World Building

Yesterday I was invited to give a guest lecture to the MA Writing students at Kingston University. I was honoured to receive the invitation and since it was an open brief to speak to a group of incredibly talented new writers, I chose the topic of world building.

"In a world…"

“In a world…”

I believe that great fiction comes out of the three-way intersection of characters, stories, and world; and that world is too often overlooked.

Whether writing contemporary, historical, or speculative fiction, constructing a convincing and internally consistent world is a critical skill for every writer.  Characters are forged by their life and times, and the world in which they live informs their very essence. Characters are people, and people are products of nature and nuture….and that nurture aspect comes from the world around them (from immediate family to global geo-politics).

A map is a great place to start.

A map is a great place to start.

Creating a fully realized, rich story world is fertile ground to create characters.  It’s also a way to build trust with the audience…and lose trust if you betray the constructs of the world you’ve created. The reader/viewer will feel cheated and betrayed if you establish a set of rules (either assumed or explicit) that you violate.

I explored the role and importance of economics; how scarce resources are allocated, and thus how characters will react to that scarcity as a tool for forging characters.  History, especially, accepted wisdom, is a crucial pillar to world building: is your character hostage to their history or fighting against it?  Value systems are another area worthy of deep exploration. What do people believe in your world, and why? Is there a dominant hegemony or multiple belief systems vying for dominance?  There is rich drama in the conflict between different value systems.  Those are just three examples, but three of my favourites.

Orwell creates a fully realised world in 1984.

Orwell creates a fully realised world in 1984.

Whatever story you’re writing, it’s crucial to carefully construct the world that the characters inhabit – it’ll lead to a richer, more fully realized story; one that the reader/viewer will want to relish and revisit.

I wish you good writing, and good hunting.


(If you’re interested in doing a deep dive on world-building, I’ll be teaching one of the Guardian Masterclasses on the subject on 18th May in London.  All the info is here:


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