5 Mistakes to Avoid When Worldbuilding
There’s nothing about writing a book that’s simple, and worldbuilding is perhaps the most complicated part. The endless number of social issues in our world should be indicative of how complex society is! When dealing with the elephantine task of creating a whole society of your own, it’s easy to make mistakes — and unfortunately, fault lines in your story’s reality will have complicated repercussions that are a pain to deal with when writing and editing.
Of course, the best way to deal with a worldbuilding mistake is not to make it at all. To save you some trouble in your book-writing journey, we’ll take a look at five mistakes commonly made while constructing a fictional realm, so you can avoid them in the future.
Mistake #1: Creating a world that doesn’t serve the plot
Building a whole other dimension — drafting maps and designing fantastical weapons — can be incredibly engaging and exciting. A fantasy writer who’s been dreaming of her own series can easily let her imagination carry her away; she’s possibly been tinkering at her universe for a long time before actually writing a book about it.
While it’s good to fully understand your book’s setting before writing it, it can also harm you if you become too focused on setting over story. You may end writing something just to fit the world you’ve created, or in a more likely scenario, you’ll end up adjusting the rules of the book’s reality to fit with your plot later. Taking either of these actions risks leaving plot holes in your work, which readers will no doubt point out.
The solution to this one is clear: you should outline your plot before getting into worldbuilding. This way, you avoid going back and forth to tweak things to make sure that the whole universe functions smoothly — or as smoothly as your story allows it to be, until trouble emerges and the protagonist gets caught in it.
Mistake #2: Neglecting the “ground rule”
The more fantastical or futuristic the world of your book is, the easier it is to focus on the physical aspects. What do people wear? Where do they live — on man-made trees or floating bubbles? Again, these things are incredibly entertaining to think about, and having them can help fully realize the realm of your story… but they’re far from the first things you should solidify.
An important pillar of any fictional sphere is the primary “ground rule” that governs it. In Harry Potter, it boils down to the distinction between the Muggle and wizarding worlds — the former is not to be aware of the latter. This simple rule forms the basis for the entire wizarding world’s beliefs, priorities, and laws, and also explains Voldemort’s malevolent, Muggle-hating ways.
Having this kind of norm to structure the society of your novel makes it much easier to then develop in a more detailed way. It also gives your creation coherency, clarity, and credibility. Perhaps this will help: imagine that you are a freelance writer who’s working on another author’s book. Wouldn’t you like some guidelines as to what they want and how things should operate? This is where your main ground rule (and subsequently other branching rules) will come in.
Mistake #3: Failing to consider the everyday details
Focusing on overarching regulations and structures doesn’t mean ignoring the small details altogether. What it does mean is finding the right “little things” to work on. A whole world is too big for you to devote sufficient attention to every tiny detail, yet many authors will make the mistake of trying to do exactly this. The result is a world that’s not believable and appears haphazardly assembled, despite the author’s efforts.
So instead of spreading yourself too thin, pick a few distinctive things that will be the hallmarks of your universe. Let’s use Harry Potter again as an example. Some small, slice-of-life details include the following: wizards wear cloaks, their photographs and portraits can move, and communicate via owls. These are recurring elements that create a sense of consistency and normalcy to the world that Harry and the readers will walk into.
J.K. Rowling happened to pick those aspects to characterize her universe, but you can pick other things — such as how inhabitants address each other, or if they sleep hanging upside down like bats. Such details do little to advance the plot, so there’s no need to focus too much on them, but having just a few of these details on hand to sprinkle into your story can really bring your book to life! (They’re also great for book marketing later on, as you develop a fanbase that will appreciate these quirks.)
Mistake #4: Having too much homogeneity
Unless you are writing a story for very young children, it’s better to add some complexity to your world by creating diversity in the community. In fact, even if you are writing for children, some heterogeneity can really be useful for your story!
Focusing on sci-fi and fantasy worlds, however, it’s important to have a range of backgrounds and experiences as demonstrated by the characters. Even in a world like George Orwell’s 1984, where supposedly everyone is equal and lives similar lives, there are tensions and differences between Winston Smith and Julia’s experiences and that of those who seem content with the draconian governance.
Everyone in life has slightly different perspectives and experiences, and so will your characters — which should also create conflicts among them. Remembering this not only enriches your novel, it can help you determine what will hook readers when crafting your book description!
Mistake #5: Not considering the time frame
There’s the cross-sectional way of looking at society, there’s the longitudinal way, and then there’s a combination of both — the approach you should take as a worldbuilder. And you can kill two birds with one stone by developing a history for your world which potentially strengthens its complexity in the present.
Note that when working on the basic history of a society, it’s not going to stay constant — in fact, there will likely be drastic changes as you progress. But telling a tale of wars or natural disasters that changes the way the world works will lend dynamism to your novel, as long as you do it right and provide sufficient time between past and present! Throwing in a big twist (although not too big that it becomes overly dramatic) also means that you can focus on that rather than details many different events and changes in order to create that depth.
Depth, believability, relevance: those are the three main things you have to aim for when crafting a universe. Remember to keep your plot close by, because the story and the setting cannot work without one another.
There’s certainly a lot to ponder — you’re essentially creating a unique logic system — so take your time. If you need help, remember that there are plenty of writing communities out there that can give you guidance on this, so reach out if you need to. Otherwise, feel free to get on with the crafting!
Desiree Villena is a writer at Reedsy, a platform that connects indie authors with the world’s best publishing professionals. She enjoys writing non-fiction, especially the historical kind, and is delighted by the prospects that self-publishing companies provide for aspiring authors nowadays.