Worldbuilding With Angeline Trevena

If you write fiction in any genre, you need to build your world. Whether it’s the cozy coffee shop in your romance, or a complete fantasy world, or a post-apocalyptic wasteland, world-building can strengthen your plot and bring depth and conflict to your characters. Angeline Trevena gives plenty of tips in this episode.

In the intro, the inevitability of unlimited subscription [The New Publishing Standard]; Scarlett Johansson vs Disney [BBC]; Notes from a small London publisher [Publishing Perspectives]; the rise in ecommerce and opportunities for authors [Kris Writes]; my tutorial on selling direct; Continued difficulty in writing during the pandemic [@writermels on Twitter]

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Angeline Trevena is the author of urban fantasy and dystopian fiction, as well as nonfiction for authors. She’s the co-host of the Unstoppable Authors podcast and organizes events for authors.

You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.

Show Notes

  • Different types of world-building
  • Ideas for how to build different worlds
  • Creating cultures and characters that make good stories
  • The importance in a culture for the potential for conflict
  • Guidelines to follow when creating a magic system
  • The three things world building needs to achieve in a book
  • Tips on the use of maps and where to find map illustrators or learn how to DIY
  • Mistakes to avoid when world building
  • How to backwards engineer an apocalypse

You can find Angeline Trevena at and on Twitter @AngelineTrevena

Transcript of interview with Angeline Trevena

Joanna: Angeline Trevena is the author of urban fantasy and dystopian fiction, as well as nonfiction for authors. She’s the co-host of the ‘Unstoppable Authors’ podcast, and organizes events for authors. Welcome to the show, Angeline.

Angeline: Thank you very much for having me.

Joanna: I’m excited to talk to you today on the topic of world-building, which we’re going to get into.

Tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing.

Angeline: I’m one of those people who has been writing stories since they were old enough to hold a pen, really. But it was never my dream. It wasn’t my childhood dream to be an author.

I always wanted to act, so my whole childhood was spent doing theater and singing lessons and dance lessons. Then went to university, and I did a degree in drama and writing, and about halfway through my first year, I realized that I hugely preferred the writing side to the theater side.

It was a really strange moment to do that, because my whole life to that point had been so focused on theater, so it was like setting aside my entire being, and focusing on something else.

I graduated university back in 2003, so the first Kindle wouldn’t even come out for a good few years yet. So, being published, being an author was sort of pipe dream territory, and I never would have ever imagined that I would end up doing it for my job, for my living.

When I finished uni, I started out writing short horror stories and submitting them to anthologies that were put out by small presses, so that’s where I started out. And in about 2012, 2013, it would have been, I said to my writing group that I was a member of, I said, ‘Why don’t we self-publish our own anthology of short stories together?’

They actually turned around and laughed at me. They actually laughed because back then, it was still quite widely thought that self-publishing was still the last desperate attempt of someone who couldn’t get a publishing deal.

Joanna: And also, you’re in England, right?

Angeline: Yes.

Joanna: Which I think is definitely, much, much worse. I moved back to England in 2011. 2012 was the first year I felt like, oh, maybe things are changing, but definitely, England was well behind the U.S. and Australia in terms of acceptance of indies.

Angeline: Yeah. Luckily, I didn’t let it deter me. I walked away from that conversation, and it made me think, ‘Do you know what? I’ll show you. I’ll show you.’ And so, I self-published my first book in 2015. I actually hand-coded the ebook. It was really important to me that I learn how to do everything. So I hand-coded this ebook, because there weren’t all the fancy programs that you get now.

Now, all these years later, I have 18 books out, and I make my living out of being an author. So I’m pretty sure I showed them. I think I proved my point.

Joanna: Well, what’s funny though, is you probably didn’t show them with that first book!

Angeline: Oh, no.

Joanna: That’s the truth of it and it’s probably the truth of most careers, you’re just like, ‘Well, I’m going to make a success of this.’

The success doesn’t come in the first year.

I think that’s an important point.

Angeline: Oh, definitely. But it is a very much thinking long-term. I really try and focus on the long term.

Joanna: Oh, definitely. Today we’re talking about world-building, and you’ve got a number of books and box sets on this from all different levels. There’s so much to talk about. And we can’t possibly get into it all. I’ve been delving into all your books and going, ‘That’s interesting. That’s interesting.’ But let’s take it right up to a high level.

What are the different types of world-building, when do authors need to do it, and what genres might people consider it for?

Angeline: When people think about world-building, they tend to think about fantasy. And they might think about alien worlds in science fiction as well, but actually, world-building exists in every single genre.

If you write contemporary fantasy, and you create a coffee shop or a bookshop that doesn’t exist, even if you set it in a real-life town, that shop that you create, that’s world-building.

Or if you have a detective novel set in a real place, and you make up the PI company, that in itself is world-building, or a secret government division that doesn’t really exist. Or maybe it does. Who knows? That’s world-building as well.

So you can have world-building in literally any genre whatsoever. But the fantasy writers, and the sci-fi writers, and quite often horror writers as well, we are the heavy lifters of the world-building.

Joanna: I agree with you. I have a secret government agency in my ARKANE thrillers. And I agree, people often think oh, like, ‘I’m not world-building. I’m setting this book in the real world.’

My ARKANE thrillers are this time, this world, and 90% of it is real places and all of that kind of thing. But, as you say, you have to come up with the boundaries, I guess, of where you’re going to do something, even like a cozy mystery, like you said, a coffee shop, you have to do that. So, what are some of the dimensions, I guess? And another thing, and we don’t have to do all of them.

What are some of the dimensions of world-building that we need to consider?

Angeline: There are several ways that you can approach world-building, and different kinds of worlds you can build on different scales.

So, you might be creating an entirely new fictional world, which would be very much like epic fantasy, so, an entire world that doesn’t exist, has never existed, like Middle Earth or Narnia, which is what people think about when they think about world-building.

Another way that you can do it is by taking a real place and putting it into an alternative past or giving it an alternative future. So, the genres we see, that sort of world-building in a lot is altered history, steampunk, dystopia, and post-apocalyptic.

The other thing you can do is you take a real place and you have a parallel fictional world existing alongside the real world. This is urban fantasy, magical realism, and quite often, the people, the humans that live in the real world, don’t know about the fantasy world because obviously, it’s a great for cause of conflict when the two worlds collide.

You can do world-building on a massive scale, or you can do world-building on a really tiny micro-scale.

But even if you’re building a huge epic world, you can go right down to the micro, which I tend to, inventing things like food, and coins, and specific jargon words.

You can get right down into the nitty-gritty if your book needs that, but not all books need that. Some books can have a much looser amount of world-building doing.

Joanna: There’s definitely a continuum from people who just do a bit of it to the full-on world-building nerd, where you are. I think a lot of fantasy authors are, and I really only discovered this when I wrote dark fantasy.

And as you say, jargon words, I ended up coming up with words and things and it was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, I guess I’m world-building.’ So people might not realize they’re doing it even though they actually are.

You mentioned people then, and obviously, characters are important in our stories.

What are some ideas for creating cultures and characters that help make good stories in the world-building sense?

Angeline: In my books, I ram this down the reader’s throat. I go on and on about it. The characters are the most important. Your characters are the reason your readers keep turning the pages, and hopefully, keep buying your books. Everything has to come back to character, all the time. It’s the most important thing.

When you’re thinking about creating a culture, which can seem like quite an overwhelming thing to do, start simple. Start with what you know. Have a look at the world around you that you live in. Notice all the little nuances of your culture, the…it’s probably things that you take for granted, but start noticing it.

And actually, when you get used to noticing all the nuances of the culture you live in, it puts you in this really weird place where you’re like, ‘My life is so strange.’ Because you start noticing things that you’ve just never seen before, and you’re like, ‘Hmm. That’s really weird.’

But that’s always a really good place to start. Just start with what you know, look at what’s happening around you, and then, if there’s something in your culture that you’d like to explore, like you might want to explore gender roles in culture. You might want to explore, like, poverty and inequality.

Look at the world around you, look at what you can see, and then highlight certain aspects of it.

You can exaggerate certain aspects, you can twist them around completely on their head, to really hone in and make that the theme of the world that you’re creating.

And remember that culture is self-perpetuating. Everything affects culture, and culture, in turn, affects everything else. So that’s all the institutions in your world, politics, law, education, religion. Actually, the landscape itself and the resources that are available, that affects culture, and culture can affect that as well.

If a particular natural resource becomes incredibly popular for a reason, you can deplete your world of it. So, even the landscape and the resources and the weather…

I think as British people, we know how much the weather affects culture and all the values that people have as well. So, think about how culture is affecting the elements of your world-building, and how the elements of your world-building are therefore pushing back and affecting the culture.

Always be thinking about how it goes back and forth. And remember that cultures change over time, and these things might happen very gradually through the generations, or they might happen, like, instantaneously because of a huge event. Again, I think we all know about that as well, now.

A big event happens in your world, and it can change the things that people value, the things they see as important.

Culture can change very gradually through the generations, or it can just be a really, really quick thing.

And most importantly, for the sake of your story, make sure you’re building into your culture loads of potential for conflict. Even if you’re creating a utopia, making sure there’s a dark underbelly, where there’s inequality, where there’s the haves and the have-nots, because we all need conflict to be able to write a story. That’s what stories are based on.

Joanna: I think the idea of values is so important. The pandemic has shown us this so many times, and actually, something that different cultures value is old people versus children.

In our English culture, it has seemed that we value children more than old people, and yet, in some cultures, the elders, the wise ones, are valued more than children. And even that seems, on the one hand, a small thing, and on the other hand, a really, really big thing as to which groups in society are valued more, and that has potentially nothing to do with the weather or the physical location.

You could set that in a desert culture, like, for example, Aboriginal Australians who, I think, value elders, and obviously value children as well, but in terms of the hierarchy of a group. Or you could set that in a polar landscape.

Angeline: Yep, absolutely.

Joanna: For everyone listening, think about all of these things that can be dimensions and you can think about them as levers that you can move up and down. And, of course, we don’t have to be original either, do we?

Angeline: No.

Joanna: We can borrow, like Tolkien obviously borrowed from myth and Icelandic things.

Angeline: And everyone’s borrowed from him.

Joanna: Yes. Exactly. Or you could say we’re people doing trolls or whatever, also borrowing from Iceland and that type of thing. But this kind of mixing and matching is a good way to think about it, isn’t it?

You don’t have to come up with totally original things.

Angeline: Yes. And I think, as authors, we tend to put so much pressure on ourselves to be completely original, and do something that no one’s ever seen before. But actually, if you’re doing things that people have seen before, they already like it, and they already know it, and there’s already a market for it.

So don’t feel that you have to come up with some totally crazy new idea that no one’s ever done before, because actually, what makes your idea unique is the way you tell it, it’s your personal voice as an author. That’s where the uniqueness comes in. You could give the exact same writing prompt to 10 writers and you end up with 10 totally different stories.

Joanna: One very important part of the fantasy genre mainly is a magic system. And I feel like this is just so critical for world-building.

How do we make sure our magic system holds together and influences the plot and character and everything?

Angeline: I love magic systems. I am somebody who loves very, very heavy rule-based magic systems. There are other people who much prefer looser, freer, magic systems, but I love rules.

The most important thing when you’re making magic systems is you need to make it feel like it actually belongs in your world. It’s not bolt-on. It’s not, ‘Oh, I quite fancy having magic, so I just chuck some magic in at the end.’ No. It needs to feel like it’s always been in your world. It may be something that springs up new, but it needs to be integrated.

Think about historical events in the timeline of your world. Which of those have been influenced by magic, which have been caused by magic? And think about the culture as well, and how magic integrates into the culture.

Is it taught in schools? Is it part of the education system? How does it work in politics? There’s likely to be laws around magic, maybe who can and can’t do it, or when you can and can’t do it.

There’s going to be division around magic. There’s really, really great potential for conflict there, and prejudice around magic. And think about, has it been monetized? Let’s face it, if magic as we think of it, was real in our world, it would be capitalized, and it would be monetized in some way.

Joanna: Well the internet’s magic, isn’t it?

Angeline: Yeah. We do have magic in this world, but pointy finger, wand-waving magic, then it would be commercialized, and you would have a lot of advertising on TV for these things.

Maybe magic has even been completely outlawed in your world. So, when you’re building your magic system, make sure it is fully integrating into your culture, and integrate it into the plot as well, so it can help your main character reach their ultimate goal, but it can also hinder them.

It can be a source of conflict in itself. Magic can be an inciting incident, and you can use it to highlight and explore the themes of your book as well, like inequality, if some people can do magic and some people can’t, or one kind of magic is thought of as better than the other.

If your theme is about the environment, then you can have a very nature-based magic system. Your themes might be like found family or sacrifice. You can bring magic into these themes, so that it really feels integrated in your story.

And, of course, it has to affect your character. So think about the character arc. Maybe a big part of it is a training sequence. I love training montage. I love it. I want to see your character burning their eyebrows off when they first try magic. So, make sure it’s really integrated in there.

Make sure also that you’re not using it as a crutch or an excuse, which is where the rules come into magic systems. You don’t use it as a God in the machine moment, right at the end, if you haven’t foreshadowed it.

It’s something you need to be really aware of, that you’re foreshadowing your magic and the amount of magic, and the way that magic can and can’t be used. So, like I say, I love rules in magic systems.

You can have a very rule-based magic system with lots of limitations on the actual magic itself, or you can have a magic system that has no rules or limitations, too, but has really severe consequences for using magic. Or you can write a magic system that has both lots of limitations and consequences of using it.

And those limitations and consequences might be actually within the magic itself, or it might be cultural, so it might be that it’s illegal to use magic, therefore, that would be a consequence and a limitation on your magic system.

But you can go crazy and really base your magic system on anything you want. So, again, go back to what you know. Think about what you’re interested in.

You might base your magic system on ancient words, it might be animal-based, or based on symbols. Maybe you really enjoy dancing and you have magic dances that create magic.

Start with things that you’re interested in, and don’t be scared to incorporate futuristic tech into magic as well. I love that mix of, like, futuristic tech and magic. I think it’s awesome.

Joanna: Yes. A fantasy techno-thriller. I also read in that kind of crossover genre, although I would say it’s quite a small one. But coming to this, you mentioned the word foreshadowing, and I guess, if people don’t know what that is, it means that there are hints earlier on so that when something happens, it’s not a surprise. But I wanted to add; I’m a discovery writer.

Angeline: Me too.

Joanna: Okay. Well, that’s great you say that, because I feel like a lot of people think, ‘Oh, well, I have to spend 6 months, or 10 years planning my world, and doing all the world-building as a separate activity to writing.’

Whereas how I did my Mapwalker series is I just started writing, and some stuff appeared. And then foreshadowing, to me, means in editing, going back to earlier chapters, and making sure there are hints that things are going to happen. So you don’t have to know in advance, you just have to put it so the reader gets it in advance.

How do we get this balance between spending way too much time world-building and balancing what’s actually needed?

Angeline: It is a danger. I’m one of those writers who I could quite happily world-build forever and never actually write the bloomin’ book itself. And so I have to be really disciplined.

And because I am a discovery writer, I have started writing with just one world-building idea, like I want to write about a world where this one cool thing happens. And a lot of my world-building is done while I’m writing my first draft.

So, yes, very much my foreshadowing’s done in editing. But I do like to do a little bit beforehand, but it’s usually just in my head. I might spend three months doing world-building, but only in my head, and it’s while I’m writing something else usually.

But it can become a distraction from actually writing. It can become a form of procrastination, and I think we all know what happens when you fall down a research rabbit hole as well. That can happen.

So, basically, you are going to do more world-building than you actually end up within the book. I think that’s always going to happen, that you’ll always do a little bit more.

But you need to know enough about your world that you know why things are the way they are, because that’s how you make things make sense in your world and make it feel like it belongs in the world and in your story, and that’s how you make it affect your character.

You need to know enough about your world that you know why things are the way that they are. But your readers might not need to know all of that.

There are three things that your world-building needs to do in your book.

  1. One is to reveal character.
  2. Two is to push the plot forward.
  3. And three is to explore themes.

If they’re not doing any of those things, then it is probably info-dumping. You probably don’t need it and you can probably leave it out.

Now, we like to put lots of colorful things in our world and, like, ‘Oh, that’s fun.’ I’m a sucker for carnivals. I love writing carnivals and markets into my world. So, I have to be really disciplined.

And quite often, yes, it comes in editing for me because I’m a discovery writer, that I have to go back and go, ‘Okay. This world-building, although I love it, it’s not actually doing anything for the story at all.’ And it’s flabbiness, it’s just stuff there for world-building’s sake. It’s not helping push the plot forward or helping your character arc or exploring the themes, then sorry, you have to kill your darlings. It’s so hard.

Joanna: Or turn it into something that helps something else. So, like obviously, the tavern scene in epic fantasy or even in sci-fi now, you know, like in the ‘Star Wars’ bar.

Angeline: Yeah. Cantina.

Joanna: The cantina now appears in everything. And if it’s not there, people get upset. It’s like, where’s the bar scene? Where’s the cantina scene? But you can use that to move character forward as you say. You have to use it for something else. You can’t just have a random market.

Angeline: Yeah. Sadly.

Joanna: I have a lot of tombs and crypts and archeological things, and you just have to find a way to include your world-building in your plot and your character. And you can start wherever.

I’m so glad you’re a discovery writer, because I feel like with my Mapwalker series, it was like, oh, what would happen if you could walk through maps? That was literally where I started. And then as you said, you thought about it.

I thought about, ‘Well, what does that mean? Where does it go, if you carry on; how could that happen?’ So you can, as you say, world-build in your head, or, let’s talk about maps, because I feel like map-making becomes a sort of fetish object.

Angeline: It really is.

Joanna: In the world-building sense. And now, first of all, it can be absolutely amazing. And if you have any physical, artistic ability, then go for it.

Angeline: Definitely.

Joanna: So many of us don’t necessarily have that skill.

Do we need maps? What are your recommendations around maps?

Angeline: When you’re writing your first draft, I would say, in 99% of cases, you need a map. Have a map next to you, because it is so useful when you’re writing. It’s so easy to get lost in your world.

If you have a book and your characters are traveling from A to B, and B point is a coastal town at one moment, and then halfway through the next book, or even in the next book of the series, if it’s a mountain town, people will notice, your readers will notice. So, having a map, I would say have one.

When you’re writing, and you’ve got that map next to you, that’s all it’s for. No one need ever see it, ever. If it’s a childish scrawl on the back of an envelope, that’s fine. That’s fine, because it only needs to be useful to you.

So, you don’t need to be an amazing artist to have a map next to you when you’re writing. Believe me, I’m not. I’m not an amazing artist at all. So, don’t worry about it when you’re writing.

If you want to include a map in your book, there is loads of help out there for us less artistically-inclined people, which is brilliant. We love that.

One of the things you can do is you can hire an artist, and there are actually an increasing number of artists out there who literally specialize in making fantasy maps. And I tell you, they are absolutely stunning.

Joanna: Where are you getting those people from?

Angeline: Instagram is a good place to get people. And there’s a lot on Fiverr as well. Now, I haven’t yet hired a map artist. I don’t have a specific recommendation of one that I can give, but you go into a fantasy author group on Facebook, ask for a recommendation, and you’ll probably be bombarded with recommendations. There are loads of people. And I see it more and more often, people making these amazing… They’re so beautiful. Yes, it is definitely a fetish.

There are other places that you can get help as well. Like, there’s this great program called Inkarnate. It’s spelled ‘ink,’ as I-N-K. And you can just go online and use that, and you can create a map.

Just be careful, because if you want to use the map that you create commercially, you have to pay for a license. And actually, I’ve been reading a lot of map drawing books recently. The two that have been really helpful to me is Fantasy Mapmaker by Jared Blando, and Fantasy Mapping by Wesley Jones.

Honestly, going through those two books and just practicing my drawing, I have got so much better at drawing maps. Those two books are absolutely fantastic. So, there’s a lot of help out there for you.

Joanna: That’s great. I was going to say the only one I’ve done is the co-written book I did with J Thorn Risen Gods, which is set in New Zealand. So, we did get a map of New Zealand done, and we used 99designs in 2015, and things have moved on since then.

Map of New Zealand Aotearoa for Risen Gods
Map of New Zealand Aotearoa created for Risen Gods by J.F. Penn and J. Thorn

We were really happy with that, and because it’s a real place anyway, it wasn’t too hard, but I love these resources. And as you say, I think things have moved on so much and there’s an increasing amount of artistic talent that you can find to help you.

But as you said, be really careful about the licensing. And also, licensing our merchandise, because there’s a difference between using a map in the front of a book and using it on a t-shirt, or as a basis of a game, or all these things. So definitely check your contracts with designers around merchandise and other things.

Joanna: Any examples of big things that go wrong, and not-so-good worlds, or any problems you see?

What are some of the things that people get wrong with world-building?

Angeline: Probably the main mistake that people make with world-building is not integrating it into their world properly, so that it doesn’t feel like it belongs in the story and it’s just bolt-on stuff, but an afterthought. Please don’t make world-building your afterthought. That’s the biggest mistake that people make.

Another one is including too much world-building, going in the opposite direction, and just info-dumping, pouring out pages and pages of history. The best way to explain your world-building to your readers is through showing it.

We all know the old adage, ‘Show, don’t tell,’ and it’s exactly the same with world-building. There may be times when you do need to tell a bit of world-building, to explain something in your world, but it’s much better to show it.

So, telling your readers. You might have to do it now and again, but it’s not the ideal. Having characters have a conversation, and explaining part of your world that’s slightly better, but you often get that, ‘Oh, as you know, blah, blah, blah,’ which is, it’s the same as info-dumping. It’s exactly the same as info-dumping. You’ve just put it, that info dump in dialogue.

But the best way to reveal your world-building is by showing it through your characters’ actions and the way the world affects them, and most importantly, your character’s reaction to something, because every time you put something new in your world that is unfamiliar to your reader, so something that doesn’t exist in reality, you’re adding to their learning curve, and you want to make that learning curve as gentle as possible for them so that they’re not hugely confused or overwhelmed by just information.

Let your characters show your readers how they should feel about the world.

If unicorns are totally normal in your world, then your characters won’t react to them. They barely even notice them. And that’s a big clue to your readers that they are normal in that world. So including too much makes that learning curve for your readers way too steep, and they’ll just be overwhelmed and confused.

Good examples of world-building, let’s face it, we have to mention Middle Earth. It’s the gold standard there. I read a lot of books by M. R. Carey, and he is fantastic at his world-building. What he’s particularly very good at is building a culture that really affects the characters, and showing the culture through what the characters do, like their habits and their rituals and things like that.

I’m currently reading his ‘Rampart’ trilogy, which is post-apocalyptic, and it’s a really, really good example of showing how culture affects the characters and just the way they live their everyday lives.

Less good examples of world-building or ones I have little niggles with is, for one, it’s Narnia. I’m really sorry. I love Narnia. I’m obsessed with ‘The Chronicles of Narnia.’ So I’m not bashing ‘Chronicles of Narnia.’ I love it.

But it does tend to use magic as a crutch excuse for things, like whenever there’s a problem or anything, it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s just magic.’ It does tend to use magic as a crutch a little bit too much, but I do love Narnia.

The other one is James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ movie, which, again, I love. I love it. But oh, there are some real niggles in the way of the evolution of the creatures, like the way that the Na’vi bond to the animals, and basically, it’s like mind control.

From an evolutionary standpoint, that’s a really bizarre vulnerability that would evolve in animals, because it goes completely against survival instinct. But it doesn’t matter, because that world does what it set out to do, which was basically to look beautiful for 3D movies, which it did.

Joanna: And there’s another one coming sometime.

Angeline: Yes. I’m looking forward to it. It’s great. It’s just little niggles, really.

Joanna: Those are two good examples because, of course, everyone probably will have in their mind that world of James Cameron that they built, and fit visually, that’s an incredible world, because it was built for visual impact.

Narnia is a Christian parable, and it’s almost like that was the reason for it. Perhaps our reasoning behind our world-building is important.

I was also thinking this is genre-specific. You take the big historical epics like Edward Rutherford’s and the James Clavell and James Michener, these big doorstop books, where, actually, if you do an info dump as a description of how a cathedral is built, that can actually be part of what a historical fiction reader wants, but done in a way that is genre-specific. Versus an urban fantasy setting with vampires fighting, whatever, you don’t want to spend that long discussing the building materials. So, it is very genre-specific.

Angeline: It is, yeah, because the different readers of the different genres have very different expectations, and they want very different things. Epic fantasy readers will quite happily read a whole chapter of history, but urban fantasy readers would be far less accepting of that.

Joanna: My husband only will listen to audiobooks that are at least 40 hours long. He won’t accept an epic fantasy series unless he has to spend 400 hours on. And I’m not joking; these sort of massive epic fantasy series.

You have to think about your readers, but again, we write what we love. So you should know what your readers want. We could talk about this forever, but I do want to ask you, one of your books is How to Destroy the World: An Author’s Guide to Writing Dystopia and Post-Apocalypse, which I love. I’m always trying to destroy the world.

Angeline: Why not?

Joanna: If we know that we’re going to be setting something in, say, a post-apocalyptic setting, how do we backwards engineer the world, and not front-load it all into the backstory?

Angeline: Backwards engineering is fantastic in world-building, because as writers, we’re so often used to that question, ‘What if?’ It’s held up as the ultimate that you should always know the ‘what if’ of your books. What if this happened, what would be the consequences of it?

But, with backwards engineering, you can start with the consequence. So, then you need to ask yourself, ‘Why?’ Why has the world ended up like this all the time? And a lot of time, this is where my world-building ideas start.

So many of my stories start from a world-building idea, and it’s so often the consequence of something, and then I have to work backwards to find out why. For example, you might have an idea where you want to write about a world where surrogates are billionaires. So, you’ve got to ask yourself ‘Why?’ Why are surrogates all billionaires? Why do they charge and earn so much for their services?

You might track it back to a mass infertility issue in the world, or you might track it back to genetic defects, or you might track it back to a growing obsession with athletic bodies, and women just don’t want to get pregnant anymore.

You can absolutely backwards engineer stuff, which is really good, because sometimes your whole world-building is just based on a really cool idea, where you’re like, ‘I really want to write about flying cars.’ Backwards engineer it. Work out how they ended up in your world. It’s a really, really good way. So, just to keep asking yourself, ‘Why?’ and work your way backwards.

I’m a big fan of spider diagrams and mind mapping, because for one thing, it allows you to explore loads of different paths, but start with your consequence right in the middle of your page and explore all of these backwards engineering legs outwards, to see what works, choose which one you want to do, and you can start your story at any point along that timeline.

You can start your story, if you’re writing post-apocalypse, you can start your story at the apocalyptic event. And again, it comes back to showing and not telling. You don’t want to info-dump just a chapter of history of how this happened. Show it through your characters’ actions, show it through characters having conversations, but not that ‘As you know’ conversations.

You can start anywhere you want along the timeline. You can show the world falling apart, you can show the consequences of the world falling apart, or you can show both, obviously. You can have the apocalyptic event right in the middle of your novel, if you want to.

Backwards engineering is as completely valid as forwards engineering things. You don’t actually need to know 10 million years of history of your world.You might want to. Some people do. That’s fine, if that’s what you’re into, but you don’t need to know 10 million years’ worth of history. And your readers certainly don’t need to know it.

Especially if you’re writing in this world, which a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction is, then you don’t need to write a whole load of history, because people know it, because it’s the world they live in. You can start at any point and just start to show what’s going wrong, because your readers want to see what’s changing, what’s different, and most importantly, your readers want to see you putting your characters through absolute hell. That’s the important bit.

When you’re writing post-apocalypse and dystopia, just be mean to your characters for a whole novel, you’re fine.

Joanna: I do read some of this, and it just makes you feel good about living in a culture… Even during a pandemic, you’re like, ‘Well, at least it’s not like that pandemic in that book.’ I mean a Stephen King, The Stand pandemic.

Angeline: Absolutely. Yes. Things could always be worse. But, do you know, I always think of post-apoc and dystopia as very hopeful genres. People often think they’re really depressing, and I’m like, ‘No. What you do is you get this marginalized character, and you face them against insurmountable odds, and then you watch them succeed. And what’s more hopeful than that?’

If they can do it, then surely we can as well. If this marginalized person can change the world forever and make it better, then we can as well. They’re my favorite genres. I love it.

Joanna: Coming back to horror, where you started as well, I feel like horror is very hopeful, because it’s not about the monster, it’s about fighting the monster, and hopefully, somebody left at the end.

Angeline: Hopefully.

Joanna: We could talk about this forever, but we’re going to end here.

Tell us briefly about your Unstoppable Authors podcast, and also the books you have, and all the various things you have available.

Angeline: I am the co-host of Unstoppable Authors with H.B. Lyne, who is also a fantasy author. She writes dark fantasy. We’re across all of the platforms, so, iTunes, Spotify, all of the others you want to listen on, and you can find us at

We talk about indie authoring, and all the things to do with that. And we just have a lot of good fun on that podcast. I actually started it solo, as a world-building podcast, but kind of gave up and Holly came along and rescued it.

I’ve currently got four world-building books out. They are available in ebook, but they’re also available in paperback. The thing about the paperbacks is you get lots of spaces. It’s a workbook, so you’ve got loads of blank pages, so you can write all your answers to all the prompts and everything.

And, then you’ve got a world-building Bible that you can have next to you while you’re writing, so you don’t forget anything, which is perfect. My paperbacks are available on Amazon. My ebooks I publish wide, so they’re available any way you can get ebooks, and direct from me as well.

My website is Or you can get that from .com. And I’m all over social media as well. Instagram mostly, but also Facebook and Twitter.

Joanna: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, Angeline. That was great.

Angeline: Thank you so much for having me.

The post Worldbuilding With Angeline Trevena first appeared on The Creative Penn.

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Author: Joanna Penn

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  • August 15, 2021