In general world building is a pretty freeing thing. You can do anything. Almost.
While you can be inventive and use your imagination there is a key difference between building a world just for you and one for your reader. If you are building a world for your reader you need to be aware of certain rules that will make your world something your reader will want to come back to again and again.
So letís talk about these rules.
Rule # 1: You can do anything you want, as long as you are consistent.
Within your world you can have characters with the ability to pass through walls, read minds, change shape, levitate, transport and any other means of travel, communication or supernatural ability. You can have rock cities that levitate, animals that cloak into invisibility, airships or deep sea cities. But, and this is a huge but, whatever you decide are the rules of your world must be consistently applied. Write them down. Seriously.
Think about your rules and the implications of those rules later in your story. If itís going to cause a huge problem, then think either of how your plan to explain why the character canít do what everyone else of their breed can do or change the rule beforehand worldwide.
Double check yourself often when you are plotting out or writing a scene. If what youíve written goes against any of the rules youíve created in your world, then there has to be a logical, rational reason it happens differently this time that must be explained to the reader. Otherwise if a person can pass through walls, then they can always pass through walls, unless youíve set it up ahead of time that they canít pass through metal (like iron being poisonous to fae). Donít just have them unable to do something because it isnít convenient to your story. Figure it out and stick with whatever you create.
Being inconsistent is one of the fastest ways to tick off your readers. They want to be invested in your world and enjoy it, but consistency is what makes that willing suspension of disbelief hold together.
If your society has rules that say that weres never mix with humans you have to have one hell of a motivation and good reason why there were would chance being excommunicated or killed for breaking that rule. No flimsy, oh-but-Iím-so-attracted excuses allowed. Society isnít going to suddenly break and bend to suit the love interests of one individual. The world rules are there for a reason. Breaking them must have consequences. Severe consequences. This is the only way your reader is going to accept that you know what you are doing, continue to trust you, and continue reading.
Rule # 2: Your world must have reason and logic.
Every world has a certain natural order and logic to it. Even the most bizarre place has a kind of society and rules that hold it together or there is utter chaos, which doesnít make for good storytelling.
For every rule you have in your world, there must be a logical and rational application.
As an example, one time I was sitting in a college botany class looking at a plant sample that had an aphid on it with dozens of babies on her back. The professor mentioned that aphids were born pregnant. That jiggled something in my writerís brain. What if there was a society where human DNA was being cross-bred with different types of creature DNA to create sustainable organ harvesting, or an expendable workforce? What if they crossed aphid DNA with human DNA and humans were born pregnant.
Now when this became my rule in this society, I had to be logical about the application of that rule. For a human to be born pregnant and be able to give birth to a child within ten months, then that human would have to have highly accelerated growth to accomplish the birthing process. Furthermore, if the human had highly accelerated growth, that growth wouldnít just stop once the baby was born. It would have to continue. Thatís logical. So applying this, my characters would have very shortened life spans. If they aged ten years in ten months, then that process, one month equaling one year would have to continue and theyíd likely die by the time they were nine or ten years old. It also meant my character had a very short time in which to make choices to see that her unborn child could break the cycle and not be locked into a worker-drone life. See how this works?
If your vampires donít live on blood, there has to be a reason. If they only live on one type of blood there has to be a reason. If your characterís can only shift during the full moon, then you have to make sure the timing in your story accommodates that or that your world has several moons with differing degrees of influence on your shapeshifters. If you decide to have dinosaurs in a modern city, you need to logically explain why they didnít die out with the rest of dinosaurs (Jurassic Park). Make sense?
Just because is never good logic. Get over it and work harder to figure out why so you can explain it to your readers.
Rule # 3: Donít make your past more interesting than your present.
If you find that youíre dwelling on the history of your society for just as much time as you are in the current story, you are probably writing the wrong story.
Your worldís historical past should not overwhelm or dominate your current story. It can influence it. It can appear as flavoring or as a rational for your character here and there in the story, but your reader wants to be in the here and now of your story.
Readers donít like it when something hugely interesting is plopped down in the middle of a story and then they are told to ignore it and move on, thereís nothing to see here, go back to your regular story. For instance if there is a huge sphinx in the middle of a Kansas wheat field and everyone pretty much ignores it, there has to be a reason they ignore it. There also has to be a reason itís there and a reason itís in your story. It is not merely a prop in the background.
Everything you supply as backstory needs to have a reason to be in the current story. It should either support character, be included minimally in description or be part of dialog.
Rule # 4: Donít make your reader need a degree to read your story.
If you have an inventive language in your story, the Navee of Avatar or Tolkeinís Elvin language, thatís fine, but donít make it so difficult for your reader to understand that they canít follow along or have to wade through it. Anything that makes your reader slow down, stop and ponder, isnít helping your pacing. They should be so engrossed in the story they canít put it down. There should be no time to stop, no desire to close that cover. Donít give them a reason to do that.
Remember that if you use an inventive language or machine or process thatís normal to your world that you make it easily accessible to about a sixth grader. Your reader is going to need a point of translation, a guide to the machine, or an explanation of the process by one of your main characters (usually in dialog or through action). Glossaries are one possible way to deal with this, but itís better if you arenít stopping your reader to go look up something in the glossary to keep reading ahead.
Rule # 5: Manage your readerís expectations.
Managing reader expectations is very critical to the success of your story. No matter how inventive your world, your reader is going to come to the story with certain pre-seeded expectations in their mind. They will take the conventions that are already out there in society and expect you to fulfill them or explain why you donít fulfill them. This is not as critical if you are creating an entirely new creature or paranormal entity, but for those of us writing vampires, weres, shapeshifters, ghosts, witches, demons, angels, elves and fae, youíve got readers already coming to your story with ideas in their head of how all those things are supposed to be.
For example drinking human blood, being affected by sunlight, stakes, garlic, holy water, etc. are conventions of vampires. Readers expect explanation and acknowledgement of those conventions. In Twilight the author had to explain why her vampires donít drink human blood (because they purposefully limit themselves to animal blood as a conscious choice) and why they arenít destroyed, but neither do they go out into sunlight (the whole I sparkle a lot and people would notice which would be very bad and get us killed, thing). In my books I have vampires who can go out into sunlight, but thier amped up vision is sensitive enough that it can give them a migraine with prolonged exposure (kind of like what happens if you go to the eye doctor and get your pupils dilated.)
Iím not saying that your explanations have to be fabulous, but you do have to have them.
By being aware of these five simple rules, the world you create will not only draw readers in, but keep them coming back for more.
Raised by a bibliophile who made the dining room into a library, Theresa has always been a lover of books and stories. First a writer for newspapers, then for national magazines, she started her first novel in high school, eventually enrolling in a Writer's Digest course and putting the book under the bed until she joined Romance Writers of America in 1993. In 2005 she was selected as one of eleven finalists for the American Title II contest, the American Idol of books. She is married to the first man she ever went on a real date with (to their high school prom), who she knew was hero material when he suffered through having to let her parents drive, and her brother sit between them in the backseat of the car. They currently live in a Victorian house on a mini farm in the Pacific Northwest with their two children, three cats, an old chestnut Arabian gelding, an energetic mini‐Aussie shepherd puppy, several rabbits, a dozen chickens and an out‐of‐control herb garden.
You can find her online on Twitter, Facebook, at her website or blogging with the other Lolitas