Brandon Sanderson calls world building — or the creation of an alternate world and its cultures, history, and practices — the “vegetables” of speculative fiction. World building is necessary and good for healthy speculative fiction. But no one wants the ins and outs of the world you’ve created crammed down their throats constantly. You have to sneak it in, or when it’s obvious, make it really palatable.
How can an aspiring speculative fiction author avoid the dreaded info dump, overbuilt worlds, or a cliched vaguely medieval world with no interesting variations?
Enter Janeen Ippolito. I’ve followed her via various outlets for some time now, amazed at the breadth and quality of her output. She is an author, teacher, content editor, and president of a small press. Her enthusiasm, humor, and pure writing chops drew me back to her posts consistently. And she’s just written Irresistible World Building for Unforgettable Stories, a quick resource helping authors make world building a natural, exciting, welcome, and undistracting part of their writing. You can read my full Goodreads review of the advance copy here (good prep for anyone attempting NaNoWriMo this year!), but I was even more thrilled to be able to interview Janeen to pick her brain on the subject of world building!
Could you define world building for us?
World building is the creation of a setting, culture, ability, or other physical element that differs from the real world. New races, new food, cities in the sky, hidden domains, an unexplained power, new plant life–all of these things are part of world building. World building does not have to be all-encompassing, and it doesn’t have to be an entire world.
Why is world building so important in a speculative fiction book–or, if you’d rather, why is *FRESH* world building so important?
World building is what makes speculative fiction stories speculative! All stories have an element of “what if” to them (and contain made-up elements), but speculative fiction features the imaginary/fantastical as a key component of the plot. Fans of speculative fiction are drawn to fresh world building because we enjoy exploring new realities in stories and honestly, it just makes spec stories that much cooler.
What are some world building mistakes you see new authors fall into?
First, a lot of authors build the world before they even have an inkling of a story. This is fun, and it’s fine if you just want a made-up world, but world building is not a story. If a new author’s goal is to write a story, then they need to consider plotting, narrative, character arcs, and all the other aspects of storytelling.
Second, authors don’t always know the speculative fiction subgenre expectations of their story. An epic fantasy story includes world building in a very different way than an urban fantasy or a hard science fiction story. Many authors get concerned about how much or how little world building to use in their story, and researching the genre is a solution to this issue.
Another mistake is not using the world building in the story. World building should be more than window dressing. If you’re going to put in it in the story, use it!
You already write speculative fiction. Why go for writing help books as well?
I have a gift for taking complex materials and simplifying it. It made me popular in college during hard classes, and I never minded because teaching others helps me understand the concepts more thoroughly as well. I also have over eight years of teaching experience using a variety of writing methodologies for all learning styles. I started creating curriculum during that time and found I enjoyed it. Writing speculative fiction activates my right brain, since I’m naturally a discovery writer. Creating writing resources lets me use my left brain to dissect and explain topics, which I like just as much! Plus, I really love books, love authors, and love readers. I’m enormously blessed to help writers write better in ways that work for them AND connect with readers. It’s a ton of fun!
As you build your own speculative worlds, what is your number one priority?
I like using world building to ask unique story questions. My priority is making sure my world building is fresh and creative enough to keep the reader intrigued in the plot and the characters. I also enjoy playing with humor in my story worlds, so I always try to include quirky elements, like death unicorns, cat-dragons, exploding plants, or someone with a superpower of dog whistling.
What’s your favorite world building from your fiction books?
Oh goodness, well I mentioned some of my favorites in the previous question! I particularly enjoy making fun critters and quirky races. Cat-dragons, mini-griffins who serve as messengers, death unicorns, redneck elves, etc. In my steampunk fantasy series, I created a country, Sekastra, with five different city-states focused on difference concepts: the Scepter of Pleasure, the Scepter of Commerce, the Scepter of Industry, The Scepter of Knowledge, and the Scepter of Justice (home of the dragonshifters). Exploring steampunk culture and tech through the eyes of these different cities has been one of my favorite parts of world building.
What parts (if any) of Irresistible World Building were inspired by your own struggles? What were those struggles?
When I first started creating my fantasy worlds, I had the biggest struggle connecting my world building to plot. I have a degree in Cross-Cultural Studies, and I’d studied other world building books, but they always gave me too much information about building the world and not much on how to use it well. I had story worlds that were fun, but didn’t have enough inherent conflict or issues to let me tell a story. Plus, I’d often build a world but have no idea what speculative fiction subgenre it worked with! All of these elements are critical to incorporating world building into excellent stories that readers will enjoy.
What is one thing you hope writers come away from this book with?
Hope and a renewed sense of clarity and joy in your speculative fiction stories. Irresistible World Building is designed to be a creative guide with practical advice and many writing prompts to get your own imaginative gears turning into amazing stories. The book doesn’t do the work for you, but it ensures that you’re getting all the key areas figured out in your unique way so that you can fully realize those fantastic visions and share them with readers.
What surprised you about drafting this book?
It doubled in length! I had planned on a short pamphlet, but after getting beta reader feedback, and advice from my fellow educator and geek husband, I realized to serve my purpose and readers best I needed to expand several key areas and include a lot more examples. Plus, I added a lot more questions to spur writer ideas and creativity. The best world building ideas come from your mind–my book is there to help you refine those great ideas and form them into awesome stories.
If you want to check out Irresistible World Building for yourself, it’s a steal on Amazon. Check it out, and follow Janeen’s blog, Twitter, or Facebook groups for consistent, enthusiastic, writing-related food for thought. I know it’s benefited me.