How to Build And Break A World


This post is more or less what I presented as a workshop at Sirens a couple of weeks ago. If you find this useful I have worksheets! Here is an example where I’ve gone through this process with my book Resistance. Here is a blank sheet for you to work from.

I love worldbuilding. It’s what drew me to writing in the first place. The theme of the 2015 Sirens conference was women rebels and revolutionaries in fantasy and science fiction. When I saw the theme and the call for submissions, I immediately thought of Resistance–my debut novel which features women fighting back, women assassins, women leading a coup, women taking over a city. I thought “hey, I’ve written something like this! I can make a presentation on this!” So I pitched something. And they accepted–on the condition that I turn it into a workshop.

That was…daunting. Talking at people I can do. They teach you how to do that in grad school. But a workshop? A writing workshop? Me? Well…shit. I could try. I said yes, I’d reformat it into a mini-workshop for writers.

The gist of the workshop is worldbuilding with worldbreaking in mind. That is, how do you build a world when you know you want to disrupt it, and how to you make the world, the disruption, and the aftermath all ring true? The way you do it, I think, is piecemeal.

First You Have Build It
The key to worldbuilding well is to create cultures and world that follow the rules of actual real-life cultures in new and unexpected ways. That is, cultures are systems that perpetuate themselves by way of rituals, laws, religion, kinship, economic practices, etc. They mutate, they shift, but the important thing to capture is that they persist. Make something sustainable, something that will keep going until you disrupt it.

Societies organize around resources; what is scarce often (but not always) becomes what is valuable. To what extent is this true in the world you want to create? Are there class distinctions, and if so, how might one tell the rich from the poor? If there is a magic system, is magic accessible to everyone, or only certain people? If only certain people can perform magic, then how are they able to access it–through education? Through bloodlines? Through some combination of the two? And what does it mean if magic is scarce? Knowing who has what resources is essentially understanding your world’s status quo.

What will the people with the resources do to keep those resources? In other words, what is done to maintain the status quo? How did it become the status quo?

Was it through curtailing of choice? Through false choices? Through limited access for some and wide access for others? Does it depend on the resource? How? It is something more over (like violence)? Or something more subtle (like education or structures of politeness)?

Remember intersectionality matters even in made up worlds and cultures. Likely there is more than one axis of power/marginality at play in what you’re creating. Think through how resource scarcity and expressions of power shape that axis and the identities it might embody. Think about how individuals embodying multiple constellations of identities are positioned in that society.

Think, too, about how many of these axes are transposed straight from our world, and how many are your own creation. Does homophobia make sense to exist here? Why or why not?

Then You Can Break It
As history as shown, there are a thousand ways to disrupt a culture. Cultures can be broken from within or from without. From within, they can change slowly but drastically, transformed by reformation. Or they can be rewritten in moments by revolutionaries. External pressures, like invasions or assassinations, can cause vacuums of power that previously marginalized people can suddenly exploit. Instead of a step-by-step process as in the previous section, this section is more of a toolbox. Choose what works for you: maybe it’s one thing, maybe it’s a combination.


check out all these tools

Look through these complications. Look through the world/culture you built. How are you going to shake things up? Pick one, maybe two, of these complications and work out the basics of it below. Sketch out the who and what of your complication. What leads up to this complication? Who is involved? Why and how will this complication lead to lasting disruption in your culture/world?

Remember to Rebuild
When the dust clears, who survives your complication? Who is standing tall, and who is nursing wounds? Did the complication change what resources are available? Did the complication change who the resources are available to? Was it a wholesale shift in resources (from one group to another) or was it a flattening of resources (even distribution)?

What did the complication change in terms of structures? Did everything change? Is the world a flat, marginalization-free utopia now? Or did some of those axes of power slip through the complication and continue to exist? Did the complication introduce new power axes? Or invert previous ones?

Maybe you don’t need to answer all of these questions. Maybe just need to know enough of the fall out to make a satisfying ending. But maybe this is set up for the next chapter of your story or the beginning of a new book–and in that case, these things bear a lot of thinking about.

I hope you found this helpful! I LOVE talking about worldbuilding; feel free to ask me about it anytime in my newsletter question form and/or leave copious comments on this post. And, again, here is a blank worksheet from the Sirens workshop downloadable for free for your use. 

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2 thoughts on “How to Build And Break A World

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