5 Things About Worldbuilding: Don't be a Puny God

I'm teaching a Worldbuilding 101 class for Litreactor starting February 5, which means I'm thinking a lot about how to inspire new and reaching writers to improve the rules and details that make their book's world real. Odd as it may seem, hitting them with electric whips and doing the Jelly Legs Jinx doesn't really get them writing. But here are a few things I've learned about worldbuilding since I started teaching this online class and critiquing my students' work.

1. The magic starts when you make the tough choices.

New writers are often overwhelmed, especially when they sit down to write a book and see limitless possibilities spread out before them. The first week of class is about the Foundations of Worldbuilding, and the homework involves filling out a World Profile sheet to explain what makes your world different from the real world. I see a lot of "I'm not sure yet-- he could be a merman with ultimate power in a Viking fire land or he might be a really great bowler with two left feet who commands an army of pangolins in a hypercolor jungle." And my job here is to say CHOOSE ONE NOW. This was my biggest problem the first time I tried to write a book, too. Instead of choosing something and plowing onward, I just stared at the screen, paralyzed. That's why I try to help my students make choices that will lead to the most interesting story, if they are likewise paralyzed.

2. There is no perfect story--there is only this story and the way you tell it.

If you try to craft a perfect hero or a perfect world, your book is going to suck. Sorry not sorry. Characters and worlds need flaws, or else nothing ever happens and there's no tension and both the writer and the audience are bored. Your world, just like ours, should be full of checks and balances. Magic? Has a price. Those flawless mountains? Are full of angry snakedeer. Your hero is Superman? He has a deadly disease that's making him crazy. You have a utopia? Great, but what about the slaves who do all the work? And even if you must begin with a near-perfect hero, she's going to make some horrible decision that changes her path and, ultimately, her. Which leads me to...

3. Your world must challenge and change your character or else... nothing happens.

Let your world be the fiery forge that shapes your hero. Plan them in tandem for this very purpose. Harry Potter has a miserable life-- but he's special in the magic world-- but is cursed! Wolverine is indestructible and lives forever-- but he doesn't remember his own history-- and the magic girl he loves loves a dudebro-- and everyone he loves dies. Your world should get in the way of your hero and also give her a way to become great-- and give a satisfying character arc, which is a lot easier to manage during the planning stages.

4. When in doubt, do something unexpected.

It's funny how you can come up with this amazing world and this phenomenal cast of characters and then get to a certain point in your story and feel trapped and say, "I've written myself into a corner and I'm stuck!" Nope. The possibilities? Are still endless. There is *always* something that can go wrong. You can avoid tropes (like the dreaded deus ex machina) and still find a way out of that corner. What tools have you planted on your main character that could suddenly come in handy? Which one of your crew is going to mouth off and start the fight? Who might say something ridiculous as a bluff? What kind of animal or tech could botch up even the best-laid plans? When you feel "blocked", it's because you're shutting off the possibilities instead of opening them up. Get in the bath, go for a walk, talk to your critique partner, and see why you're creatively constipated. I find it works well to ask my husband what should happen next. He'll offer scads of great ideas, and I'll say, NO, NO, THAT WOULD NEVER WORK... BUT NOW I KNOW WHAT WILL.

5. The magic happens in edits, and edits don't happen until you have a first draft.

In my class, we start with a World Profile, then a Character Profile, then a first chapter critique. It's amazing how even a well-detailed, lush World Profile can really come to life once you start writing it. My last lecture includes info on how to turn good writing into great writing and integrate telling details into your voice, and it's always exciting to see how each student injects their style into a world and character that should be familiar. I have a personal offer for each of my LitReactor students that if they FINISH THE BOOK in the next year, edit it, and send me their first two chapters (up to 4000 words), I will critique it on my own time and dime. And that alone, ahem, is worth more than the cost of the class on the open market. Just sayin'.

If you're looking to finally finish or polish that book, I hope you'll consider signing up.

And if I don't convince you, how about this guy?


That's right. Chuck Palahniuk, WRITER OF FIGHT CLUB, endorses my class. I am Jack's blushing kidney stone.

If you're curious, I can tell you that each of my 4 lectures is over 5000 words and includes examples, explanations, and an assignment that I will critique to help you move forward with confidence and evil intentions of torturing your characters. You can ask me questions any time through the LitReactor classroom or via a private message through their system. I also tend to give my classes glimpses of how I would critique my own past writing, including the AWFUL first book I wrote in 2009 about a woman who accidentally boinks Zeus on a ferry and starts seeing mythological creatures everywhere. And if you're a fan of my Blud series, I reveal the original first two chapters and what I did wrong in 'em. BLACKMAIL FODDER, YO.

Any questions about the class or the five tips above? Just ask, whether here or on Twitter.