Building a Real World

Worldbuilding isn’t only for fantasy and science fiction

Many years ago I wrote a blog post called “Five Foundations of World-Building,” which was a distillation of a writing workshop that I developed for my local library. You can still read that post, and I still teach that writing workshop, which is a much more developed version of that post. (If you want to hire me to teach it, email me!)

I haven’t written much fantasy or science fiction, though, since 2013. For the past seven years I’ve been writing mostly realistic novels. A Line in the Dark is a psychological thriller set in the contemporary real world. My next book, Last Night at the Telegraph Club, is a historical novel set in the real 1950s. And my work in progress is also set in the real world.

But this doesn’t mean that I haven’t done any world-building since 2013. Writing novels set in the real world still requires world-building, so I’m revisiting that “Five Foundations” post today and revising it to focus on realistic fiction.

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What is world-building in realistic fiction?

World-building is often misrepresented as drawing a bunch of maps and answering esoteric questions about a fictional fantasy village’s sheep-herding systems. But this is not what world-building is, either in fantasy or in realistic fiction.

World-building is about establishing a believable cultural structure for the story you’re telling. The world informs the way your characters lives their lives, sometimes bluntly, sometimes subconsciously. The world is the context for your characters’ actions.

As Emily Temple explains in her piece “In Defense of Worldbuilding” at Lit Hub:

“When I use the term worldbuilding with creative writing students, I use it to mean the existence of an internal logic, mood, or yes, set of descriptions that gives their work a sense of context—which may or may not be a spatial or historical context.”

What does that mean, practically speaking?

In my “Five Foundations” post, I recommend thinking about your fictional world through five specific lenses that are based in an anthropological approach to culture. Those five foundations still work for realistic fiction, but they express themselves in somewhat different ways. 

1. Power

[Photo: A grand house behind an iron fence in Marblehead, MA, an inspiration for the setting of a scene in my book A Line in the Dark. All photos are by me.]

Being conscious of how power functions is where writing “diversity” begins. This is also the primary foundation of convincing world-building, whether in fantasy or realism.

Power is a system of hierarchies. In fantasy novels, this is often expressed very directly (e.g. Game of Thrones), because fantasy foregrounds real-world situations in heightened or mythical ways. 

In realism and the real world, power is expressed along many vectors (economically, socially, culturally, sexually) and often in intersecting ways. In realistic fiction, you need to be conscious of the ways that power works in the world of your story.

That means you need to know your characters’ class, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, and other identities. You also need to be conscious of how these identities shape your character’s social status overall, and how that social status influences their interactions with other characters. (More on that shortly!)

Power also influences the built environment—the physical world of your story. You can see this easily when considering the differences between “uptown” and “downtown,” the “inner city” and the “suburbs.” This is power as class, expressed in housing (McMansions or trailer parks?), transit (is there a “wrong side of the tracks”?), and geography (who gets access to “natural” environments?). 

If you set your realistic fiction in a real-world location, such as New York City, your task is to be aware of the reality of New York City and to represent it realistically. This is easier said than done, but at least if it’s set in a real location, you can research what that location is like. (More on that later!)

Not all realistic fiction is set in real places; sometimes they’re set in fictional towns. For example, my novel A Line in the Dark is set in the fictional towns of West Bedford and East Bedford, Massachusetts. They were inspired by real towns northeast of Boston, but I created a specific geography for my own fictional purposes. Here’s an excerpt:

I glare outside at the passing blur of Ellicott Park, which runs in a comma-shaped band of trees between West Bedford and East Bedford. To get from one town to the other the legitimate way you have to drive around the woods because there’s no road that cuts through. On the West Bed side, where Angie and I live, the public high school butts up to the park a few blocks over from my house. West Bed has potholed streets buckled by frost heaves, and small colonials clad in grimy vinyl siding, and intersections where the signs keep getting stolen so people are always getting lost and making awkward U-turns. On the East Bed side is the cute but overpriced village with the Creamery, all the historic homes that people think of when they hear “New England,” and Pearson Brooke Academy.

These towns aren’t real, but they reflect real-world class differences. In your story, be conscious of how power, via class particularly, affects the built environment as well as your characters.

2. Rules

[Photo: A woman wearing plastic gloves and a face mask in San Francisco’s Chinatown, May 2019.]

Rules are limitations on behavior. In a fantasy novel that includes magic, you should develop some rules to contain that magic, or else the magic will take over the story. When writing realistic fiction, there is no magic, obviously, but rules still exist. The difference is: you don’t need to develop those rules. They already exist in the real world. Your job is to be aware of them and how they affect your characters.

In the real world, human beings are constrained by rules relating to their identities: gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, etc. We often follow and apply these rules unconsciously because they’re deeply embedded in our cultural systems. 

As a writer, you have to become conscious of them so that you can consider how they limit or expand your characters’ behaviors. If you don’t acknowledge these limits—these cultural rules and expectations—you’ll risk writing unbelievable characters in an unconvincing world.

If your character is pulled over by the police, how would they react? A middle-class white girl would react differently than a black man of any age. If a character is out alone after midnight, do they feel safe? A young woman, of any race, would likely feel less safe than any man; she might walk to her car with her keys clasped in her fingers defensively.

These are very simple examples of the ways that cultural expectations create limits for people in daily life, but that doesn’t mean that these limits are hard-and-fast. People break the rules all the time, consciously or unconsciously. But as the writer, you need to consider how your characters engage with these rules in their world, and what the consequences are for them if they violate them.

3. Place

[Photo: A street in Louisville, Colorado, October 2018.]

Creating a sense of place is about more than describing the way a street looks; it’s about showing how the characters experience that place. This involves incorporating both power and rules in the way you describe a setting.

Ask yourself the following questions about the locations in your story: What defines your story’s town/city/setting? San Francisco is steep hills and cable cars, sure, but it’s also homeless people on grimy sidewalks, tattooed bike messengers careening through the city, and old Chinese women crowded on the number 1 bus on their way to Chinatown.

A small town like the one I grew up in, Louisville, Colorado, is made up of curving beige suburban neighborhoods combined with an old western-style Main Street, nature trails populated by moms pushing strollers or walking dogs, and low-slung strip malls featuring both pan-Asian noodle shops and a medical marijuana dispensary.

One of my pet peeves is reading a book set in a nameless small town or suburb that is only vaguely described. There may be a movie theater or a grocery store, or a blandly colored neighborhood, but that’s not enough. In reality, all places have character. Even the most boring suburban cluster of beige houses has a particular identity. Somebody chose to paint those houses that color; somebody designed the curve of that street; some specific people chose to live there. Why?

I’ve found that these vaguely described communities do have one thing in common: they’re typically white and middle-class. But whiteness and middle-classness are not neutral. They have specific characteristics related to power and cultural expectations. Make sure you are conscious of those, especially if the setting of your realistic novel is the white, middle-class suburbs.

Here are a few other things to be aware of when thinking about place, especially because readers from that real-world place will know when you get it wrong, and will probably be thrown out of the story you’re telling: 

  • Get the weather right. Weather affects people’s lives intimately, and it can be an amazing tool in storytelling.

  • Get the basic geography right. If you’re writing about a real place, take the time to google how long it takes to get from point A to point B.

  • Get the local culture of the place right. New Yorkers, New Englanders, Midwesterners, Southerners, and Californians are all different. I’m not saying that all stereotypes are accurate, but specific locales have specific cultures, and you should be aware of them. 

4. Rituals

[Photo: Before a friend’s wedding, 2012.]

In my “Five Foundations” post, I focused on rituals as a way to describe a fantasy world’s significant cultural experiences. For example, all first-year students at Hogwarts go through a sorting ritual that says a lot about their personal identities and the values of the wizarding culture.

In a realistic story, rituals still present opportunities to reveal important things about the culture of the world you’re depicting. Some common rituals in contemporary American culture include birthdays, high school dances, graduations, weddings, and funerals, but virtually any social situation can be analyzed as a ritual.

Even a simple family dinner can reveal all sorts of details about the relationships between family members, their economic status, and their cultural background. Who prepared the meal? Where did Mom and Dad sit at the table? Do the kids spend the mealtime on their phones or do they reluctantly report on their days at school? What kind of food is eaten? Who cleans up afterward?

In a realistic story, it’s easy to allow a lot of these dynamics to remain subconscious, because we’re writing about “reality,” and we tend to accept that reality is the way it is. The trick is to see that reality is constructed, and in a story we’re constructing the reality directly. It’s also useful to consider whether your point-of-view character understands these dynamics. Their consciousness or lack of it will color their behavior.

The point is not that every social situation should be depicted ritually, but that the concept of rituals can help you see a situation from a more dynamic and deliberate angle. Every scene involves power and tension. Viewing a scene through the lens of a ritual helps to reveal who has the power and where the tensions might lie. All of that helps to strengthen the culture and the world you’re depicting.

5. Food

[Photo: Summer in New England, a.k.a. a lobster roll, 2017.]

Food can quickly tell a complicated story about culture and power—and it’s also one of my favorite things to write about because food is delicious! 

When I moved to New England in 2015, I noticed that many working-class communities had roast beef take-out shops—you know, like Arby’s, except these were called Kelly’s or Steve’s. I had never seen these kinds of stores before, but they immediately revealed the local character of these towns, which were often populated by working-class Americans of Irish descent. In California, where I moved from, working-class neighborhoods were more likely to feature taquerias.

Even convenience stores and the snack foods they sell can tell stories about a place’s culture and class roots. In the suburb where I grew up (back to Louisville), a hallmark of teen life was going to Little Caesar’s for absolutely terrible pizza, and then to 7-11 for a Slurpee. If your characters go to a convenience store, is it a Wawa or a Jewish- or Korean-owned deli? What kind of pizza is available in your fictional town? Even pizzas differ significantly from place to place.

The food that your characters love or hate; the restaurants they choose to eat in or avoid; the special foods they eat for the holidays—all of these are tools you can use to build out the context of the culture and world your characters live in. 


It’s important to note that these foundational elements—power, rules, rituals, place, and food—don’t stand alone. They’re all intertwined, and they work together to create a convincing fictional world. I’ve pulled them out individually to draw your attention to each one. The best realistic fiction will incorporate all these foundational elements together.

Do you have questions about world-building, fantasy or reality-based? Reply to this email or leave a comment!

Malinda Lo is the critically acclaimed author of several young adult novels, including Ash, a lesbian retelling of Cinderella. Find out more at her website or follow her on twitter or instagram.

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