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The psychology of world building

Use these tips and exercises to make any story come to life on the page.

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Most writers think world building is the artistry of creating a setting for your story. They imagine fantastical lands with dragons soaring over castle gates or the intergalactic battles in a “galaxy far, far away.” But the truth is that world building is essential in any story, even if that world seems ordinary or mundane. World building has less to do with your story’s environment and more to do with the characters you put in it. You must build around your characters, and this means adopting an ecological perspective on what your story’s setting really is.

This ecological approach to world building draws inspiration from Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory of child development. In Bronfenbrenner’s model, the child is at the center of the ecosystem and the surrounding layers have different levels of impact on that child. When we apply this same approach to world building, we see that different layers of the story’s world impact the characters in different ways.

As we work through this ecological model, we will start at the center with the main character, then work outward through each of the other layers. Keep in mind that this is a dynamic model, and no one layer exists in a vacuum. Decisions you make at each layer will influence and affect both the circles within it and the ones beyond.

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Layer 1: The main character

Whether you are writing contemporary fiction or high fantasy, your main character anchors your story and gives your world a point of focus. A detailed world without a main character might be fun to explore, but readers won’t get invested in your story because of setting alone. Your character serves as a lens to draw your readers in.

Many promising writers get derailed in their world building because they focused too soon on setting and not enough on character. Detailed drawings, elaborate caste systems, and sprawling maps might be fun to sketch and brainstorm, but don’t let these trappings distract you from what really matters. The best way to give your readers a window into the world of your story is to give them a character to care about.

Depending on the point of view you use, your character’s perspective will also shape how readers see and experience the story’s world. If you have a first-person or close third-person narrative, your readers’ impressions will be affected by the point-of-view character’s emotions, opinions, and experiences. Your character is a filter for how the reader engages with the story’s world. How your character feels will affect how she sees and describes the world around her, which in turn will also affect your readers’ perceptions of that world.


Exercise: your character is a filter. How you describe your story’s world will change depending on your point of view character’s state of mind. Your character’s emotions will affect not just how he or she sees the scene but also how you (the writer) describe that scene for your readers. This exercise – inspired by one of my early writing teachers, Susan Breen, a fellow contributor to The Writer – will help you practice using your character as a filter for your descriptions.

Think of a setting that is familiar to your character: perhaps her home, workplace, or school. Put yourself in your character’s shoes and imagine walking into that space. See the scene, hear the sounds, breathe the air. Now write a description of that space, only you must describe how your character would see that place after being threatened and fearing for her life. Repeat this same exercise, but now describe the scene as your character would see it after just meeting the love of her life. Do the exercise one more time, but now write that description as though the character has just suffered a deep loss.

Remember that the space itself and all the objects in it will be exactly the same in each version, but the way you describe the scene will change because the character will be in a different state of mind.