There are a million and one ways to build a world, and dozens of articles which will give you specific pointers about how to dive in. This isn't one of those articles: instead, my goal here is to help you build a world that you want to write about, because then the actual writing part is pretty easy. It's not as hard as it sounds, and can be used in any setting (historic western, dystopic futuristic sci-fi, etc.).
The secret sauce? Living in the details. I've got three examples for you below - how to embrace your settings, how to give each character (no matter how large or small) their due, and how to embrace the things which don't quite make sense.
Envision Each Setting
Writers look at settings to serve different purposes. For some creators, the setting is your backdrop - the static sheet at the back of the stage. It's important to help your audience understand where your characters are, but beyond that, distinctions don't matter much. Other writers really relish each and every detail, lovingly describing the crack in the ceiling or the way the vines curl up a trellis. For them, the setting is as important as the other book elements (characters, plot), and may even hide some deeper symbolism.
Regardless of where you fall on that spectrum, I encourage you to perform a visualization exercise while you're writing. Each time you add a new setting, try the following:
I've found visualizing really helpful, because it forces you to consider things about your setting you did not previously realize. That act, as small as it is, helps deepen your world. And, more importantly, it helps guide your story. Maybe there is a dent in the side of a desk - how did it get there? What's the story behind that moment? How did it shape your character(s)?
Importantly, it doesn't matter how much of your vision you end up communicating to the audience; what matters is that you have a crystal clear picture. Allow yourself to be curious about the world, even though you created it. You don't yet know everything there is to know - and exploring those hidden moments, the memories stuck between cobblestones and the haunting melodies caught in the warm summer breeze, gives you places to go and stories to tell.
Commit to Every Character
I often tell people that my favorite Oscar is for best supporting actor/actress. It's a white lie, because I don't watch the Oscars (oops!), but the point is a valid one. I love someone who can steal a scene. My favorite characters in books, movies, and other media are the ones who are in only one scene, or who have only a few lines, but who you can't rip your eyes away from. They add a depth and dimensionality to the story which would otherwise be sorely lacking.
This section isn't about your main characters, because they already have a lot of love. Most writers can tell you anything you want to know about their protagonist, because they are the character you spend the most time with. However, sometimes I spend so much time with my protagonists I get a little bored. I feel like I know how every scene will end, the direction of each storyline.
I refresh myself by exploring my supporting characters. I joke with friends that I could write a series about any character in my book, whether they're mentioned once in passing or appear in every scene. To be clear: I don't spend dozens of hours fleshing out the lives of every character I create - ain't nobody got time for that. Instead, I try to do each and every character justice so if I want to go back and explore them, I've set myself up for success.
Let's say you have a street vendor who sells your protagonist some soup. That could be all they do in the entire book - but that doesn't mean you have to just throw them away. Perhaps the vendor has a strange scar on one hand, or their shop also sells swords (Soup 'n Swords Emporium). Maybe they have a gaggle of street kids who help them with staffing, or a small dish with offerings to the God of Soup.
The point is, pick a detail for the character: something physical, emotional, spiritual, or in their belongings. It helps your reader remember them, and it gives you a loose end to pull. Be curious about your own characters: next time you get stuck, go back to that vendor and ask yourself: how did they get a magical scar? Why do they give street urchins the time of day? Are they running a legit business, or do they have one soup ladle in the seedy underworld of the town?
And finally, stop stressing if your world doesn't make total sense. Instead, rediscover the joy of discovery. In the real world, literally nothing is perfectly logical, and that's what makes it feel real. For example, in real life, clothes don't have uniform sizes. A size 12 dress at one store might be a size 8, or a size 18, at another. That's insane, and objectively probably wrong and a hassle - but it's real and authentic.
In your world, if you realize things don't make total sense, instead of trying to fit everything into a perfect mold, ask yourself: why might it be this way. Maybe the reason people don't tan in the sun is because you forgot - or perhaps, the sun lightens, instead of darkens, skin in this world. Maybe everyone buys a fancy cream made by mermaids to block out the sun's rays, or perhaps it's a sign of stature: only the nobility can afford to stay in side and be covered by parasols, protecting them from tanning.
Regardless of character, setting, or plot, never be afraid to ask yourself why. At the heart of it, you are a creator, and you have to make your own inspiration: so don't shy away from it. Lean into the details, the strange moments, the idiosyncrasies of history, and use them to deepen your world, engage your mind, and inspire your writing.
Bridget is the author of Summer Twilight, available for purchase now!