When I talk to client about novel world building, I talk a lot about context. If, for example, there is a magic in worldbuilding, I want to know if a) magic is common, b) the protagonist has experienced magic before (if yes, how much? what kind? etc.), and c) how they feel about it. So when a streak of green lightning flies across the room, I am looking to the protagonist for clues. How they react to it will tell me a lot about how magic operates in the world.
But this sort of approach isn’t just for novel world building. You can add an emotional stance to almost everything, even if your book is set very much in the real world. Think of it as a worldbuilding approach to all of your writing. It’s also a principal tenet of interiority. How does your character see the world? How they react to stuff will be a very good guide.
Emotional Novel World Building
For example, if they see the new kid in school, they might say:
There’s Bo, the new kid in school.
This is merely factual, but is there an emotional signature there? No. Do some worldbuilding! So the reader is still wondering … so what’s the deal with this Bo guy? Do we like him? Is he weird? If he’s important, I want to know more about him right away. One answer (other than putting Bo in the plot or in scene with the protagonist, which I would also recommend) would be to add an emotional stance into your novel world building. (For more tips about describing emotion.)
For example, here are some more complex reactions we can have to seeing Bo:
There goes that Bo, swaggering like a show pony. Who does he think he is?
There’s Bo, on the fringes of the cafeteria with the cool drama kids already. Would he say something to me today? I hope so.
And then there was Bo. Was he the one who shot off that green bolt during homeroom? What if he’s an algae elemental? What if he can help me figure out the Slime Pond mystery?
Novel World Building As It Applies to Character
Here we have three different attitudes about Bo, because I’ve let the narrator have an emotional stance in addition to providing basic information (“There’s Bo”). In the first example, the emotion about Bo is quite negative. In the second example, it’s attraction to Bo. He’s already off fraternizing with some other group, but the narrator hopes that he’ll come pay him or her some attention, too. The third example gives worldbuilding context but there’s also an emotional signature of intrigue. (Learn more about writing relationships between characters.) We get the feeling that algae elementals (ha!) are quite rare, and they’re desirable, at least for the narrator.
I could play with this stuff forever. For example, what if algae elementals weren’t rare? How would we convey that idea through the narrator’s emotional stance?
And then there was Bo. Was he the one who shot off that green bolt during homeroom? Great. The first new kid we’ve had in ages and he’s another dang algae elemental. This stupid school is teeming with them.
Don’t just settle for describing something or someone. It’s in how you describe them that the reader will be able to read the narrator’s attitude and emotion toward them. It’s all about context, folks!
Layering interiority into your story can be hard. If you want to master novel world building, hire me as your developmental editor and we’ll dig deep together.