Worldbuilding Part 6: Nothing Matters Until You Make it Matter by Matthew Marchitto

Pages upon pages of worldbuilding notes, noble lineages, shifting political landscapes, it doesn’t matter.

Until you make it matter.

I’m always reluctant to start worldbuilding before I’ve started to write the story. All the bloody tears that went into that world can be erased with one wayward line of dialogue. I could always rewrite that line, but is that the right decision?

Sometimes the worldbuilding is wrong. Being beholden to a document isn’t the way to write a story. Instead, the story should dictate the worldbuilding. There has to be malleability to my worlds, there has to be room to move the pieces, realign the axis, erase an ancient king from its history.

What I’m getting at is that all the history and trade routes and political systems don’t matter until you make them matter. If it’s not on the printed page, then it’s on the chopping block. It can be changed, erased, altered, or never even see the tail end of a blinking cursor.

In this case, I think there’s a detriment to being over prepared. The story and characters should always come first, and the worldbuilding second. Being beholden to a worldbuilding doc is setting up a series of hurdles in front of your story. 

I say chuck it all and dive into the story, let the worldbuilding come after.

Edit (February 25, 2019): This series is about the things that I've learned, or am learning, about worldbuilding. It's me trying to level up my craft, and documenting the process. These posts represent my personal approach to worldbuilding, and the way I do it might not be right for you. I'm not an authority on writing, and so everything in these posts should be taken with not only a grain of salt, but a heaping bucket of saline.

Worldbuilding Part 5: Smoke and Mirrors by Matthew Marchitto

Ma-Ma Smoke.gif

Implication makes your world feel vast and complicated. It paints images in the reader’s periphery, giving them an idea—a generalization—that’s just enough to fill in the blanks without spelling out the exact formula.

It’s smoke and mirrors, hand puppets making shadowy shapes on the wall. That’s the Imperiator’s Sanitarium, and you never want to go there. Why? Because we’ve seen someone refer to it with fear, or maybe someone who went in came out different. We don’t know what the Imperiator is doing in there, and we don’t need to. All we need to know is that it’s bad.

That’s just one example, but there are tons of other ways you can fill out your world using little details—each one hinting at the wider world without explicitly saying it.

An organic world has constants that affect all its denizens. These are things like trade, religious institutions, markets, etc. These elements can be littered throughout your world and have small levels of influence on your characters. This will imply that there’s a larger organic world, one that has its own ebb and flow outside of your narrative. This can be done with little bits of detail sprinkled throughout your story. A mention of trade routes, or how two different people view a religious institution, little moments that not only build character but fill out your world.

Keeping details vague can make your world feel bigger. Give them just enough to fill in the blanks, a few guideposts here and there will allow them to populate the roads with their own speculations. If we look at the above example, the Imperiator’s Sanitarium, we don’t need to know what they’re doing in there. Long descriptions of their experiments/torture/whatever will narrow the walls of your reader’s view. They’ll feel boxed in, and everything will start to lose its sense of scale. Leaving things vague, only giving hints of what happens in the Sanitarium and showing the consequences, gives room for the reader to fill in the blanks with their imagination.

The key is to convince the reader that there’s a whole lot of shit happening behind the scenes that they don’t know about. There should always be a sense that there’s more to learn, more to discover.

Small street level elements can add a lot as well. Things like magic lanterns, the way buildings look, or those crow/rat hybrids that are all over the city. This can take pre-established worldbuilding elements and show the readers how they’re integrated into the world. Necromancy is cool when the secretive underground cult is chanting and ohming, but it can also be dotted throughout the world. Maybe detectives raise the dead to ask them questions, or people make a wish when they see a roving spirit. Really, these elements can be integrated any way you like, but having them be constant, as well as showing how they affect the grander world—not just your plot—goes a long way in making the world feel expansive.

The local lingo can show how your world grew organically. If your denizens worship a fire god, then maybe they shout burn me! as an expletive. Language can play a huge role in cementing the believability of your world. The names of people and places should have a sense that they share an etymology, or if they don’t then maybe that’s also a worldbuilding element. If all the people/locations have monosyllabic names like Grot, Kur, Fin, and so on, when Ezekael shows up, we know he’s a stranger from a foreign land.

But don’t go overboard with made-up words, they should be sprinkled throughout the story. Too much all over the place can make your story unreadable (Mad Max gets away with this, but its lingo fits into the degraded sanity of the wasteland).

These are just a few ways to make your world feel big. Each, on its own, seemingly a little detail, but together they create a cohesive and evocative image. Give them try and let me know how it turns out!


This worldbuilding series is less a how-to and more a way for me to try and figure out the big messy process of creating secondary worlds. Check out Worldbuilding Part 1Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Edit (February 25, 2019): This series is about the things that I've learned, or am learning, about worldbuilding. It's me trying to level up my craft, and documenting the process. These posts represent my personal approach to worldbuilding, and the way I do it might not be right for you. I'm not an authority on writing, and so everything in these posts should be taken with not only a grain of salt, but a heaping bucket of saline.

Worldbuilding Part 4: Show it all but keep it lean (featuring Mad Max and Judge Dredd) by Matthew Marchitto

I recently rewatched two of my favourite movies, Dredd (2012) and Mad Max: Fury Road.  They got me thinking about lean storytelling. 

Both are extremely action oriented movies, but they communicate their worlds and characters through the action in a way that doesn’t feel shoehorned. A lot of it is done with body language, concise dialogue, and an extremely brief spattering of flashbacks. The stories are lean, all the fat stripped away. I take a lot of inspiration from both Mad Max: Fury Road and Dredd (2012), and try to implement some lessons from them into my writing. 

Minor spoiler warning for both movies.

Mad Max sets up its world with some impactful visuals. There’s only a brief bit of dialogue to set up the tone, and then we are launched into the story. We learn everything we need to know from the imagery. The derelict cars being worked on, the starving masses clamouring for water. We even see Immortan Joe running through a lush garden, which isn’t addressed again until the end of the movie. It doesn’t need to be, that one shot gives us all the information we need to know about how Immortan is hoarding resources. 

Dredd does something similar. A bit of dialogue to set things up, and then we’re thrown in the deep end mid-chase. We see the over populated city, a few civilians apathetic to the crime taking place, and Judge Dredd’s near monotone* way of acknowledging a civilian’s death and the subsequent death of the perps. It all paints a picture of a city where crime is the norm. 

*Is it possible to have an angry monotone? That seems to describe Dredd better.

That’s just the first few scenes of each movie, they’re packed with this kind of imagery throughout. Telling us more and expanding on their worlds without resorting to infodumps or large chunks of expository dialogue. (There is some expository dialogue, but it’s kept brief and concise.) 

How can this translate to books? The general principle has already been around for a long time: Show, don’t tell

I try to infuse the worldbuilding into my stories in a way that doesn’t rely on infodumps.* I think one of the negative instincts some folks have (myself included) is to try and explain everything. After all, you did make that beefy worldbuilding doc, and by the old gods and the new you’re going to work those political machinations into your book! And you should, but the key is weaving them into the narrative in a way that has the reader doing the work for you. 

That might sound weird, you, we, are the writers. We create. We do the work. Yeah, but part of that is relying on the reader to put the pieces together. Just like how Mad Max and Dredd rely on the viewer to put the visual cues together to create the grander image. We set up the land marks, so when the reader reaches that first toppled waystone, they can see Stonehenge from across the field. They know where to go, we just planted the guide posts. 

*I know sometimes infodumps are necessary and might be the most efficient way to communicate certain information. I still feel that, in most cases, other alternatives should be explored. 

A lot can be communicated by a character’s movements, as well as how others react to that character. The way they walk, fight, and speak all add up to define them. Ma-Ma from Dredd is a good example of this. Everyone is tense and quiet around her, listening intently and scared to shit of pissing her off. But when the corrupt Judges are standing right in front of Ma-Ma, she’s the one that speaks in a clipped, controlled manner out of fear of pissing the Judges off. This is something where movies have the edge. I find it a bit more difficult to do in a book. Particularly since I like to keep my dialogue clean and concise. I can’t think of any good examples of movement in books really adding to the character (but maybe you can leave some suggestions in the comments!).

I’d take a guess and say about 15-20% of your worldbuilding will actually make it into the story, at least explicitly. The rest is hidden in the subtext. It makes up the bedrock of your story. Likely most won’t even notice it’s there. And that’s probably how it should be. 



This worldbuilding series isn’t planned out. I have a few ideas and general concepts for future posts, but in general I’m sort of making it up as I go along. Hopefully I haven’t gotten to the point where I’m repeating myself yet. I’m not sure when my interest in secondary worlds started, maybe with Warcraft or Redwall,* but either way it has become something I really do find interesting and enjoy talking about. I plan to keep yammering on about it as long as I have ideas, and I hope you keep popping in to read and share your own thoughts. 

Check out Worldbuilding Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. I’d also recommend Chuck Wendig’s post on Mad Max: Fury Road.  

*Now that I think about it, maybe it started with Final Fantasy 6.

Edit (February 25, 2019): This series is about the things that I've learned, or am learning, about worldbuilding. It's me trying to level up my craft, and documenting the process. These posts represent my personal approach to worldbuilding, and the way I do it might not be right for you. I'm not an authority on writing, and so everything in these posts should be taken with not only a grain of salt, but a heaping bucket of saline.

Worldbuilding Part 3: Internal Logic by Matthew Marchitto

Can the manticore bite through steel? Does the dragon’s fire melt stone? What happens when someone gets hit with those mage fireballs? Any piece of fiction that has fantastical, sci-fi, superhero, or any variation of those elements needs to have consistent internal logic. It’s the thing that keeps us, the audience, rooted in the world even though Strongman is swinging a bus like a baseball bat. 

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Worldbuilding Part 2 by Matthew Marchitto

A lot of worldbuilding happens on the backstage of the story. The amount that is actually shown to the audience is usually pretty minimal. Maybe that’s the most effective way of communicating aspects of the world. To let there be some mystery, some questions that the reader has to answer themselves. 

That means what they imagine compared to what you imagine won’t always be the same, but that’s okay. It’s for the better.

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Worldbuilding by Matthew Marchitto

Characters always precede the world in my stories. At least they have so far. I’ll get an idea for the characters, some personality traits, maybe imagine how they look or something odd that stands out about them, and that’ll be where the world starts. Then I’ll think of the characters that surround them and where they’d live and work. And then the world starts to form around them.

I haven’t ever created a world and populated it with characters. That prospect actually kind of scares me. To make something so intricate, and then try and find all the little ways you can tell a story within those guidelines. Honestly, it sounds both impressive and daunting. I admire anyone who can build intricate worlds that are extremely detailed from coast to coast of each fantastical continent.

I’m always curious how much of a secondary world has been plotted out and how much is being modified as the story moves forward. For me, there’s a lot that’s a little vague and as the story warrants I’ll focus in on those areas to fill them out. So if there’s a town that’s mentioned offhand, and then eventually the characters have to go there, chances are that town will only become detailed once I realize it has become important. Hopefully, I’ll know a little bit about the region, kingdom, or area that’ll help inform the general society of the town. That’s a simple example of how the general ideas help inform the details, but the details are only filled in as the story warrants. I don’t know if it’s the best method, but it’s the one that feels like it works for me.

Detailing that town, and the surrounding towns, or everything in a kingdom without knowing whether it will ever be seen is a little horrifying. There’s a difference between knowing where town A and town B are on the map, and some general ideas about their trade or something, versus knowing the love affairs of each person and when they muck out the latrines.

For me, the world is always something that is made to serve the characters. Defining so much of it in detail without knowing who the characters are feels like it would force me to work inside constraints. I’d much rather be able to mold and alter the world as the story progresses so it serves the plot and characters as needed, instead of the characters and plot serving the world.

Do you prefer to make the world first and populate it with characters, or make the characters first and build the world around them?

Edit (February 25, 2019): This series is about the things that I've learned, or am learning, about worldbuilding. It's me trying to level up my craft, and documenting the process. These posts represent my personal approach to worldbuilding, and the way I do it might not be right for you. I'm not an authority on writing, and so everything in these posts should be taken with not only a grain of salt, but a heaping bucket of saline.

Fantastical Cities by Matthew Marchitto

Cities that tower over mountains, ones that float in the sky, are encased in an underwater dome, or hidden in a volcano. I really like fantastical cities. There’s something about a city with surreal or fantasy elements that is so intriguing to me. There are so many ways a magic system can be worked into the intricacies of a bustling society. How does that steampunk technology affect day to day life? How does the average person use all those alchemical ingredients? What does everyone do with those crystals that have little frozen pixies in them? 

One of my favourite genres is cyberpunk. I think one of the major aspects of most cyberpunk stories are big, sometimes overcrowded, cities. Stuff that has a neo-noire bend (like Blade Runner) are my particular favourites. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy the Shadowrun game so much (I haven’t had a chance to play the follow-ups).  It combines a lot of my favourite things into one neat package. It’s got fantasy races and neon signs in rusty cityscapes. And every part you visit feels like it has a place in the landscape even if the megacorps HQs are so pristine compared to the back alley streets. 

A city can be packed with all manner of peoples and places and still have vastly different mindsets, cultures, and settings. The most obvious being the wealthy versus, well, everyone else. There can be cultural pockets that have clustered together, or new subcultures that form from the places that those clusters overlap.  It really feels like there are so many possibilities to create stories and characters. I think that's probably why I gravitate towards big city settings.  

There's also something really satisfying about slowly populating a city. It starts off with some vague ideas, and those generalities get broken down to a series of intricate parts, until there are subsections within subsections of people all living next to one another affecting each other without even knowing it.  

Rolling green hills and lush forests can only go so far. Maybe it's because of how much I love the ideas behind neo-noire themes that I've been inadvertently applying them to my fantasy writing. And a lot of that influence probably comes from the way Shadowrun marries the two so well. I liked both before, but as separate entities, now I want to smoosh them together.  

Question to readers: What are some of your favourite genres? They can be super specific, super vague, or even just a particular piece of media that resonated with you but doesn't quite fit any genre.