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How do you improve World-Building?


I realize with my WIP that the settings are dull or practically non-existent. I feel like there's no real sense of place in my characters' world, but i have terrible world-building skills.

Any general advice for improvement?


You could start by becoming more aware of what surroundings you in your every day life and then translating that into sensorial sensations and impressions for your characters.

In other words, you could start building your world around the characters instead of creating the world and then placing them. Remember that, and many will disagree with what I'm about to say, while all stories (short, long, fiction, biographies) need of both CHARACTERS and a SETTING, you can start to build your narrative from either end, as long as you don't forget the other part of the required pair.

For example if you have already written a scene, read it but trying to imagine what the characters are seeing, smelling, touching, hearing and then imagine why all those things are there.

For instance, if your character is hearing little birds chearping, probably there are trees around, probably a forest... then try to imagine what kind of forest, who lives there. How the forest smells, what else do you hear, etc, etc, etc...

What your characters were doing has influenced how you imagine their world... you have now a beginning from when you can keep growing, but now you can let the setting influence your characters.

You have a forest now, what does that mean for your character... do she lives in the forest, do he has to cross the forest, is the forest the place where bad things happen...?

In the long run, this is a less structured way to build a world, other people prefer to do all their world building before starting with the story, but I think that you should try both and then see what works better for you.
The more you can world build through character interaction with said world the better. Also try and prioritize what elements need to be focused on the most, as well as how much time needs to be spent to give the reader enough to go on.


Fiery Keeper of the Hat
I would suggest an exercise that helped me a while ago.

- Pick a location in your story. For me it was a fisherman's hut.
- Describe it at length in no fewer than 250 words. Do the best you can to make it interesting. But focus on capturing those details.
- Now pick a POV character and write a scene in that setting. In the first paragraph try to capture an establishing chunk of what's going on, and then build on it just a little in every paragraph. Remember to go heavy on the POV perspective.

A quick tip on how to make it interesting: Use good verbs. Just because you're describing something doesn't mean you're all nouns and adjectives. For example: Somebody had tucked the chair away under the desk. Most of those words are boring, but just that verb, "tucked," paints the image.


If your world is similar to our own, try basing, say, a room on a room you know or have a photograph of. Once you have said room pictured, every hand placement of your main character, every positioning of their feet to dodge a creak and ducking of their head will be obvious to you. You just describe how you'd traverse said scene yourself (or slightly differently depending on your main character's traits.)

If you'd like to keep your world separate from the real world then you could do this by drawing the scene instead. Obviously this is much harder if your scenery is more bizarre.

It's been said but don't forget to involve all the senses!


Read A LOT and take note of how other authors weave in setting details into their narrative. Remember the descriptive phrases that stand out to you and practice writing in similar ways when you sit down to work. Then read (for enjoyment) more and write more. Again and again. It's really the only way to learn how to do this.

I also like Laurence's tip on using pictures. I do that quite a bit when I write. Just google the setting, for example an apothecary, find the image in google that draws you in, then keep it in the background as you write, using mental impressions to stimulate the details.


Article Team
Are you having trouble building worlds or are you having trouble describing the setting in a scene?

For building worlds, I usually start with three things and springboard off of them as needed.

1 a religion or lack there of
2 group divisions
3 a moral compass what is considered right and what is considered wrong

For writing scenes with description. Here are a couple of links to posts I made a while back on how to describe things and what to describe with some examples.



Basically, you have to get into the head of your characters.
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“The whole pose of 'man against the world', of man as a 'world-negating' principle, of a man as the measure of the value of things, as judge of the world who in the end places existence itself upon his scales and finds it wanting–the monstrous insipidity of this pose has finally come home to us and we are sick of it. We laugh as soon as we encounter the juxtaposition of 'man and world', separated by the sublime presumption of the little word 'and.' "



See how out of proportion these two are? When I first read the above, it was like a bolt of lightning for me although I'd been groping toward the same idea for a long time. Essentially: People speak of "the world" as if it's something separate from them; but people are in and of the world. When it comes to writing fiction, we might sometimes also draw these out of proportion, focusing so much on character, on character POV, and on the plot (what the character does) that the world in which that character operates shrinks.

There are some curious side effects of what Nietzsche is addressing–curious re: written fiction.

First, realistic characters are probably going to be making the same mistake Nietzsche is ridiculing. Maybe this is because "the world" filters in through the very tiny aperture of the pupil and people tend to feel themselves to be separate from that exterior "world" – as if it exists on the other side of a window, or outside of them. It's them vs the world. In short, real characters have bias, limited perspective, and miss seeing a great deal. So when we write those characters, especially if we write from a limited POV, a lot of that world can go by the wayside.

But readers are outside those characters + world, really viewing those two aspects as parts of a single, whole world. A reader becomes "judge of the world." Ideally, readers will become so immersed, they can hop along with the characters and come to feel themselves as part of that fictional world. But that's a little harder to accomplish if too much of that world is missing.

I realize with my WIP that the settings are dull or practically non-existent. I feel like there's no real sense of place in my characters' world, but i have terrible world-building skills.

Any general advice for improvement?

There are two different things people mean by "world building," and I'm not sure exactly what you feel you are missing.

The term might address the larger aspects of a world like history, culture, mythology/religion, institutions, monuments and ruins (that suggest history, culture, etc.), and so forth.

Or it might mean simple description of the settings. It would be possible to build a very realistic feeling world without describing much more than basic environment, everyday common items, the weather and climate–without needing to go into great depth about some of those other larger aspects of the world.

Either way–and you can do both–what Geo and Miskatonic have said is a good place to start. Don't think and write in terms of character and world, but rather think and write in terms of characters who are in and of the world.

Being a part of that world (not apart from it!) means those characters see and notice and understand a great many other things that are a part of that world, even if many things in that world are not given conscious attention by those characters 100% of the time. The characters have been shaped by that world and are always in a constant state of reacting to it. Even if they themselves aren't always consciously reacting to things, this doesn't mean that their environment has little effect on them. (For instance, I can go a half day feeling grumpy for no reason–even if it's probably just due to the cold, rainy, overcast weather, and I just haven't put 2 and 2 together yet.)

I don't know what kind of POV you are using, but if you are writing in a tight 3rd person limited, there are ways to build up the world even if your characters aren't ruminating on those things or consciously noticing everything about their environment. In fact, it's important to keep in mind that you are writing for a reader, and this trumps "staying true to a limited POV."

I'll explain.

When I step outside my front door, I see a scene that I've seen thousands of times, and it rarely changes much. There are the same trees, the same bushes, the same road, the same sun setting or rising at about the same place for this time of year....There's a very rich tableau, but most of the time I don't notice all that anymore, or don't think about it. But if you were writing a scene about me stepping out my front door, the reader hasn't seen any of that before. So I as a character might not dwell on the three different types of trees in my yard, the flowers lining the side of the house, the old swing set; but if you are writing from a limited 3rd person POV, you can still mention those things. I am, after all, seeing them, even if I'm not consciously noticing them.
On the chance that what I wrote above dips far too much into the abstract (my natural tendency when discussing process), I'll try to summarize and offer a concrete example of what I meant.

I mentioned Geo's and Miskatonic's focus on characters, because a) I think that using characters as a launching point for world building is an extremely effective approach, and b) from the OP, I gathered that, if scenes/description/world building were a problem, then maybe character and plot were largely already developed—so characters exist to serve as launching points for world building.

My essential points:

  • Characters are not blank slates. They have a wealth of information about their own world and long histories interacting with it.
  • Characters are in and of the world, not separated from it. This means they are in a constant state of interacting with it, and said interaction can help during the process of world building.
  • Write for the reader. Even if characters are extremely familiar with their own world and will often take in much of their surroundings in a glance, hardly ruminating on what they see, the reader can't take it all in at a glance if the writer doesn't write it down.

Here's an example from GRRM's A Feast for Crows, two paragraphs that are good examples of what I mean. In the paragraph before these, Brienne of Tarth has been shown to have entered a market square.

There were pine and linden shields to be had for pennies, but Brienne rode past them. She meant to keep the heavy oaken shield Jaime had given her, the one he'd borne himself from Harrenhal to King's Landing. A pine shield had its advantages. It was lighter, and therefore easier to bear, and the soft wood was more like to trap a foeman's axe or sword. But oak gave more protection, if you were strong enough to bear its weight.

Duskendale was built around its harbor. North of town the chalk cliffs rose; to the south a rocky headland shielded the ships at anchor from the storms coming up the narrow sea. The castle overlooked the port, its square keep and big drum towers visible from every part of town. In the crowded cobbled streets, it was easier to walk than ride, so Brienne put her mare up in a stable and continued on afoot, with her shield slung across her back and her bedroll tucked up beneath one arm.​

Besides being a good example of character building, the first paragraph also shows how characters are in a constant state of reacting to, or interacting with, their environment. We get a) a great sense of Brienne's thought processes as she is riding by the display of shields, and b) an idea for the kinds of things that might be on sale in such a market in such a world.

The first three sentences of the second paragraph, which I've put in bold face, are not, on their surface, an example of Brienne's thinking in the present. The description of Duskendale's layout, and the fact that the castle is "visible from every part of town," are things Brienne has taken in at a glance, at best. Perhaps, since she's not a blank slate, the idea that the rocky headland would shield ships from storms is something she understands already, or something she intuitively knows at a glance even if she is not actually consciously thinking about it. So GRRM has been able to insert that description for the benefit of the reader without absolutely breaking POV and general immersion into Brienne's experience.

This idea that characters are not blank slates could be translated into: Characters are great windows into the world they inhabit. Characters can have an opinion on just about anything, a conscious or instinctive (and largely subconscious) reaction to things that they encounter and places they go. Characters have a long history of having reacted to things, having learned about things, etc., and if you sat them down and had an extended conversation with them, they could tell a great many stories about just about anything they've encountered. They carry their world with them.

And, incidentally, this goes for non-POV characters, secondary and side characters, also. So sometimes things about the world can be introduced during dialogue between characters or through overheard conversations.
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i was talking more along the lines of "Building Middle-Earth", but i welcome the other advice. Still good.
But Middle-Earth's already been built!

There is a scene in S2 of Daredevil....and I don't want to spoil anything for anyone who hasn't seen it, but one character explains to another that individual people are like webs. Each person has a web connecting him to everyone in his life, so when he dies, it is not so much a solitary death as it is a destruction of that web. The idea's a good way of looking at world building. Things are interconnected; each thing affects and is affected by multiple things; it's all a web. So if you have a character who is stabbed by a magic dagger, ask yourself how such a dagger exists, why the person using it has it, how that person feels about its origin and existence in the world, etc. As you build up the answers to those questions, the world takes shape.

Using this idea of webbing can help during the process of building the history and culture, etc., that bear upon the scenes you are building. The settings, like people, are not blank slates. Their construction, their very existence, is a massive web stretching back through time. And the characters who inhabit or pass through those settings will know something about the webbing or, if the setting is quite new for them, will be able to infer some things about that webbing, and will have opinions about it.
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i was talking more along the lines of "Building Middle-Earth", but i welcome the other advice. Still good.

Have you ever read about how Tolkien developed much of the cultural setting, geography and characteristics of Middle Earth?

In his book about Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter interviewed many colleagues, friends, family members of the author, and one of the thinks I find the most interesting is how using quotes from all of them Carpenter pieced together what Tolkien did to create much of his amazing fantastic world:

He used his own memories, sensorial perceptions of everyday life, and some of his academic research. Hence, I have to say that whatever you are trying to build to give a setting to your story and characters, it can't be build in the void or taken out of nothing, it has to relate to your characters and must, somehow, be born from the needs of your characters (and since you are the creator of such characters it must be born from your own perceptions).

I think FifthView did a great job explaining you what can you done and how it ca be done, and I have a hard time imagining what other kind of advice you were looking for.


I have to say, I think FifthView is spot on as world building advice goes. Never thought I would see Nietzsche being used for world building but it's a great quote for the purpose.

I have little to add.

I world build from the ground up. I make a map, tectonics, climate, etc. Then I start outlining cultures, start mixing culture histories and get a rudimentary naming language. Then I start to go back and make everything more detailed. It's very time consuming and slow. One thing I like to do is use the world building I've done at the early culture outline stage and write short stories based on heroes of that culture. Then when I get to the more detailed rework I distort the story and add things for the final culture.

Caged Maiden

Article Team
Yeah, Fifth did a pretty thorough job of covering everything. Here's my really simplified breakdown (because Fifth sort of did my normal job of going into too much detail ;) ):

1). CHARACTER-FIRST WORLD-BUILDING: Create a character and a situation, and build a world to be challenging to that character's situation. If your character is a ship captain, make pirates a really big deal. If she's a singer, make a singer's whole reputation based on an American Idol-type show that she totally botches. Start with a character and then create a world and "laws" for that world in direct conflict to your current character, so they have to change during the story.

2). WORLD-BUILDING HALF&HALF: Come up with a basic world first and then choose characters who will struggle in that world. If you envision a world that's rich with magic and magical creatures, and magic's sort of in everything (like Piers Anthony's Xanth), then flesh out a bunch of awesome magical stuff to be the setting, and then create a character who defies the norm (the man who has no magic), and show the character's struggle to accomplish their journey/ goal/ quest and overcome the obstacles created by their inherent sense of not belonging (or whatever, however it relates to the world more as a character than background).

3). COMPREHENSIVE WORLD WORLD-BUILDING FIRST: Make a huge list of things you NEED to know about your world before you begin writing. (I don't do this, so it's pretty unclear to me what people are filling their binders with) Include religion, social and political structures/ factions/ whatevers, and their effects on different people of the world. Maps, weather, terrain, travel times. I mean, you can do this forever and still never write a story, really, which is why I don't do it.

I think most writers fall into one of those categories. Either we tend to start with a character and let the world take form as details are needed, or we tend to begin with a world and all its awesomeness, and then consider what kinds of stories can be set within it. My personal method is the first.

If you're looking for ways to make your world better, it would help to know exactly what you think it's lacking. Is your world itself not creative enough and you wish you had binders full of background to pepper into the story? Then lean more toward the third method and come up with some ideas. Mythology is great for sparking ideas, because so much of it isn't commonly known, but it's there if you look for it.

If you're feeling like you have the details jotted down but can't find a great way to put them into the story without info-dumping, then maybe try more of the first. Get really into your character and let the details flow into the story naturally, in their internal thoughts, observations and detail descriptions (the character lens), or conversations. I'm doing that right now for my Top Scribe entry. All the information in the story isn't necessary, but it sets down the pace I want to keep to, so therefore, it IS necessary in a way, and it deepens the characters a little.

If you feel like you have a good character and a good story, and some fun and interesting things about your world that you really like, but feel instead like your scenes are bland, your descriptions flat, and your details largely erroneous, then the problem isn't world-building, it's execution, and that's the hardest one to get good at. This is where most folks struggle, I think. I don't know how many times I've heard, "Your characters are just sitting around having dinner and talking again..." and it took me a really long time to be able to switch those comfortable-feeling scenes into something else. it's easy to have a character walk into a room and notice everything, but it's terribly boring for a reader and quickly gets tedious. The secret is to run the filter constantly. And to pick words that really speak loudly about who the character is. Yeah, not easy to explain, but so much easier once you begin doing it and it becomes natural-feeling.

I'm not sure how else to describe "how to build Middle Earth" except for to say that mythologies from around the world have a lot of great information. Looking at history is a great way to borrow and change things to fit your own ideal scenario. If you like an island nation, look at how islands in our own world work. Then take what you like, and change what you need to. I mean, no one's going to call you out because you have an island that's supposed to feel like Australia, but it's tropical. Just make it what you want...we don't know what the wind and rain do in your world, right?

If you need lore and religion, there are loads in our world to take inspiration from! Are you shooting for a polytheistic culture who worships a pantheon of gods who literally mingle with mortals? Do you have gods who live in an ethereal plane and have worshippers but no real power to affect the world? Do you have cultures who have outlawed worship, and why?

Why is your world segregated into peaceful kingdoms, or why do you have an uncontrolled nation that's attacking all its neighbors? Why do nobles treat their lesser like garbage? If everyone's equal, why do no people rise to the top and try to rule over others? There are thousands of questions you can ask about your world, and if you just ask questions, you'll have to start coming up with answers. It can sometimes help to play games. I was recently playing Skyrim (after not playing for years) and I was dealing with a problem of including homosexual marriage in my world. I wanted it to be normal and not stigmatized in any way, and I knew what I was going for, but I'd just never seen it done in fiction before, but then as I was playing Skyrim I realized all you have to do to get married to anyone (that is, anyone who is preset to show interest in you regardless of gender or race) is put on the freaking Amulet of Mara. And that little detail gave me the confidence that I could do it too, just as I envisioned.

If you want to build your own really rich world, I think you first have to determine what you feel makes a world rich. For me, it's small details that feel really authentic and allow a character to shine and not be limited to a set of overly simple or complicated "rules". I like to create characters that defy the norm of their worlds/ settings. But I don't like to go a whole lot into why they're not comfortable living with societal constraints. Sometimes I make is situational (my MC is a crime boss' mistress, but she's tired of doing the hard jobs of a spy. She wants to break away and make her own life, but it's hard to leave the family...). Sometimes it makes more sense to do something on a grander scale, like the farm boy who is called for military service after his father dies. He has to fill in for someone he respected, and so he's got a drive to succeed even at long odds. Or whatever. Depending on what kind of story you're writing, that'll let you know how much background you need on the world itself. I mean, if that farm boy is suddenly in a war against an invading kingdom, it'd be nice if you knew WHY the kingdom was invading, what their history was with the farm boy's kingdom, etc. but the character may not know about it. Then it again comes down to execution and how much you put in where and how.

Best wishes!
(because Fifth sort of did my normal job of going into too much detail ;) ):

Hey, I try to learn from the best!

I will summarize even a little more. I personally find difficult the idea of creation of any character without simultaneous creation of the world. I don't understand how any compelling character can be built when the world is left vague or mostly a blank slate. I suspect (and base this on experience of attempting to read some books) that having a blank-slate world is a sign that the characters and the plot probably verge on being cliché or carbon copies of characters and plots already mass produced under a generic label which, for the purpose of this thread, we'll call "fantasy."

This is not to say that every world needs to be built on a Tolkienesque scale. But characters are not whole characters until they inhabit a compelling world.

But how to go about deciding what and how much to build?

Also try and prioritize what elements need to be focused on the most, as well as how much time needs to be spent to give the reader enough to go on.

Create a character and a situation, and build a world to be challenging to that character's situation. If your character is a ship captain, make pirates a really big deal. If she's a singer, make a singer's whole reputation based on an American Idol-type show that she totally botches. Start with a character and then create a world and "laws" for that world in direct conflict to your current character, so they have to change during the story.

I think a good general guide is to consider requirements of the story: requirements of plot and requirements for character building and requirements for creating the tension between character and plot. So these are good starting points—I particularly like the idea of determining the features of the world on the basis of the type of character you want to be your MC.

[Incidentally, I think #3, of starting with massive world building, can work similarly: Once you've created an interesting world, you can then create main characters who fit particularly well within it. So, if you've created a world that has rampant piracy...then you can create a pirate MC. If celebrity is a big deal in your world, you can create a singer or actress as MC. And so forth.]

Edit: Edited the last bit. What I'd written before was going way, way too far into abstraction.
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Caged Maiden

Article Team
It's interesting for me to try to understand the workings of a true world-building mind. I begin exactly as I stated in that post. I think up a character and a situation, and then I begin filling in details. Now, all I can say about that method, is that I've written a lot and so in my brain, I've sort of stored a bunch of things applicable to writing, bits of research that are always on hand to pepper into my blank slate world. I can't explain why I work that way, but perhaps it's a symptom of Bipolar? My mind always works to store information and create connections, however tenuous, and indeed it derives some comfort from connecting seemingly different things and making them into something else, something new. But only to a point...I mean, you gotta draw the line somewhere, and that line is wherever your own personal comfort level is.

If I'm writing a short story about a thief who stole something and is running from some guards, and eventually gets cornered and is then saved by her friend, I begin with the character. There's nothing in that particular scenario that's wholly unique or requires actual world-building. So I'd keep it minimal: Decide on a setting (let's make it like Albuquerque--dry, altitude, no tall buildings), decide on a reason (she stole the item to satisfy a debt that might cost her her head if she didn't do as told)...(ooh, so who's she owe money too? and that starts me asking the questions that then turns into the plot and background), and a couple unique things to make the world stand out. Maybe they don't ride horses there because of the terrain, they have antelopes that carry people and goods, or llamas. As she's running through town, she's caught in a huge celebration, like the Indian one with the colored chalk (sorry, can't recall the name), and there's a certain level of increased tension because the streets are packed with people out celebrating. And I just make sure that as much as I can, I'm showing the world through that lens. Maybe she's religious and the holiday is important to her--she's guilty she's thieving on a holy day. Or maybe she sees all worshippers as fanatical and untrustworthy. Running through their celebration is her hell.

Anyways, my point is only to show how I develop details in the Character-First method I mentioned, because it isn't a linear process at all. To me, this is how thought naturally flows. Now creating a world with levels of depth and detail sounds nice to me, as I've done a bit of that for my fantasy series (making maps, charting lineages, researching elements of historical societies, populations, weather, crops, etc. which are bookmarked or pasted into documents for future reference, but I've never begun with world before character. I guess people are my world. the world is the place I get to meet people, experience people and animals and nature, teach people, love people. Without people, there would only be the tedium of existence. So, perhaps I'm so character-focused it's detrimental to my stories (especially the plots, which I've struggled with for a long while).

On the converse (which I suppose is method two, where world and character are more equal), if my character was a priest who plans to kill his superior so that he can close the gateway to the realm of the gods, I would at least have a minimum understanding of who those gods were, how much influence they had in the world, why the guy wants to close them out for good, and other pertinent details like whether there exists magic, what penalties he'll (and the world will) face after he either succeeds or fails, etc.. I couldn't possibly write that character without having at least some world-building done. But in that scenario, I personally would only have the necessary stuff written out, and that "background" would be very sloppy and precursory in every way. So yeah, we all have different methods, depending on how our brains organize information, I suppose. What works for one won't for another. What one person makes look easy another struggles with indefinitely.

My pantsing methods aren't probably for most folks, because it truly is chaotic, but I love the chaos. However, the down side is that it's hard for me to stop the chaos sometimes, and I end up spinning in circles, wondering what I'm doing and where my story is and where it was going? And getting off track is the main pitfall for me. It could probably be prevented with better planning, but then I get all kinds of bogged down in trying to force my star-shaped mind into what feels an awful lot like a tiny square hole. And then I really hit the wall.
Anyways, my point is only to show how I develop details in the Character-First method I mentioned, because it isn't a linear process at all. To me, this is how thought naturally flows. Now creating a world with levels of depth and detail sounds nice to me, as I've done a bit of that for my fantasy series (making maps, charting lineages, researching elements of historical societies, populations, weather, crops, etc. which are bookmarked or pasted into documents for future reference, but I've never begun with world before character. I guess people are my world. the world is the place I get to meet people, experience people and animals and nature, teach people, love people. Without people, there would only be the tedium of existence. So, perhaps I'm so character-focused it's detrimental to my stories (especially the plots, which I've struggled with for a long while).

For me, the most important thing re: world building is that the world needs to be compelling. I'd use that word over "breadth" and "depth" anytime because, although breadth and depth figure into the creation of a compelling world, I think there's no hard-and-fast measurement for how broad and how deep world building must be in order to create a compelling world.

Sometimes an extremely interesting set of characters can even imply a great many things about the world even if the world is not explicitly drawn broad and wide through exposition. (What I wrote in a previous comment: characters carry their world with them.)

Sometimes, rich descriptions for what is shown of the world can be compelling, and the act of using rich description can imply greater breadth and depth–especially, depth, which in my opinion is often more important than breadth–even if that description is only of immediate environments.

I think that one interesting side effect of thinking in terms of compelling worlds is this: In such a world, characters are also compelled by that world. So the term speaks to character motivation as well. I think that even if you focus on character, a natural consequence of developing interesting characters is a simultaneous development of a world.

As for #3, developing the world in detail first, one of the problems I've experienced is this: The characters plugged into that world can sometimes default to stock characters, without my realizing it. For example, say I decide to create a world in which piracy figures heavily. That might mean that choosing to have an MC who is a pirate would be a good idea. Unfortunately, that's like saying that I've created a forest and then, logically, I choose to make a tree my main character. But what distinguishes that tree (or, pirate) from every other tree (or pirate) in that world? So I have created a world, but when it comes time for me to decide upon a set of characters, I find that the world itself is not enough to help me make that decision.

BTW, plot is my major weakness. Worlds and characters are very interesting for me, but plots generally bore me once I've drawn for myself a world and set of characters. I think this is tragically ironic, because this seems to be what's going on: Having created a world and interesting characters, I don't want them to change. And plot's all about change. This is something I can work through, but for me it's always a massive battle to break that ice.
I will give a real short answer on how to improve world building...

By doing it.

You can throw in everyone else's suggestions around this base principle, heh heh.

Now for personal babble. The world I write in has been around for a couple decades in various forms, but up until the last few years it didn't start to become concrete. Initially, back in olden times, the world kind of fit the characters and stories. But now that I've got a world created more from stone than straw, I pull the stories and the characters from world events.

If X people once lived on the island of Y, but somehow end up in place Z, why the heck did that happen?

Once the event is determined, then who would have an interesting POV?

From that POV, what further details for the event to create the basic plot?

What further character development?

What further plot development?

What further character development?

What further plot development?

Rinse and repeat until you have the story. But the primary objective is to tell a story very grounded in the world's history.

Also note however, that it's all part of a greater story... the world has a creation and destruction, and every tale within the world feeds this end game in one fashion or another.

Caged Maiden

Article Team
Oh man, Fifth, I feel you on the plot thing. So much.

For me, I tend to have a very similar problem over and over. I have a character concept and the immediate situation she's in, and then I figure out some stuff to happen, but then I feel like I go off track and just add things, but don't exactly have a great journey to the end? Maybe that's clear? If not, I'll explain one certain novel I had this problem in:

I had a young soldier who graduated from a military academy. he was all excited to be going home after not seeing his family in two years. But the thing is, his personal dream is to be a holy knight (he's the son of a soldier and a priestess, and grew up in a temple). So when he begs for a free room one night on his journey home, he ends up witnessing a devastating disease eating away at a woman who says she was attacked by undead. That really disturbs this young man, so he diverts form his quest to return home and instead goes in search of witnesses to the phenomenon, to see whether there's any credence to the claim of walking dead somewhere nearby.

His quest takes him into a sickly swamp that takes days to cross, and while there, he happens upon a young woman dressed in scale armor and a seriously unrecognizable helm. Before he even learns who she is, she grabs his arm and screams to run, that the denizens of the swamp are coming. And that's when he learns how deadly the swamp is His horse is killed and he loses all his equipment, money, and everything. He's alone with the young woman, but at least alive. But stuck far from home with no horse and no food or money. The young woman sprains her ankle during their run, and so he takes her to a cottage he saw earlier that day, thinking to enlist the help of whomever resides there. But it's vacant. They prepare to spend the night, but when he's out looking for food, he meets the cottage's owner, a man who points his crossbow first and asks questions second.

After working out a semi-socialibility between them, the three decide their journeys are aligned, and they head east together. Now all that stuff I love, along with the various secrets each character is concealing, and their general distrust for each other. As they travel, their dynamic changes, especially when another member joins the party (the young man's best friend). Time and again, I show the young soldier as a sort of religious fanatic, which endears him to the young woman (a priestess) but alienates him from the crossbow guy and later the best friend. I love playing with polarizing character traits, and think I have a lot of great things going on in that regard, but the overall plot is thinner, the further on the story goes.

It's all good and compelling stuff up to a point, but then later in the story, I realize I never justified why undead things are walking around near the swamp (because they aren't in any other books in the series), nor how they were created, who governs them, what their purpose is, etc. While I could just invent some stuff, it feels cheap and flimsy, even to my own ears, so why would anyone else like it better than I do? They wouldn't! It's just all based on nothing. Like, how could I have overlooked that really critical detail? To salvage the tale some time ago, I added in some sort of relevant information, but really, it's just crap. And so that's how my plots fail me, so spectacularly, I should hang my head in shame. ;) I have a beginning I love, and ending that makes me grin and go misty, and the middle to last third is a heap of steaming rubbish. The thing is, I don't know whether it's a world-building problem, or simply that I'm sort of stupid at times and like to play connect the dots without reading the actual numbers because I think I'm clever enough to solve the puzzle without following the steps properly.

This is why my critique partners are priceless. They read my crap and put the screws to me, asking the tough questions and making me justify my sometimes idiotic assumptions and thin connections. HA! I suck at plot!

Ray M.

Some simple advice I have to give is to pick a general location where the story is going to be told - is it going to be a forest, is it going to be a mountain, a cave, anything, and make up stories about it. Stories within a story. And like with your story as a whole, the stories within it have to have an allure as well. Make it original, yet inspired by something else if need be, make it share traits with other similar locations in fiction (but always take care that you don't outright steal, of course).

Interesting places usually have a story to them. Find out what that story is for your place and tell it.