The biggest secret to worldbuilding is knowing that it’s more than a backdrop. Yes, scenery and fantastical weapons and costumes are part of it, but if that’s all you include, your story will fall flat. That’s because worldbuilding is more than mountains and trees and cityscapes or fun pops of color, it includes everything that affects your world and has a bearing on what happens to your characters and how your characters react.
Here are my top things to think about when putting your world together.
Worldbuilding isn’t just for fantasy and sci-fi.
When we talk about worldbuilding, often we think about fantasy and science fiction. Worlds like Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Game of Thrones, Wheel of time, Lord of the Rings. These all have wonderful inventive worlds. But worldbuilding happens in pretty much every story, including non-fiction.
A couple years ago, I read “The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson. This is the story of H. H. Holmes, but to fully understand what happened, it’s important to understand the world it happened in. Larson combine’s Holmes’ history with that of the building of the 1893 World Fair in Chicago while also weaving in facts about what was going on in the rest of America. Together, it made a deeply engrossing book. It would not have been the same without being able to picture what it was like to live at that time.
Everything should have a reason, a purpose, and a meaning.
When I was in high school I used to argue against this idea. It’s taken me years to understand that everything in a story should be there because the writer chose to have it there. If it is not advancing the plot, then unless you’re a crafty literary writer, it probably shouldn’t be in the story. This includes worldbuilding.
You want to make conscience choices about what to include. Start with the things that make us who we are. We experience events, ideas, media, people, weather, landscape, etc. every day that helps develop our personalities. The same thing should happen to your characters.
Think about these two scenarios. A) a girl from a large southern family moves from a tiny town to New York. B) a girl and her mom move from a tiny New York apartment to a small southern town. They could both be fish out of water tales, but the worldviews and choices the characters make will create two totally different stories.
Or how about this, girl C lives in a sunny location. Girl D lives in a place where it snows all the time. And Girl E lives in a place where there are lots of gnats swarming outside. What sort of limitations does this give your character? How does it change them?
In real life, we take small things for granted, but all of the things around us can have an effect on how we think, what happens to us, and what we do about it. As a writer, seek out and use those tiny details to your advantage.
Worldbuilding may exist on multiple levels.
Think about all of the different cultures that exist in our world. We’ve got first and third world countries. We’ve got different types of governments. Different value systems. Different economies. Differences can be macro like a region, country, or state and they can also exist on a micro level like county, city, town, neighborhood or even by street. Sometimes separately, and sometimes parallel or in conjunction.
Your world may also have differences. Each family will be slightly different. One family may have customs, like sitting down to dinner at exactly six o’clock every night while for another it’s fend for yourself. These may seem trivial, but they will effect your characters differently. This is especially true if the characters are moving around your world and interact with people who behave differently.
A friend recently went to Spain. They had difficulty eating out at restaurants because the custom is to eat dinner late at night, whereas in America we eat much earlier. How can you use something like this to create your world?
Even if you choose to to only have a few differences. Maybe you have a dystopia with a strict government trying to make people’s lives identical. Consider that there may still be factions of some sort, something that separates the people and causes friction.
The reader will view your world from a real/universal world lens.
Have you noticed a pattern in my examples? I keep using our world as a reference. In my opinion, that’s where we should start. Not only because it’s what we know, but because it’s also what the reader knows.
Have you ever watched a show and thought, that’s not realistic? We know fiction isn’t real, but we expect it to have real world, or what I like to call universal world, truths. I use the term universal because the truth I’m talking about isn’t that people eat dinner at six, but that we need some sort of nourishment to function. Generally speaking, if you create another species they probably need some sort of nourishment as well. Even robots usually need to get power from somewhere.
Your world will most likely be in a solar system. It might even have a similar climate where the tips are cold and the middle is hot. Or if it’s closer to a sun, it’ll be hot everywhere. Basically, we draw truths from what we know from our understanding of how the world works.
For example, every country I can think of has a government. Your world probably will too. It doesn’t have to be like ours, but there might be some level of authority, laws, or hierarchy. You see this even in the animal kingdom with wolf packs and prides.
Build and stretch from the known to create something new, but keep it tethered to truth.
There will be trade offs & consequences.
If worlds are like pinball machines, where the trajectory of the ball is altered by what it comes in contact with, so to is your world. When you change something, it will inevitably change the things that relied on the original.
For example, imagine a story where people don’t eat food through their mouth. Like amaryllis flowers they get their nutrients from the air. Think about all the things this might change, like farming and the clothing industry. What about the weather? How would that change the way people interact with their world?
The pieces of your world should bounce off each other and in some cases play together. Nothing works in isolation.
List of things to consider when worldbuilding:
This is not a comprehensive list, but a few items to get you started.
Landscape, weather, environment
Family-life, factions, clicks
Food & food source & water
Scarcity, what is lacking or running low
Dress and how it differs for gender and class
Class system, type of society
Explain – make it make sense
There will be exceptions to every point I made. Nothing is set in stone. It’s your story. However, if you are writing for an audience, they need to be able to visualize and be drawn into the story.
My advice is that the further away you get from the universal world, the more explanation you may need to give. The reader wants to understand your story, you need to give the information to do so.
We do this in many simple ways. For example, if my character is caring a katana sword, I don’t have to give any extra details as my audience will know what this is. However, if my character is caring a foke (I made this up), I’ll need to explain. And I’ll do this by comparing it to something they already know, a two pronged, needle-like dagger with a wide unadorned guard.
You can also use a guide character, like Alice from Alice in Wonderland or Lucy, Edmund, Peter and Susan from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Characters from our world entering into a fantasy land with completely different rules. We learn how the world works as the characters do.
This is not an exhausted list. The topic of worldbuilding can fill a whole book. But I hope these tips were helpful.