Worldbuilding: The Ripple Effect

The world of my book, Kraesinia, has actual purple mountains.

The world of my book, Kraesinia, has actual purple mountains.

The worldbuilding is one of my favorite parts of any good speculative fiction novel.

I may be unusual in this, but a really great speculation – a unique “what if?” premise – can sometimes sell a book to me all by itself.

And then, if the fictional world feels real and deeper than the page, and shows me amazing things that are different from the real world around me, sometimes that wonder is enough to keep me turning pages, even if the plot is slow or plagued by poor characterization.

Every fiction writer asks, “What if?”  Even if all they do is tweak a real event to write a fictional version, they have to speculate.  But those who write science-fiction and fantasy are asking “What if?” outside the bounds of reality.

And when you write outside the bounds of reality, every “What if?” has to come with consequences.

Even a small adjustment to reality can create massive ripples.

neonWhat if people were born with neon colored hair instead of blond, brown, black, red, etc.?  That seems very superficial.  But think of the consequences.  What stereotypes would people associate with various colored hair?  Would people say, “That pink over there,” instead of, “That blonde?”  Would people dye their hair?  How would it work out genetically?  What colors are seen as most attractive?  What (dyed) tones are seen as rebellious?

You get the picture.

Sure, it’s possible to create a world that’s tweaked so minimally that it creates a very small ripple effect.  And it’s possible to ignore the ripple effect and readers may still appreciate your story for other things.

But, I argue, the more ripple you have…the more FUN it is. πŸ˜€

The wizarding world of Harry Potter is made that much more fun by the fact that wizards use their magic to do almost everything, even sweep the floors.  If you had magic, wouldn’t you??

An Example of Poor Worldbuilding

In BBC’s Merlin, we are shown a fantasy realm where generally men have more power and control than women, as they did in medieval times.

Yet every once in awhile, randomly, there will be a battle scene and women will don pants and insist on their “right” to fight alongside men…and the men will inexplicably allow this with very little protest.  Huh?

If this is an unprecedented move on the part of the women, the men have a very odd reaction to it.  And if this is something women in their culture do regularly, well…where is the ripple?  If their culture had an advanced concept of women’s rights where it was common and acceptable for women to go to battle alongside men instead of hiding or fleeing, you’d see some women training with the guys, with swords and shields.  You’d see a lot of other, different attitudes toward women, I imagine, that wouldn’t fit with the tidy medieval setting the writers put together.

And although I hate “showing my hand” and revealing that my storyworlds were, in fact, built by me, and do not actually exist… πŸ˜› another example is from older drafts of The Kraesinia Trilogy.

My Kraesinion culture had gotten very fleshed out, but the culture of the villains, the Drivvifundians, left a lot to be desired.  Drivvs are a reptilian race.  But until recently I had never thought about this aspect of them, beyond the fact that they have scaly skin.  I’d never even considered that they were cold-blooded!

Lizard sunbathing.

Lizard sunbathing.

Once I finally realized that this was an important aspect to work through, a lot of things had to be taken into consideration.  How do they keep warm?  How do they get energy?  Do they sunbathe like lizards in our world do?

I realized that because they get their energy from the warmth and light of the sun, their culture is partially a sun-worshipping one.  (Religion? – that will create an even bigger ripple effect right there!)  Furthermore, the necessity of soaking up sunlight to live would heavily affect their approach to battle and strategy, and give them an advantage – or a great disadvantage – depending on the locale of the battle, the weather, and the time of day.  It would make a big difference to the Kraesinions and humans fighting against them too.

There was a huge ripple effect needed here, and it took me years to notice it!  Now (I hope) the Drivvs are a much more interesting race, with more strengths, weaknesses, and peculiarities to make them fascinating to readers.

When you pay attention to the ripple, and play through your “What ifs?” down to the smaller details and implications, your worlds will be richer, deeper, and more wondrous for it.


What are your thoughts?  What are some great examples of worldbuilding where you saw “ripples” of the premise down to the little details?  What are some examples of tiny waves that should have been big splashes in your opinion?

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  1. Kessie

     /  July 14, 2015

    Great ripples! I’ve had all kinds of things to think through in my Spacetime series, like, how difficult it would be to conceal crimes, or have the wrong suspect, when your forensic chronomancers can just scry the victim’s timeline and see who did it.

    Besides, I love saying “forensic chronomancers”.

    • Oooooh, yeah. Lots of cool implications there. πŸ˜€ (And forensic chronomancers is a pretty cool phrase, I agree!)

    • That’s one of the worst “worldbulding fails,” in my opinion…when there’s a magic system but the writer didn’t think it through fully and leaves big plot holes. Like, “If they could do that spell THEN…why can’t they just do that over here to save so-and-so?”

      • lol – all I can think of here is a certain future-seeing vampire that never sees what she should! πŸ˜‰

        • Is that a Twilight reference? πŸ™‚ I haven’t read/seen the Twilight series, so I’m ignorant (by most accounts, blissfully so – haha).

  2. Ahhhhh… neat thouughts about the Drivvs!!

    Also, you can call me The Blonde *and* The Pink. πŸ˜€

  3. World building is interesting cause some writers are very purposed and others are very organic about it, but I think we’ve all had that moment where we go “Great! What am I going to do about that?” I had a pyromaniac burning down homes and… well… people in one story but had to really work around my magical character being unable to sense or smell him even though he’d used his sense of smell to track other baddies. LOL. Oh the corners we write ourselves into.

    • I think I tend more on the organic side…I get ideas all the time and write them down, though, so I won’t forget them. Why couldn’t your magical character smell or sense the pyromaniac? Or is that a spoiler? πŸ™‚

      • My ideas tend to breed new stories. I start a story in a world and then that inspires a new story about another part of the world. This in turn makes me return to the original story to make sure all the “world stuff” matches and makes sense.
        The problem was that if he did the case would be solved and the book would be over in a few seconds. He’d just point and say, “it’s him.” What I ended up doing was making the antagonist a voyeur at each fire so that even though my character could smell him it just registered as part of the crowd. The part of the scent that showed him creating the fire got burned up.

  4. I love the what-if. Most of my stories come from that idea and expand. Culture and the ripples fascinate me so well-written tales that pay attention to those are my favorites. I’m trying to think of a good example and the only one that comes to mind at the moment is A Brother’s Price by Wen Spencer – what if male children were extremely rare.

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