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Worldbuilding: It’s in Every Novel

July 15, 2016

I’m delighted that  Keith Shaw has agreed to share some of his thoughts about creating a believable world for fictional characters to inhabit. Having read his Neworld Papers, I have a great deal of respect for his opinion on this matter.

Here’s what Keith has to say:

As a writer, when you hear the term “world building” you might think, “Oh, that’s for science fiction and fantasy writers. It’s not for me.” But you’d be wrong. There are three distinct kinds of world building, and every novel—from memoirs, to whodunits, to space operas—contains at least one type.

  • Created World — The Writer as God

This is the type of world building that most people think of first. Because created worlds do not exist, they are solidly in the realm of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. In books featuring created worlds, the world itself is often as important as any character living in it.

One of the best-known and most fully realized created worlds is J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythical Middle Earth. It is a highly detailed world that encompasses the cultures of men, elves, dwarves, orcs, wizards, and, of course, hobbits. Tolkien created volumes of historical backstory, genealogy, and even a written language.

  • Altered World — The Writer as Instigator

An altered world is based upon the real world… but with a change.  Altered-world books often fall into the realm of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fiction, where the author instigates one or more changes to the real world and then asks the question, “What if…?”

Science fiction: In The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick imagines a world in which the United States lost World War II.

Fantasy: Harry Potter lives in a world where magic coexists with the muggle world.

Horror:  What classic horror story do you get when you ask the question, “What if a man could create life?” Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

  • Real World — The Writer as Reporter

This is the most common type of world building. No matter what genre you write, if your story is set in the world as we know it, you are limited to the knowledge, social structure, physicality, and technology that exists at the time and place of the stories.

Writers of historical fiction must make an actual time and place come to life for the reader.  For instance, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is classified as fantasy, but you could argue that it takes place in two real worlds: Scotland of 1945 and Scotland of 1743. Claire Randall begins as a woman with twentieth century sensibilities in postwar Scotland—our first real world. Of course, Gabaldon uses magic as a device to transport Claire to 1745, but once there, the heroine is in the same place at another time. Gabaldon’s challenge was to create two distinctive versions of a real-world Scotland.

Mystery writers can set their detectives in a country manor house, a suburban neighborhood, or the gritty bowels of a city. The California world inhabited by Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone is different from Tony Hillerman’s Navajo reservation, home to Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Robert B. Parker’s PI (private investigator), Spenser, prowls the neighborhoods and social circles of Boston, while Sandra Carey Cody’s Jennie Connors investigates murders in middle-class suburbia and the Riverview Manor. The reader identifies the detectives with the world in which they exist.

So, even if you don’t write horror, sci-fi, or fantasy, your protagonist still lives within the confines of a world you have built.  It doesn’t matter if your characters are cops, crooks, reporters, doctors, teachers, spies, or politicians. They come to life in a part of the real world unique to their own stories.
Keith ShawKB Shaw is the author of the YA science fiction series From the Shadows and Neworld Papers. A member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), he  also writes short stories and screenplays and gives presentations and workshops on world building. Website:

Thanks, Keith, for sharing your expertise.





10 Comments leave one →
  1. July 15, 2016 6:16 PM

    Great post. I totally agree that every single writer creates the world for her/his particular story.
    I’m so glad you argue Outlander is not Fantasy. I have been wondering whether to call my YA historical novel, The King in the Stone, fantasy. It takes place in modern day and 718 A.D. northern Spain. But, of course, there is the question of time travel and the fact that my characters are fictitious. Still wondering.

    • July 21, 2016 4:29 PM

      You’ll probably be categorized by the method of the time travel. Is it the result of science or some sort of magical means? I tend to promote my Neworld Papers books as “adventure” even though they can be called science fiction or speculative fiction.

  2. July 16, 2016 9:42 PM

    Sometimes it’s hard to categorize a story. Personally, I think it would be nice if we didn’t have to. When we open a book, we’re always stepping into another world. Thanks, Carmen, for adding your comment.

  3. July 17, 2016 9:04 AM

    I agree with Keith when he says all writers create a world for their stories. I like to model mine on real towns, but I usually use a fictitious name so I have more liberties for my characters to interact. Love the post.

    • July 17, 2016 4:28 PM

      Thanks, Fran, for adding your thoughts. I also agree that when we write we create a new world, even if it seems to copy a real town or location, it’s filtered through our unique sensibilities and so is unique.

    • August 24, 2016 9:01 PM

      I wrote a mystery novel set in a fictitious coastal city. An astute reader wrote that the city reminded him of Milwaukee and indeed, I had used my memories of growing up in Milwaukee to create that stories world. Like they say, “write what you know.”

  4. August 24, 2016 4:24 PM

    I personally like the feel of writing altered history. A writer definitely creates the world in which his/her stories take place. It helps and its much less daunting to not have to start from scratch in my opinion. But I tremendously respect those who can build everything from the ground up. Great post!

    • August 24, 2016 9:05 PM

      Thanks for the kind words. I agree with you. The way you alter the world reinforces the theme you are exploring with adding the extraneous clutter of a totally created world.

  5. justawriter591 permalink
    September 13, 2016 2:51 PM

    A writer creates aura, the writer takes away the reader from scratch of bieng ideation about that to the aura. And i respect that genre of writing which is fictional,a total kind of work that is not related to anyone may be some personal experiences are there but really very difficult.

  6. September 14, 2016 5:27 AM

    Nice post

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