5 Things Meme: Worldbuilding

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series 5 Things Meme

Comment to this post saying "FIVE!" and I will pick five things I would like you to talk about. They might make sense or be totally random.

Then post that list, with your commentary, to your journal. Other people can get lists from you, and the meme merrily perpetuates itself, hopefully for the rest of eternity!

From arliddian: Worldbuilding

What do we talk about when we talk about worldbuilding? How about we begin with the fact that I am a worldbuilder at heart, that I empathize with Tolkien's desire to write out stories to express the worldbuilding he had done and further, that the worldbuilding he had done was built around languages. Additionally, I was asked to write this post ages ago, but haven't, primarily because it's too big. I couldn't get my arms around it.

Worldbuilding is writing. No matter what time period you're in, what setting, what people, your story exists within a world, and the story builds that world within your reader's mind.

So I've been doing that dreadful thing called copyediting—City of Glass to be specific. It has opened my eyes even more to how ubiqitous worldbuilding really is. Within roughly 1000 words of fiction, I had spent 720 words detailing all the worldbuilding items for my series bible. Granted, there are a few headings, but that maybe tosses out 20 – 50 words.

So what is worldbuilding anyway? Why do I love it so much? How do I do it?

I always begin with premise.


Premise is the idea behind the storyworld, what sets it apart from other storyworlds. It spans such issues as the rules of your world and/or some of its history and themes. For example, Vardin:

Crossing the nations of France and England, lying parallel but on another plane behind the Barrier, is another land entirely: the Peninsula. Within the Peninsula are several nations: Airlwynmor, Serea, Rothnarak, Jhakher, and Vardin. Within these lands are the kahtchen plants, which can turn a baseline human into a gifted one, and each of these nations has its own response to the horrors and wonders that ensue when they do.

Then, there's the world of Breath:

The fantasy world of breath is one in which souls must be breathed into newborns and powers rise from the mixture of souls and the elements, where hearts can be bought and sold, where words can reshape reality, and cats and spiders gain humanity and give immortality.

Both of these premises suggest rules and characters, stories and settings. They contain the seeds of hundreds of consequences, dozens of societies and subcultures, clashing religions and politics, differing ideas of right and wrong according to the realities of such a world.

Story and world begin in premise.


My characters are built solidly out of premise. I start with their position within the storyworld and the rules or cultures inherent in that premise and watch to see their own histories unfold. It's here that the bulk of my worldbuilding is done. I watch what the characters do, how they do it, what they say, how they say it, and pay strict attention to where they seem to fit on the social divide with each other. If several characters turn out to be all of a group, I can begin drawing inferences of what their culture mandates and where the loose edges and room for personal choices make their home.

In the world of Breath, it didn't take me long to realize that besides the issues of nations, within the Five Cities, many groups and subcultures had taken up residence: the Scavenge, the former colonizers, the King's Guard, etc.

In the world of Vardin, well... Let's start with what's been published, shall we? In the three short stories I'm getting ready to anthologize—Portrait of a Butterfly, Crossing the Barrier, and Gone Hunting—a particular subculture gets put squarely on display: the hunters.

They call for a hunter and the daughter of hunters. Her father took the name when he first came of age and was bound to the Queen's hand. Her mother is seemingly born for the Hunt, one of the best the Household of Haila has to offer. This hunter was trained by both. Their daughter has never known the inside of the Barrier come wintertides.

— Gone Hunting

Casal was born on a hunt. She has spent her life switching parents when they meet, knowing Vardin only in the heat and season of summerlight. She is hunter more than householder and maintains a professional silence as the team stands guard around an old, shambling Russian house. Freedom fighters, the clients say they are, holding a very important meeting. Rohth has stated he does not care, only that his team is here to ensure no blood is spilled this night.

— Portrait of a Butterfly

She moved out to stand at the prow, eyes on the sea stretching away into mist. From the Vardin side, she could not see the other shore, the domain of hunters and outsiders. The air on her tongue was still salty, but she thought she understood what Aysha meant about tasting a hunt.


Her mother was among only a handful of the gifted who could open and close the Barrier. Casal had always hoped she would be the same.

"Mm." Shiloh gave the same unimpressed look Casal had tried to imitate earlier. "We hunt for a merchant. He's sending his goods through a war zone."

Casal snorted. "Not smart."

"It gives us work." Shiloh shrugged, but her grey eyes had sharpened.

— Crossing the Barrier

Story reveals character reveals culture. A culture is the intersection of the premise and the characters of whom that is composed; characters are the revelation of culture.

Each character belongs to multiple cultures: the national culture, their family culture, their religious culture, and then also to themselves. Each character comes vividly painted with who they are and what they represent without regard to other characters, but when you mix them up, then you can begin to see which part of them comes from their own heart and mind and soul and which comes from the world around them.

To me, writing is reading, and most days, it is most important to read the story in my mind before I set it to paper. Here I can see the nuance of body language, emotions and thought melding into action, each choice the characters actually could make differently and which they will not. Their words teach me the language. Their reactions to each other teach me the bounds of what is and is not permissible or commendable. Their ideas in sum give me the concepts behind culture.

My standard practice is to play out many, many, many stories in my head with a character before I consider them usable within fiction. My characters are real to me. When I am writing, I have absolutely no doubt whether or not I'm staying true to who they are.


As hopefully shown somewhat above, culture is revealed in everything. Every word chosen, every idea presented emerges from culture or contrasts against it. Culture is the identity and personality of a group of characters, rather than merely an individual.

From the Vardin stories, I come to understand not only why most hunters consider themselves members of their Household, but also why many of them do not claim to be Householders. Their mindset is different. What they are and are not willing to do in the interest of protecting the nation and/or the Queen's will is vastly different. Their priorities are different. Rhiannon basically gave up her entire life and devoted it instead to a Hunt she considered more important than herself. (She got John out of it too though, so not bad.)

In City of Glass, the culture of the Medes and Talons gets evaluated more closely than even the characters. While the characters introduced exist within their own skins—Stephanie, Kayda, Evan—they primarily are viewed within the parameters of the people who gave them life and raised them. In the Vardin stories, I attempt to cater my word choice and a little of my style to the point of view, but for the most part, keep all of the stories within the same general series voice. With City of Glass, not so. Each character's flavor of speech and thought form takes over the narrative (with the exception of contractions), and the worldbuilding of their cultural mindsets becomes dominant.

Medes hate Talons and Talons hate Medes, yet Kayda loves Evan and hardens herself against him when he betrays her culture, and Evan loves Kayda and worries for her safety but will not betray his culture. Stephanie's work culture (Alliance officership) and her birth culture (Talons) come to clash, and she chooses her work over her birth and hates herself for it. The militancy officer she makes a handoff too is a spacer and is clearly about a thousand times more prejudiced by culture than I had ever imagined.

Culture is the shaping force of society upon an individual. It's amazing to learn how the world works through these eyes, how culture shapes story. At the heart of every one of my stories as Liana Mir is a culture, composed of individuals I care about. Their stories frame them in terms of their culture. Their culture frames the world they live in.

Rules of Writing

I have always had a simple view of my writing, which is tied thoroughly and inherently in the act and idea of worldbuilding:

If you know your premise, the rules of your world, and your characters, then throw them a situation and the rest is inevitable, though unpredictable.

Other writers may think through the lens of story or plot or some other part of the process that works for them, but I am a worldbuilder.


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