One of the most important, and sometimes most difficult, things when writing a world is making it feel alive. We want to feel that the world around our characters is progressing, that it isn’t a stagnant box we created, a world crafted in stone. We want to know that it is realistic. After all, things in our own world are always changing whether we are involved or not. Why shouldn’t your fictional world?
But how do we actually accomplish this gargantuan feat? How do we make our fictional worlds feel active and alive?
1. Understand that things will still change while your characters are away. And show this to your readers.
For example, let’s say you’re writing a fantasy and your heroes leave on a quest to a cave in the woods. The village or town from which they left may have been calm and serene, but perhaps they return to the middle of an event. A town isn’t a dead thing; events cycle in and out, patterns of life ebb and flow, streets become busier or sparser depending on what’s happening or the time of day.
Keep your locations alive by making sure to follow a natural rhythm of life. Don’t keep everything always the same.
Besides normal flows of life, realize that major changes can occur while your characters are away, also… or even while they’re right there. Just keep in mind that some of these major events are best left as major plot points. If there are large-scale changes happening, they should have a specific intent, such as a huge natural disaster caused by something related to the heroes’ quest or the deposition of a king leading to unrest the characters will have to address. You need the changes to be relevant to the story and, more specifically, your characters.
My advice, as always: be intentional.
2. Remember that people change, even when they’re not the focus. Your minor characters still have lives, even though we’re not seeing them through the story. Things are going to affect them. Don’t treat them like cutouts. Make sure that they are also progressing and changing as the story goes. They should be impacted by the same changes the characters see or induce, and they are going to respond in a way that matches their own personalities. Use that to your advantage.
3. And finally, just like in our world, civilization advances. What do I mean? Well, the technology, religion, culture, and ideas present in your society should be moldable and dynamic. They should advance and change and contort. Sometimes these changes are small and barely noticeable, like the development of a new generic drug, but sometimes there are major shifts in paradigms or laws. Incorporating changes or advances in technology, ideas, and political climate can add credibility and life to your worldbuilding.
Remember: building a world is just the foundation. Worlds change. Your world should not be static. Let the ideas shift and morph as you write. Write the changes to your world that feel natural to the story. Write a dynamic, living environment for your characters.
(This post also appears at papercraneswriting.tumblr.com)