The art of world building

I read an interesting post by Nathan Bransford today where he posed the question, “if you could live in the world of one novel, which one would you choose?” Now, I always like questions like this, maybe because the nerd in me likes imagining what life would be like if I were in each of the worlds I read about.  I’ve come to a few conclusions over the years; I wouldn’t want to be in any of these sword and sorcery novels where I’d have to do a lot of running, and nothing where my life is constantly in danger or where the world is very uncomfortable.  And by uncomfortable, I mean worlds like Cherie Priest’s “Boneshaker” where you have to walk around with a gas mask to breath the air and there are gangs of super-fast zombies traveling around.  In fact, any world with zombies is automatically O-U-T.

Which leads me to the one series I would like to live in: Harry Potter.  Who didn’t see that one coming? Embarrassingly enough, from the comments it looked like about 90% of the people answering wanted to live at Hogwarts.  So, instead of being bothered by my lack of originality, I decided to take a closer look at why everyone wants to be a wizard in the world of Harry Potter.

What’s there not to love about Hogwarts? Before going, you’re told you are special and belong in this whole other, better world, where you can do magic, live in a really amazing castle, and take classes that are full of fun things like how to ride a broomstick or transform items into other items (and honestly, even potions seemed like a pretty cool thing to learn).  True, there’s that whole He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named thing, but really, it seems like a small price to pay.

J.K. Rowling is able to create a whole separate world, with so much detail and so many fun little facts that it feels like a real place.  And while I’ve read many other books that accomplish this just as well (see “Boneshaker” above), none of them seem nearly as fun.  This is why I think the Harry Potter books are so popular; the characters are good and the storyline is good, but again, I’ve read books that are just as good and better.  But the world of Harry Potter is such a fun place that readers love these books, just for the chance to belong in that world for a couple of hours.

I’m still working on the art of world building in my own work.  I know the key is including plenty of little details that might feel insignificant or pointless at first, but that illustrate how this new world is different from other worlds.  If done right, these little details will eventually tie in to the main plot, becoming important, much like the room of requirement in the Harry Potter series, which started out as a comment from Dumbledore about a room full of chamber pots in the first book and became very significant in later books.  But what else do you need to do to make your world come alive? Suggestions? Comments? Thanks, and happy writing!

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Published in: on May 19, 2010 at 9:45 pm  Comments (6)  
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  1. I don’t think I’d like to live in Hogwarts. It seems so illogical in the setting out and there is so much wasted space. Plus the wizards all seem to have a chip on their shoulder only they can actually act on their violent impulses by waving a stick and shouting something in distorted latin.
    That said, I can see that it is a bit of fun for most people and is different without being overwhelmingly distorted from their own reality.
    An interesting post and a very interesting question. Thanks for sharing.

    • It’s true; it’s not a very fair world if you’re not a wizard. And it does seem like an illogical place, but I think that’s what I liked about it. My second choice would have been the world of Xanth created by Piers Anthony, which I used to love reading about (two words: pillow trees). I decided against it, though, because of that whole weird underwear hang-up it seems to have. Very strange.

      Thanks for the comments! It looks like I’d be going to Hogwarts alone here… 😉

  2. It would definitly be a fantasy world for me, though nothing involving the undead or vampires – got enough of that just living in a city. Two of my favourite worlds are The Realm of the Elderlings from Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy and the worlds of His Dark Materials created by Philip Pullman. Then again, when I read those books I do live in their worlds for a while.

    • I agree–no undead!! 🙂 I actually never read Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy, but I plan to check it out eventually. I do like the idea of having an animal familiar, like in the world of His Dark Materials. It’s interesting because it is similar to the world of Harry Potter in that it could be our world, just shifted slightly.

  3. The world of the Chronicles of Narnia is probably my favorite fantasy setting. C.S. Lewis does a really great job of creating a world that you would really want to live in, a fantastic paradise that combines elements from different mythologies to create a rich, and unique fantasy world. Plus, there are strong elements of exploration and adventure, without a sense of overwhelming danger.

    Harry Potter doesn’t really do it for me. Their world seems just like our world, but with wizards in it. Plus, you have to be born a wizard in order to be a wizard (otherwise you’re just a “muggle”), which goes against my egalitarian sensibilities. Entertaining story and great characters, to be sure, but not the first setting that comes to mind in terms of “world building.”

    • Hmm, I see your point. I guess it’s not a very fun world from a “muggle’s” point-of-view. I’m not changing my vote, but Narnia would also be a fun world to visit. I used to check the backs of all closets when I was younger, just in case…


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