World Building: It’s in Every Novel

KB Shaw is the author of the YA science fiction series From the Shadows and Neworld Papers. He is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and the Society.of Southwestern Authors. He does presentations and workshops on world building. Website:

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. One kind is found in every type of novel—from memoirs, to whodunits, to space operas.

1. 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 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 Clair 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 Scottish locales and societies.

Mystery writers can set their detectives in a country manor house, a suburban neighborhood, or the gritty bowels of a city. The California world that Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone lives in 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. You identify the detectives with the world in which they exist.

2.  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.

3. 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.

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.

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