So You Want to Build a World?
No matter what type of world you're creating for a story in mind, whether it be an alternate history or an epic high fantasy or the Next Great American Novel, you have to incorporate at least some aspects of worldbuilding. Even genres such as literary fiction require a distinct setting and characteristics, and careful outlining and world development allow your readers to immerse themselves in the story you've crafted.
But what if you're new to worldbuilding and you don't exactly know where to start? Or what if your work requires a great deal of worldbuilding because it's fantasy, science fiction, or another speculative genre? If the second question is the case, you might be wondering how much worldbuilding you have to do and what parts of your world you should focus on.
For this post I'm looking at the big picture, something to start off with. Because once you start outlining the biggest and most important aspects to your world, the rest becomes much easier to develop. Here are a few aspects to worldbuilding that you can develop to get you started.
How Are You Going About It?
First determine what kind of worldbuilding you're going to be doing. This depends on the type of story you're writing. Do you plan on modelling our own world or starting completely from scratch? Does the world exist completely apart from ours, or does it takes place somewhere magical and still hidden in our own world? Is it our world, but an alternate history or a possible dystopia?
Once you've got that down, it becomes easier knowing whether you can base the major components of your world off of something preexisting and recognizable or otherwise. So it might be a primary world, a world existing in our own, or a secondary world, as Tolkien would call it, a "subcreation" that might be based off our reality but merely finds inspiration off our world rather than basing itself off it. When you've determined what type of creativity you're going for, next comes the big picture that first brings your story to life.
Define Your Setting
One of the biggest aspects to worldbuilding is the world's development, such as its history, its landscape, how the environment and surroundings affect the plot, characters, and events that take place in the moment in time you choose to talk about. Think about real life and how unique events and tragedies have shaped the cultural values and societies seen today. A great fiction example is Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings, where the unnatural (to us) weather and geography shape the setting, civilization, and how the people interact. This all works together to establish the specific setting the plot takes place in.
You might want to think that setting and worldbuilding are the same thing. After all, the world you've created is going to be where your story and all its scenes takes place. The places your characters interact with and experience should have the same factors as the world you're building already, right? True, but not completely.
Settings are the specific surroundings you're describing at the moment, while the history and background you created as part of your worldbuilding is its foundation. It's like how Tolkien's legendary The Silmarillion created a history of the First and Second Age of Middle Earth, setting up the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings later on. So when you start a story, you need to develop how things have happened, how major events led to the first moment of your work. Then go from there.
Both your characters and your readers need to know where they are in the story, but they also need the context, the history, the background to how your world works, and they need to learn more and more as you walk them through the story. Readers learn the where and the what around them (without the info-dumping of course). So start off your worldbuilding by establishing what your physical world is like. Next comes how people and cultures interact within it.
Define Your Culture
Next comes what your society and culture (or cultures) is like. The culture is different from the history of your world, as it's the values and customs of a group of people with specific values and ideas. Imagine you've created a history leading up to the time your story starts. This forms the basis for how the people in your culture think, act, what their customs are, and more.
Start by asking yourself what the people are like. After all, the culture is made up of people. It'll be best to go for the outward-in approach. What do they look to outsiders? How does the geography affect what they wear, eat, work for, etc.? Imagine your people group lives in a winter climate. You would need to think about how they combat the snow and keep warm, what food there is around for them, and more.
Basically, when your readers are first introduced to a people, they need to be introduced to a group that makes sense from the outside. Then you go deeper. You've shown what the people are like outwardly, now get into their minds, their ideologies. This is where a lot more development comes in.
What Does Your World or Culture Value Most?
This is another thing to keep in mind when defining your culture. What does your culture value? What makes it stands out not only from the other cultures you might introduce, but also other cultures in other stories you've read? I once took an online class describing how worldbuilding should go for the "deeply, not broadly" perspective. In other words, focus on one thing that defines your culture and develop that the most, discussing smaller aspects to culture to further develop your world without placing as much emphasis on those other things.
But I think there's even more to it than that, so here's something to think about. How does what your culture values determine how the characters interact? How has it affected the setting? Or how has that value played at part in your history, and how can you go about incorporating that?
Imagine if your culture was a technologically advanced society dedicated to improving the environment. What kinds of environmentally-conscious technology would your characters use? What sort of devastation happened or is happening in your world's history that has led your society to develop these values? What is your character's ideological stance on these values? Do they agree with them or not?
This opens up a range of ways to discuss the deeper themes of your work without going into exposition or anything like that. It might be a source of tension between characters. It might be values that are harmful to others and it usurped by the protagonist later. If you develop the values then, you develop the story and move the plot forward.
© 2023 E M Sherwood Foster