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"World building" is a term we see bandied around quite a bit when it comes to the craft of writing. What it boils down to is whether or not the author has created an environment that feels "real." But how exactly is that accomplished? Is there some kind of formula, like a scientific equation, that will total up to a believable world? If that's so, why is there an almost mystical quality that evolves between the reader and the book when the world building works?
The answer is fairly simple, yet it's taken eons of human evolution to develop: the ability to lie. As Stephen King likes to say, "being a writer means I get paid to lie to people" and the best liars of all actually believe the lie they're telling while they're telling it. Lying is a skill that depends on the liar's ability to:
1.) Build a working model in their imagination of how their environment (including the people in it) works. (Initial state).
2.) Build a working model in their imagination of how their environment could work if things were different. (Potential state).
3.) Figure out which things need to change and how to change them in the initial state of the environment in order to make the potential state the new reality.
4.) Execute the changes and hopefully, if you thought about it hard enough and took all the variables into account, the changes happen the way you wanted them to.
This process is unique to humans and it's how we've survived this long with little in the way of physical adaptations to our environment. How is it, for example, that early humans managed to migrate from Africa to Western Europe and not freeze to death? Someone understood that their current environment was colder than the last one, imagined being warm, figured out what to do to get warm, and executed the plan by making clothes.
So how does making the first pair of underwear relate to the process of writing and world building? Because on some level the writer has to actually believe that the world they're writing about actually exists.
I'll give a personal example. When I sit down to write I can't have music playing, I can't have conversations going on in the background or the TV running because I have a very serious conversation to get down to: a conversation with me. I like to describe it as there being two of me. There's the me that's interacting with the outside world and then there's the "other" me, the one that actually lives in and builds the world I'm writing about. The two of us go along through life in the same body but our lives are completely separate unless we're writing. When we're writing that mystical thing happens when the me that lives in that imaginary world tells me a story about the people that live there and the me that lives in the here-and-now writes it down.
There is no formula for world building. You can't take a class or a seminar or read a For Dummies book and then write a story or a book of your own. You have to start with a world (no matter how similar or how different to the real world it may be) that's entirely in your own head, believe that it could be real, and then use the written word to make it real. It's lying, but it's really fun when people believe, for the liar and the lied to.