For writers of contemporary fiction, world-building may seem like more of a boring, necessary task than a thrilling insight into a character, and that's because we're already familiar with the real world. We live in it. We drive cars, we eat tuna fish sandwiches, we blow dry our hair and brush our teeth...and isn't that all so ordinary and boring?
In short, yes.
If all you do is show your character going through the motions of life without any opinions about that life, the story will read flat. No one finds a minute-by-minute accounting of another human being's rote actions particularly thrilling. What we're interested in is the character's point of view. We want to hear their opinions. We don't read to understand what happens, but why it happens. All stories are based on answering this one basic question: why?
Why do some humans make the choices they make?
Why didn't they make a different choice?
Why would they treat someone that way?
Why would they care?
As soon as we begin to ask why, we begin to relate to a character. We may all live in the same world, but each of our experiences are unique. That is why the first rule of world-building in contemporary fiction is asking why. Why does this setting matter to my character? Why does this world pose a challenge to them? Why are they at odds with their environment (including the other characters in it)? Why does history or geography pose a challenge to their goals?
The answers to these questions should guide your choice of setting and cast. In some ways, the world grows as the character grows, for every part of the world should support your character's story. That is how we build a contemporary world with agency and specificity that is as interesting to readers as worlds with wands and flying books.
World-building by definition is the process of constructing an imaginary world with coherent qualities like history, geography, and ecology--which sounds pretty straight-forward, but if you were to include every detail of your character's world in your story, your book would never end. There are too many potential details. That's why the next step in building a successful contemporary world is choosing what serves your story best.
Some details are more valuable than others. In this excerpt from Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, the main character Ally introduces us to the restaurant where her mother works. While we learn about the restaurant, we also learn that Ally is creative, sometimes to the point of distraction, and that she might have a conflict with her mother over that. A restaurant offers a stronger setting to show those characteristics than say, a quiet library.
Choose details that not only build the setting, but also introduce conflict. Conflict is the heart of every story, and there must be some part of your world that your character is in conflict with. Every person and place in your novel is a potential antagonist--in fact, I'd go so far as to say that we are always in conflict with every element of the world around us to a degree. Think of it as priming a charge. When you load the world with backstory that's ready to blow, it's easy for your character to encounter difficult plot choices that add pace and interest to your story.
For example, a character who hates the beach they're visiting for the summer raises a question in our minds: Why do they hate this beach so much? What happened here? The answer to those questions can be as simple as an interesting piece of backstory which builds the history of the world, or it could also be used to introduce an active conflict. Perhaps this beach was the setting for a terrible loss, and by returning to the beach the character risks suffering another loss.
This doesn't mean that your character always has to hate the world they inhabit. They can have deep love for their hometown and still resent the limitations it places on them, just as they can have deep love for a parent whose actions thwart their goals, but even well-loved details should serve more than one purpose. The bonus insight that a bit of world-building offers us might be a clue to a mystery, a key point of character development, a mood indicator, or a point of conflict. A good detail tells us something about the world and something about the character, too.
|The setting details Kat Yeh chose to focus on in The Truth About Twinkie Pie hint at a mystery ahead.|
When you're writing a real world story, it's easy to think you should change your plot to suit your world, but it is far easier to construct a world that suits your story. Sometimes in contemporary stories, that means altering a real-world setting to better suit your story, which is allowed! We see this in author's notes all the time.
For example, sometimes you need two locations to be within walking distance. Instead of coming up with elaborate excuses as to why your middle grade character could walk that far on their own, change the setting. It is okay to take a real life setting and create your own world within it.
|The NYC street view I used to create the setting in Counting Thyme.|
We're lucky that these days, we have a lot of great tools to assist world-building. Google Earth can show you topical and perspective views of many places round the world. And thanks to the internet, you can also find tons of casual pictures of just about every setting to build your world upon. Emphasize the details that create the experience. If there are details that don't line up with the point you're trying to make, change them or leave them out.
Secondary characters are an important part of your world. They should not exist just for the sake of existing. Secondary characters should offer either a mirror or contrast to your character's journey. When well designed, secondary characters can provide plenty of plot ideas. In fact, if you choose their traits carefully, the plot will appear to drive itself. All it takes is placing characters with opposing goals in the same room, and their innate differences will drive the conflict.
In Two Naomis (by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick), both Mrs. Hill-Davis and Naomi's father are secondary characters whose details reveal insights about Naomi herself. While the neighbor's actions build our mental image of the neighborhood and give us a sense of security and warmth, they also reveal Naomi's burgeoning desire for independence. Additionally, we get the sense from the details the author chose that perhaps Naomi is in conflict with her father, which invites us to keep reading.
Similarly, a secondary character with an emotional arc that parallels your main character will offer moments of connection and reflection that help your character on their journey. This can also reinforce your themes. But even if a secondary character is not in conflict with your main character, they must be interesting and unique. Each secondary character should have their own identity and emotional arc so that your world is as authentic and dynamic as the real world.
Don't waste any time getting into the meat of your world. Remember, your character has already inhabited this world for some time, and will continue to after your story has concluded. This sense of continuity should come across to the reader from the very first line.
Some manuscripts make the mistake of offering extensive world-building details in the opening pages with little insight as to why those details matter to the character. That's a quick way to encourage an agent or editor to stop reading. One trick I like to use to make sure I'm only including details that are relevant to the character is stopping to ask myself if the character would really have time to think all of that, and if they would care in the first place. If not, then those details belong elsewhere. We leave things out of stories for a reason. Select only the information that is necessary for the story, and your focus will only enhance your point.
For opening pages that grab your reader, remember to focus on the why and to do it right away. Don't hide the ball too much. Let us dive right in. A confident, vibrant world encourages the reader to get lost in your story and trust that you are taking them someplace they've never been before. The best contemporary stories create worlds that the reader inhabits long after the final page has been read.