Building a world is not just about fantastical kingdoms or the sins of a solar empire. It’s about the mood you sprinkle throughout every bit of your story. And you can create the world in the simplest ways because humans are stupid.
Every single word you use has a whole host of connotations surrounding it. Words don’t exist in isolation, they rely on context to sharpen and focus their gaze, and each word you choose carries weight beyond the simple.
For example: ‘A rat skittered from a pile of rubbish’. Without any further clue I bet you placed that scene in the sort of place you most associate rats and rubbish; for most of us probably a scene of urban decay (for me it was the alley behind my old flat) but if you’re from the countryside your impressions may have been different.
The point is that you don’t need many words to form an image in someone’s mind. Mention weeds poking through broken concrete and you create not only a picture but an atmosphere. Replace ‘weeds’ with ‘wildflowers’ and the mood changes.
This is what you’re doing when you’re world-building. You’re not trying to describe everything that moves or everything that the character sees or feels. You’re trying to pick the points that are either integral to the plot or create an emblematic link in the reader’s mind. You’re trying to find the touchstones that illuminate not only what you’re focussing, but on the situation as a whole. And those touchstones have to be unique; clichés (and both examples I’ve given here might be considered clichés) are Right Out.
The universe of every story is to some extent a fantasy. Very few novels exist purely in the ‘real’ world; they all have their frameworks that need to be defined. Even Dickens, the arch social commentator of his day, had to build a world that only existed in his mind. The wild marsh from the early stages of Great Expectations; it might have been based on a real place, but he had to define the harshness of the world from the same toolbox as the creator of an epic fantasy. Miss Haversham’s house could’ve been drawn by Stephen King.
Worlds aren’t just about political structures; they’re about the every day lives of the protagonists. And because the human mind is so amazing, describe the floor (carpet or lino? Dirty or clean? Does it muffle the sound or create echoes?) and you’ll find you’ve described the walls and ceilings also, and possibly the state of mind of your character as well. It tells you something of a person if their bedroom is shared by generations of the same family of spider. Are the knickers strewn on the floor or neatly laundered and folded away?
This is world-building. It’s all about the subtle little words you slip into action; no stopping to gaze around at your surroundings; it’s about graffiti or posters or perfectly manicured lawns. It’s the smell of damp, the whisper of wind in the trees. It’s the things delicately woven into the background that the reader barely notices but still influence the way they feel in this world.
Sometimes you’ll need a wadge of description if you need to describe something completely unexpected: and if your characters are searching a bedroom, say, or are having their first glimpse of a new planet, a look around is entirely necessary. But the real skill of writing is to give the readers something utterly normal and yet feed them the information they need to fully experience that place – without them ever noticing the writer’s hand.