whether she’s wielding a fantasy writer’s pen, a social media wand, or a freelance editor’s sword, Ralene Burke always has her head in some dreamer’s world. And her goal is to help everyone #SHINE Beyond their circumstances! Her novels, Bellanok and Armor of Aletheia, are available on Amazon. More fantasy novels coming soon!

When her head’s not in the publishing world, she is wife to a veteran and homeschooling mama to their three kids. Her Pinterest board would have you believe she is a master chef, excellent seamstress, and all-around crafty diva. If she only had the time . . . You can also find her on FacebookInstagramTwitter, or at her website.


  1. You're absolutely spot on about how difficult it is, Ralene. No, I haven't even attempted it. But as a reader, if that world doesn't make sense, the reader quits trying to understand it. So, I have the highest respect for spec writers!

    1. Isn't it funny how everything in fiction--regardless of genre--has to make sense, even though things in real life rarely make sense?

  2. What Ane said. God has wired each of us differently and I know I am not wired the same as fantasy writers and I'm fine with that. After reading all you had to do to create your story world, my respect for your genre has grown by leaps and bounds!

    1. Thanks, Pam. I'm so grateful for the opportunity to share more about speculative fiction with The Write Conversation crowd. :) And that's so true that God has given us each unique gifts for which to share His light with the world.

  3. Excellent post about the importance of world-building when writing speculative fiction!
    Great tips, Ralene! I love your naming logic.

  4. Right. As soon as readers start to say, "That doesn't make sense," we start to lose them.