How to Stumble About World Building

I’ve always been a little envious of writers who are first and foremost “world builders.” They’ve got their history, culture, geography and general lay of the land allllll figured out while diving into their characters and plot.

I’m such a character writer. I’ll get a picture in my head of two characters talking, or dancing, or fighting – or maybe the image of a girl with ears of a fox ready to spring on top of her doe-eyed sibling. And from there, everything expands as a super-sonic rate. Now the two siblings are actually seven, they are creatures from the wild that turned human to fulfill the role of the “fertility daughters” and marry the princes of the realm, and maybe my fox-eared girl wants a little more from her life.

Now I have an underworld, a banished prince-king, and a plot to seize back the power of Nature to make his kingdom flourish. And, of course, the love interest between two unlikely characters.

The point of this is that I often find myself backtracking. My characters take off with their stories, and I’m making up culture, language, and geography as I’m going along. This causes a bit more to be desired when it comes down to the foundation that these characters are living in.

My first novel was set it in modern day America – which makes things infinitely easier as I didn’t have to create much of the world. But the manuscript I just finished (an alternate-history where the environment has collapsed and the civil rights movements haven’t occurred yet) has been a bit of a lesson for me. True to form, I didn’t build any of the world before I jumped head-long into the characters and their stories. Then I had to do some major backtracking and some particularly awkward word-gymnastics in order to fit what I had written into the world that was arising around them. At one point I wasn’t even sure what country my characters were set in – but I was creating weak references to places and geography anyway.

Once I submitted to the reality that I needed to rewrite and actually build a world, it was actually rather fun to fit little nuggets here and there about how different their society was from ours. I’m no Tolkien, and the thrust of my writing is still character-centered, so their world gets relayed through “commonplace” observations that are not so common to us.

But. At the end of the day, my world building skills are still lacking.

To interject, which will make sense in a second, I recently went on a trip to Washington, DC. I’d been there before over the summer on an internship, and returned there a week ago to attend a conference. I stayed a few extra days, partly because the ticket was cheaper if I stayed longer, and partly because I love DC. The energy of the place thrills me. The architecture and history delights me. And between the nudging of my step-father and my own thoughts, the meld of a blog post and writing exercise has arisen.

World building takes history. It takes geography. It takes people, culture, and events. And what better place to learn this than reality? With this in mind, the rest of this blog post will be dedicated to the history of architecture in Washington, DC as an exercise in learning how to world build.


Washington, DC is a planned city – a lot of people put a lot of thought into the appearance and symbolism behind the capital of the United States. Pierre L’Enfant originally designed the plans (albeit modified by Andrew Ellicott when he took over later) to follow in the footsteps of great cities such as Paris, Amsterdam, Karlsruhe, and Milan. Virginia and Maryland both donated land to form the city, areas that included the pre-existing settlements of Georgetown and Alexandria.L'Enfant_plan_of_DC

DC is designed in broad avenues and streets radiating out in rectangles that allowed open spaces and landscapes. This also helped with issues such as expansion. L’Enfant also designed a “grand avenue” lined with gardens that has become the present day National Mall.

Capitol Building, DCThe Capitol Building holds the honored position of the center of the city (which is aligned to the tallest place in DC), symbolic of it’s position as the seat of American power. The White House is deliberately built down the road, the Supreme court across the street from the Capitol. The city is sectioned up into four designated quadrants, the streets set up in a grid pattern with east-west streets named after letters, north-south streets dedicated after numbers (generally the number of blocks from the capitol), with diagonal streets named after states.

With all of the streets so orchestrated, certain streets have gained particular significance for their locations. Pennsylvania Ave is known for connecting the Capitol to the White House. K street is known for housing the buildings of many, many lobbyist groups. M street is known for it’s plethora of shops, bars, and restaurants.

10530701_10204136958965575_9015096434859182974_nIn addition, here is actually a limit on how tall buildings can be built, so the skyline of DC is low and sprawling (I love it – it’s a city without feeling claustrophobic).

And the differences in architecture of buildings that are even right next to each other fascinate me. According to almighty Google, DC is inspired by a large variety of styles: neoclassical, Georgian, gothic, modern, Queen Anne, Châteauesque, Richardsonian, Romanesque, Beaux-Arts, a variety of Victorian styles, and, of course, modern.

10449920_10203701575361257_5539523921921809619_nGeorgetown is probably my favorite area of DC. It’s beautiful with the red brick streets, the shops, the missmash of buildings, the river. And I love how the neighborhood/community feel combines with the high, passionate energy that seems to impersonate DC in general.10376863_10203701575041249_3693404840649443636_n




But probably the most known architecture of DC would be the monuments and memorials. In the interest of saving anyone’s brain who’s actually going to read through this, I’m going to limit the memorials of people down to the (probably) most famous three.

The Washington25 Monument, dedicated to George Washington (I’m going to assume I don’t need to explain who he was), was dedicated in 1885, fully completed in 1888, and is the world’s tallest stone structure and obelisk. As an interesting historical tidbit, halfway through construction it ran into funding problems (as well as the minor issue of the American Civil War), so the monument is actually two toned, the restart of construction indicated by the second shade of stone starting about 27% of the way up the structure. If you squint at this picture, you can see it.

33The architect of the Lincoln Memorial is Henry Bacon, and it was dedicated in 1922 (I’m going to assume I don’t need to 34explain who Lincoln was, either). The whole building is built in a Greek Doric Temple style, modeled after the parthenon, because Bacon felt that a man who fought so hard for democracy should be honored by a structure found in the birthplace of democracy. In addition to the sculpture of him set in the middle, the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address are inscribed on two flanking chambers on either side of the sculpture.

51Dedicated in 1943, Jefferson Memorial is a circular, colonnaded structure in which the architect for it, John Russell Pope, used Jefferson’s own architectural style and tastes for the design. The statue of Jefferson in the middle looks out towards the White House, and is intended to represent the Age of Enlightenment and Jefferson as a philosopher and statesman. Interesting fact: the structure came under a lot of public criticism because it resulted in the removal of the Japanese flowering cherry trees from the basin. Also interesting: President Franklin Roosevelt laid the first cornerstone.

There are also three war memorials that are of interest: World War II, Vietnam, and Korean.

World War II (dedicated 2004) is interesting because it’s one of the only memorials with fountains. Why? Because fountains are a symbol of war that ended in victory. Whoops. Guess that means we don’t have a lot of fountains. That being said, WWII Memorial is gorgeous, and is probably my favorite. Stone columns represent the states and countries that participated, with a stone structure on either side representing the Pacific and Atlantic ocean (or sides of the globe that participated – world war, ya know).



The Vietnam memorial actually has three parts: the three soldiers statue, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. The main memorial is the Memorial Wall (completed in 1982), a curved long black wall with the names of the veterans inscribed across it. Designed by Mara Lin won the design competition (the choice coming under a lot of criticism due to her Asian heritage), and it is shaped as a V,  one edge pointing towards the Lincoln Memorial and the other to the Washington Monument. It was built to look like a wound opening in the earth – symbolizing the loss that the Vietnam war inflicted.

42The Korean War Memorial was dedicated in 1995, and holds what many call the “ghost soldiers.” Grey statues in various poses with various weapons, they plod along next to a black wall etched with depictions of all those that participated in this war. Men and woman of all races can be seen along the wall (the bone structure in faces are creepy good), along with German Shepards, helicopters, and various other items. There are a few stories of the statues scaring people still at night as they seem to move. (There you go – every good city has to have some ghost-story area of whatnot.) There is a Pool of Remembrance further beyond where the soldiers seem to be headed, along with a granite wall with the inscription, “Freedom is not Free.”



Now. I’m going to stop throwing facts about monuments and architecture at you.

It seems to me that monuments are some of the easiest ways to portray history (this might be a duh). If nobody knew anything about America, you would have already picked up just from these that we idolize Presidents who fight for democracy, individual freedom, and intelligence, and that we engage in quite a few wars that we don’t seem to be winning very much lately. Just imagine, in a novel, your hero or heroine strolling down the street and giving a brief glance and thought to a monument (of your design, of course) – and suddenly there’s history and context to the world with barely more than a description like those above.

Of course, this is me talking, world-building connoisseur I am not.

But the point that I at least have to remind myself all the time is that all places have history, and at least some thought has to be put into it. If you’re anything like me you’re much more interested in jumping to the good bits about the mystery or the character arcs. But maybe the city/town/country of your novel holds clues to the mystery your character is trying to solve. Maybe there’s a hidden monument, a war (or idol) that someone is trying desperately to keep dark. Maybe people have forgotten. Maybe they’re so old people don’t care. Maybe there’s a hidden society somewhere.

Who knows.

But I think that I’ve tortured all your brains enough! Thank you for sticking it out with me to the end here, if you have, and hopefully I’ve given you a glimmer of an idea about monuments and architecture and how to make them fit into your story to help build a stronger foundation and history.

As a final thought: What do YOU do to world build? Any tricks? Does it just jump into your head like divine intervention? What do you plot out – or let occur naturally as the story progresses?


P.S.: Credit for Pierre L’Enfant’s original DC city plan designs go to: “L’Enfant plan” by Andrew Ellicott, revised from Pierre (Peter) Charles L’Enfant; Thackara & Vallance sc., Philadelphia 1792 – Library of Congress. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

About R. K. Brainerd

I've been writing since my pre-teens, mostly in the realm of fantasy and sci-fi. Taking interesting concepts and dropping complex characters into fantastical worlds is my jam. I also raise dairy goats and herd cats, the evidence of which can be found on my Instagram. Welcome to the adventure. View all posts by R. K. Brainerd

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