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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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Layer 4: The society and culture

This is my favorite layer of world building because it is where you figure out the culture, society, and politics of your world. This layer includes everything from your world’s history, mythology, and religion to the languages your characters speak and the foods they eat. This is also where you determine the society or caste system of your story’s world, like the districts in The Hunger Games, the houses of Hogwarts, or the factions in Divergent. This layer of world building is not just for speculative fiction, however. Suppose, for instance, you are writing a contemporary novel about an NYC restaurateur. In that case, you would need to introduce readers to that foodie world and help them understand the hierarchy of a fancy restaurant kitchen. Even a world that to you might seem mundane and familiar can be mysterious and exciting to someone not familiar with it. Be careful not to take your insider’s knowledge of your story’s world for granted.

Language is another fascinating element of this layer. Keep in mind that you don’t have to be like J. R. R. Tolkien and develop entire new languages and alphabets. Instead, you can play with language on a subtler level simply by adjusting how your characters speak to their peers. For example, in his book Feed, M.T. Anderson gives us a sense of his futuristic world through specific words characters use in dialogue. The teens in the story call each other “unit,” just as we might use the words “man” or “dude.” Some stories might also modulate how characters speak to their peers versus authority figures, thus using language to reflect the social systems of that world.

Whether it’s food, music, language, or a complex caste system, make sure you test out your concepts by writing scenes. Don’t just brainstorm ideas in the abstract. Your vision for that world should work within the confines of your story when you put your characters in action.

Exercise: create a world-building grid. If your story has a caste system, as in the Harry Potter, Divergent, or Hunger Games series, you can create a chart to keep track of the details for each group. While the grid will differ for every story, some items to consider are the group name and the personality or characteristic traits of the members, as well as symbols or colors associated with the group. Don’t worry about creating a chart like this until you’re well into the drafting process. Allow some of these items to appear organically in your manuscript first; then, once you have a good sense for your characters and story, fill in the gaps and create your chart so you can keep track of your world building.