World building – How to teach it

Abstract illustration showing teenage boy surrounded by swirling coloured mists to evoke world building

Frances Hardinge unpacks how to teach a much sought-after skill in modern storytelling – that of world-building…

Frances Hardinge
by Frances Hardinge

I am addicted to world-building.

My usual approach is to come up with one or more bizarre starting premises, and work out the logical and practical ramifications – because even an absurd world can be made to feel concrete if it’s internally consistent.

When I was writing my novel A Face Like Glass, I knew I wanted the setting to be a labyrinthine, subterranean city that nobody was permitted to enter or leave. So I had to ask myself, how does this city get its air, light, food and water? If there’s no night and day, when are people awake?

These might be boring, pragmatic questions, but when you’re world building the answers needn’t be mundane or even sensible. (My answers in that case involved giant, glowing carnivorous plants, underground rivers, camel trains across the desert and 25-hour clocks.)

How, why and where

When world-building, it’s easy to be distracted by questions of what, who and where, and the temptation to fill your imaginary landscape with creatures, people and places that grab the mind’s eye. A village of four-armed ninjas! Zombie dinosaurs! A city made of glass!

The important part is remembering to work through the how, why and where. Why do any of these things exist, and how do they continue to exist? When did the zombie dinosaur problem first develop, and how are people dealing with it?

How can the four-armed ninjas afford those nice, shiny shurikens and bespoke four-armed outfits? Do they sometimes have to hire themselves out as couriers or roof-repairers? And how do the residents of that glass city cope with the attendant insurance costs and privacy issues? How do all these bizarre elements interact?

Answering such questions can be time-consuming and fiddly, but the answers can often generate plot, detail and unique features for the setting so that it feels more solid. If you leave them unanswered, then those big, shiny ‘cool’ elements of your setting will tend to feel shallow, like set dressing.

Splendid mayhem of world building

When running a ‘settings workshop’ for a full class (Y6 to Y8) I’ll sometimes encourage everyone to brainstorm the what, who and where first. I’ll describe a storm at sea, and a ship being wrecked on a rocky shore. I then tell the students that nearly everybody on board has drowned, and that there’s only one survivor – me.

I recover consciousness, and begin looking around to discover where I am. And they’re going to tell me what I encounter. I start by asking them what I’m lying on. What does it feel like? (At this point, someone may timidly suggest ‘sand’.) I’ll then tell them that I’m opening my eyes, sitting up and looking around. What can I see?

Initially, the responses will be a little cautious – but before long, the class realises they have an adult character who they can chase around an imaginary landscape, and who will yelp with panic when subjected to countless perils. They also realise that I won’t block any of their ideas, including all the ‘silly’ ones. At this point, splendid mayhem tends to break loose.

Note, this is not an engine for producing a grim, grittily serious setting. The results tend to be anarchic, enthusiastic, varied and frequently very funny, but in a way that generally gets the whole class engaged.

At a certain point (usually with some difficulty), I’ll call a halt to the brainstorming and get everyone to consider those how, when and why questions. I’ll encourage them to come up with reasons for such bizarre phenomena coexisting in the same setting and invent a history. It will likely be a strange and amusing history, but that’s not necessarily a problem.

Fates of quirks

Alternatively, one could approach the world-building process from another direction entirely. As previously mentioned, I’m used to starting from bizarre premises myself, before trying to work out how they will affect the setting. In effect, I’m starting with those how, when and why questions to help me work out the answers to what, who and where.
To use this approach, a class could be broken up into small groups, each of which is tasked with brainstorming a different country.

Each group can choose a ‘quirk’ – some bizarre characteristic of this world that makes it appreciably different from our own. The students can either come up with their own suggestions, or pick out a single option from a pre-prepared list.
The groups can also be given a list of further questions to consider when fleshing out their worlds and deciding how their chosen quirk has affected everything in that particular country.

Some good sample questions here might include:

  • When did the quirk begin? Has it always been there?
  • Why does it exist? If nobody knows, why do people think it exists?
  • How has it changed people’s beliefs and their behaviour?
  • How has it affected the country’s history? Has it resulted in any new conflicts, religions, inventions, laws, jobs or crimes?
  • What else is this country like? How advanced is the technology? What is the landscape like? In what other ways is it ‘weird?’
  • If you were to visit the country, what odd things would you notice due to its peculiar history?

There by a whisker

Let’s look at one quirk by way of an example – cats can use human speech.

This might have affected the country’s history in many different ways. Perhaps cats have always talked, with everyone regarding them as messengers of the gods. The cats themselves encourage this belief, but are careful not to push it too far: “The gods demand an offering of tuna! Just… leave it there. I’ll make sure they get it…

Or maybe the cats started talking 300 years ago, after which the dominant church decided they were possessed by demons. This prompted the general populace to kill all the cats they could find, resulting in mice and rats running rampant, which in turn produced terrible epidemics that wiped out millions.

Now there are countless ruined ghost towns where survivors eke out a living (and persecute anyone still stubborn enough to be sheltering a cat).

Or… perhaps genetic engineering produced intelligent talking cats 20 years ago, since which time they have successfully campaigned for voting rights. The election of the first cat Prime Minister ushered in a lot of changes. There are statues of PM Fluffkins in every town square, and all public buildings have a cat flap.

Then again, maybe the cats didn’t admit straight away that they could suddenly understand human speech. Instead, they spent years amassing information and reporting back to a Macavity-esque criminal genius at Cat Headquarters. Now the nation’s politicians are cowed into obedience because the cats know all their deepest, darkest secrets. Cats rule the country, and everyone is waiting to find out what they intend to do with it…

Quirks to explore

These examples will hopefully show the students ways in which a single quirk can affect a whole setting’s history. I’ll leave you with some other possible quirks that you could try exploring…

  • Instead of electricity, the setting has a power source that works in much the same way – except that you age twice as fast while using it…
  • In this country, dreams are always distorted visions of something real that’s happening somewhere else at that exact moment.
  • 1 in 10 children can teleport a few feet by the time they hit puberty. Most children have no control over it.
  • The possession or use of clocks is strictly illegal.

Frances Hardinge is an award-winning children’s author; her 11th novel, Island of Whispers (with illustrations by Emily Gravett), is available now (£14.99, Two Hoots)

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