Sibeal Pounder: My Top Five Tips for World-building

I’ve been doing world building events in schools to celebrate the launch of my latest series, Bad Mermaids, and I ask the kids to create a new mermaid city. We’ve had Turtle Grotto, Blobfish Bay, Manatee Town and – weirdly, given the schools were about 100 miles apart – two Dolphin Discos.   

World building is great for creating a framework that can inspire character and story ideas when you’re not sure where to start.

So here are five fun world building exercises (for kids and adults):

Name your city/world

Name your place! The first Bad Mermaids book consists of five main cities, all housed within the Hidden Lagoon, which is concealed in the Pacific Ocean.

In the middle sits Swirlyshell, the ancient capital. I wanted it to sound a little sickly sweet – something that played into traditional mermaid tropes, all palaces and shell-studded buildings.

In the south, you’ll find Oysterdale, which was designed to sound quite traditional and a bit suburban. It’s where mermaids live in grand sandcastles and are all very competitive with each other, and they’ve built a huge crystal wall around their city so they can control who gets in. I thought Oysterdale sounded a bit fancy (because oysters are quite a fancy food?), but it has a smallness about it, which fits well with the small-minded attitudes there.

Write down lots of different words that fit with the vibe you want for your fictional place, then smoosh words together and try different combinations until you come up with something that works.

What are the houses like?

Your characters will need a place to live – and where they live can potentially impact how they think, act, etc. You don’t need to focus on a specific house for your character to start with – think about bigger areas, and clumps of houses in different locations and you can place your main character in one later.

As mentioned, Oysterdale mermaids live in massive sandcastles, whereas in Anchor Rock they tend to upcycle sunken ships and shipping containers, and Hammerhead Heights is all huge rock towers.

Try drawing a map of the different areas, streets, types of home, hotels – maybe they are caves, or castles, or giant disco balls.  

Close your eyes and imagine exploring the place

Once you know the terrain, it’s easier to imagine walking or swimming or flying around it. Take a few minutes to close your eyes and imagine exploring it.

What are the characters wearing? In Bad Mermaids I imagined many of the mermaids in Hammerhead Heights to have shark tails and futuristic-style grey tops, whereas in Swirlyshell, they favour shell shoulder pads, and so on.

Write down what you see.

Give them a good restaurant

This is probably my favourite part of world building. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a restaurant, but it needs to be somewhere they go to get food and drink. Everyone loves a good food stop. The Leaky Cauldron in Harry Potter is an excellent example. It’s a place everyone would love to go – and why? BUTTER BEER.

Invent a restaurant and then make up a menu for it. In Hammerhead Heights, it’s all about Jawellas, which is a restaurant located inside a megalodon shark, run by a lovely mermaid called Ella.

Tv shows/sports/magazines/books

Once you’ve built up the world and know lots about it, you’ll have so many different character ideas and story options to get started on

Now start to fill out the world with smaller details. Do your characters watch TV or an equivalent? In Bad Mermaids Catwalk Prawn is a popular TV show (mermaids make tiny outfits for prawns), and it’s presented by a mermaid called Rara Crispy. Decide on the show, and work on the specifics – what’s the format? Who presents it? What’s the prize? At a school event recently a kid came up with a documentary series presented by Fishy Attenborough.

Sports are also fun to invent. Shockey is the number one mermaid sport in Bad Mermaids (it’s a lot like roller derby only the jammers ride on sea creatures). You need to set out the rules of the game, name the teams, design the strips.

Magazines and books are also a great thing to invent – I especially like writing fictional interviews. In Weedbee’s, the Swirlyshell bookshop, you’ll find Arabella Cod’s popular book Fish: A One Way Conversation, and the three main characters – Beattie, Mimi and Zelda – are big fans of the number one mermaid magazine, Clamzine.

And beyond!

And on it goes – you can think of popular pets, transport, how characters get their hair cut, and so on!

TOP TIP: Spend a week writing down all the things you do, and then write the equivalent for your characters. If you play a sport, invent a sport for your character; if you feed your pet, invent a pet and a brand of pet food.

Once you’ve built up the world and know lots about it, you’ll have so many different character ideas and story options to get started on. Maybe your character works at the restaurant you created and the story starts there. Or maybe one of those pets you created goes missing. Maybe your character loves the sport you created and is trying to put together a team. Or perhaps your character is desperate to write for the magazine you came up with, or they are chosen to appear on that TV show – the possibilities are endless!

Loved this post? Check out the rest of our series for young writers.

Image by Jason Cockroft

Sibeal Pounder

Sibéal Pounder previously worked for the Financial Times, where she researched the How To Spend It section and wrote the For Goodness’ Sake column – interviewing everyone from Veronica Etro to Vivienne Westwood. As well as Bad Mermaids, she writes about fabulous witches and feisty fairies in Witch Wars, her first and much loved series for Bloomsbury. Witch Warshas sold over 50,000 copies and was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and the Sainsbury's Children's Book Award.