She started with a definition: World building is the physical world and the cultural world your characters inhabit.
All kinds of novels require world building. Fantasy and speculative fiction have other kinds of requirements, because you can't pre-suppose knowledge on the part of your reader. "Nothing can be taken for granted. You need to tell your readers everything they need to know about the world in which it takes place."
"The world of your fantasy story is just as important as your characters are."
As a young reader, she loved the Xanth books by Piers Anthony. In this world, everyone was born with a magical talent—it could range from a tiny skill like projecting a color on a wall to the ability to transform people, animals, and plants into other things. "As a young reader, I wanted desperately to go there. Everything about the world was literally magical."
World building also helps readers believe the things that happen in your world. The belief in the viability of the plot if affected by the viability of the setting (an idea she learned from the poet Julie Larios). Here's a sampling of the craft tips she shared with us.
Effective world building requires consideration of these five interconnected areas:
- Physical environment
- Social structure
Physical environment: Patricia Wrede has a huge list of world-building questions (available online). A few of them:
- Are the laws of nature and physics the same in this world?
- How does magic fit in?
- How do magic beasts fit in?
- Is it like an alternate earth?
These elements affect the way your characters live, what they wear, and how they travel.
Inhabitants: This includes main characters and all types of people and creatures who live in your world.
Social structure: This includes governments, relationships between individuals, neighboring discussions, languages. Who makes the laws? Can they move about freely?
History: The recent and long-term history of the world that may be relevant to your story. Michelle starts thinking about this once she knows her characters and what's going to happen, and she asks what happened in the past that might have made a character do something. It's possible that little of this history will appear in the story, but having the knowledge in the back of your head will enrich the story.
Beliefs: These include religious and supernatural (and possibly magic). Some decisions in this section depend on decisions made in other areas. So, if a religious figure rules, you need to know what the beliefs are and what happens to people who don't believe.