What the heck is this worldbuilding stuff?
If you are a writer, you would have at least heard the term, right? If not, the word itself should be enough. Worldbuilding is the process of creating a world, no matter how close or how far it is from our reality, and filling it with all the magical or non-magical things a world consists of.
Places. People. Traditions. Society norms. Countries. Wildlife. Vegetation. Religion. Weather and Climate. Magic or Technology. Etc, etc, etc…
When the novel we’re writing is set in modern times with no fantastical or extraterrestrial elements, then most of our job is already done. Note, I said most, not all. We’ll get back to this later.
Fantasy settings, however, are another story. There are so many things to consider when you are creating a world or even a small fantasy village in the middle of the forest. So many options and so many possibilities, which is the real magic of writing. You are basically… playing god.
I consider myself a fantasy writer, so I’ll be focusing more on giving you my two cents on how to do worldbuilding for your fictional world. I’ll touch up on worldbuilding for contemporary novels in another post, but things there are pretty easy to begin with, so I’m sure even without my help, you’ll figure it out.
Now onto more exciting things!
Worldbuilding. Where to start?
Thinking about building a whole new world is exciting, but can feel overwhelming as well. Like playing Sims or any other game where you start from zero and you build everything around you, this is no different. However, here we think bigger.
Before picking the first aspect and building upon it, there are a few things you must consider. At this stage, I usually pick up a pen and a paper, put some nice inspirational music on and… think. Away from the computer and other distractions.
Figuring out what you need is the hardest part because if you develop every single aspect of a world, you’ll end up doing a Tolkien. Not that this is a bad thing, his attention to detail and the depth of his world are unparallel, but he spent over 10 years doing that. Do you want to spend 10 years worldbuilding? No, probably not.
So I’m going to help you. Start your worldbuilding with the following questions:
If it’s a version of Earth, then you already have the bases set because we all live on Earth and we are familiar with it. We know we breathe oxygen and we know the typical weather and climates (even though they differ in different zones), we know seasons, natural disasters, continents, oceans, etc. Now your job is to figure out what is different and why.
We’ll cover this in more detail in one of the next posts, but this is your starting point. Sit down and figure out what is different about your world – not just random things, but things you want to use in your storyline. It doesn’t matter if there is a secret society of cat-gods that are pulling the strings of every government in the world if you don’t plan to use this in your plot. Don’t waste time creating things you aren’t going to use.
The next thing you need to consider is where your story is going to take place. If you plan to keep the action all within a single forest, a small tribe, or a kingdom, you don’t need to develop in so much detail every single thing outside of that place. Of course, unless this ‘place’ is the only thing in the world, you need to know what you have around it – other countries, deserts, oceans, mountains or even walls too tall to climb or go through. Still, your focus should remain on the place of action.
If you are planning a book or series where your characters travel through several locations, then be prepared to draw maps, country outlines, figure out city and village names, build landscapes or man-made settlements. All those settings you’d be creating… they can be considered as important as any of your characters, because settings can be a help or hindrance to the plot. Setting is your friend, you can use it as an external force to move the plot forward. We’ll cover that in more detail in a later post.
Are the characters in your novel humans or else? Witches? Werewolves? Vampires? Demons? Goblins? Elves? Fae? Aliens? Maybe they are a race you created yourself? It’s all in your hands, but keep in mind if you are creating a whole new race, you better be ready for some extra homework.
When deciding what type of races or creatures you want in your book, keep the plot in mind. You don’t need ALL of them inside the novel unless there is a certain point to having them. Also, keep in mind that some races are considered natural enemies, which can be used as a conflict enhancer. Always keep such things in consideration.
Let’s start with the easier one – the technology level. What is the technology level of the world in your story? Do people live in futuristic cities that are controlled by computers, and have flying cars and space shuttles? Is the setting similar to the Medieval period on Earth? Or maybe the Renaissance period? Dark ages? On the verge of a technological revolution? Or maybe your characters are part of a tribe living deep in a tropical jungle and their most advanced weapon is a spear made of wood and sharpened rocks. The level of technological advancement will determine the rest of your story’s flow and, of course, introducing technology beyond their understanding can be used as another plot problem that needs to be solved. Think Avatar.
Then we have magic. Does magic exist in your world or not? If it exists, what type of magic system is it (we’ll go into more depth in another post since this is a bit more complicated) and who can wield it? Is it a common thing or do only a few have it? Is it viewed as something good or something evil?
Do your characters live in a tribe with a chief and elders? Do they live in a kingdom with a king and queen and a higher class of nobles and a lower class of commoners? Do they live in a republic where everyone is equal? Are there any races or social classes lower than others and why? Are there any minorities?
All of those can be powerful conflict setters or influence the tone of your story. In all cases, you must do your research before deciding and you must, and I can stress enough, try to avoid harmful cliches and tropes. We’ll touch on that more when we go into this topic.
Laying the foundations
With those five questions answered, you are ready to start building your world since you now have a basic understanding of what your story will be about – who, where, why, and how things work. Of course, we’re barely scratching the surface here, but depending on how different and important the actual world is for your story, you can manage with just those.
For those of you who plan to go deeper, I’m going to make this a series and review one aspect every week, providing several useful websites and programs that can aid you and make the process easier.
The most important thing you need to remember before we start is that no matter how deep you go in creating your world, no matter how many races, countries, legends, or histories you create, only about 30-40% of that information would go into your story. That’s okay.
The worldbuilding is done for us, the writers, anyway – so we can understand our world, its history and setting, and how it will affect the lives of our characters, their beliefs and understandings, their futures and their actions.
If you’re cool with that, let’s do this