“World building” is a term I’ve heard used mostly in the context of science fiction or fantasy writing. It refers to the way these writers create an imaginary place and all the elements within that place conform to a certain set of rules: the character’s histories, the basic physics of the environment, what’s at stake in the story line.
In a way, all writers of fiction are world builders, regardless of genre. The imaginary world that I constructed for my first novel, Monsoon Season, is the same world that exists in A Long Thaw and Finding Charlie. Characters overlap because they’re inhabiting the same space.
I have read other authors who do this; my favorite is Julia Glass. Between 2002 and 2014, she wrote three novels in which the same characters pop up in various stories. I would not call these books a series – each one stands on its own. A main character in the first book is a peripheral character in a later book, and vice versa. Because all the stories take place in the same fictional world, the characters are bound to cross paths.
Practically speaking, this can be a lot of work. I don’t just need to maintain a timeline for each book; I need to be sure each one works in relation to all the others. I’ve started keeping spreadsheets.
The stories in these books exist on their own and can be read in any order, independently from each other. I don’t write sequels, but because all of my characters live in the same world, there’s an opportunity to revisit the past. Readers of Monsoon Season will find a familiar face in Finding Charlie, a partial answer to the “where are they now?” question I’ve gotten since the first book came out.
By writing this way, I’m reminded that every person is the main character of their own story even if they play a supporting role in someone else’s. It can be an effective writing exercise to take a secondary character from one of your stories and imagine what their full life is. Even if you don’t end up using the material, I think it helps to make every person in the story three-dimensional.
I’d love to hear in the comments if any of you is writing this way or if you can think of other examples of this that have been done well.