Worldbuilding. A word that instils fear in the hearts of many. There are as many different views on worldbuilding as there are writers and no two are the same. Love it or hate it, all of us are tied to the need to create a world (sometimes even a universe) for our characters and stories to occupy. The instant we set pen to paper and describe a conversation between two old men sitting in a park beneath the shade of a willow tree, we are creating a world. It may have its roots firmly in reality but THAT setting in THAT incarnation exists purely within the writer’s mind.
What is “worldbuilding”?
Worldbuilding is the process of creating an imaginary world or universe. It covers everything from world geography and its physics to currency and clothing styles. In essence, it is the way that we, as writers, reveal the backdrops and settings of our story to the readers. It describes the rules of existence, gives a context to the developing plot, acts as a vessel to propel the characters onwards, or even hinders them to the point of defeat. Often thought a task for fantasy and sci-fi authors, the time and effort spent in its development will pay dividends in the long run.
How to create a world
I’m not going to lie to you, worldbuilding requires a lot of research and I don’t mean the procrastinating kind of “research”. You’re creating an entire world almost from scratch and just because someone managed it in six days once, it doesn’t mean you will.
As with finding inspiration, the best place to start when worldbuilding is by reading. Read about the history of your street, your city or town, your county, your state, your country. Discover the quirks of your culture and heritage, the folklore of your people. Now do the same again for the country nearest to you. Now the one next to that…I’m sure you get the idea.
Our world, even within the microcosm of one street, is a mix of cultures, beliefs, and ideals. Use these as a basis for your fictional world always asking “what if”. What if those strange dancers with the straw hats and bells really were staving off famine for another year? What if stepping on cracks really did result in maternal injuries? What if my street were on [insert new planet name here]?
Borrow the tales and beliefs of others, flip them on their heads, and apply them to your world and story.
Just like any of your characters, the fictional world they inhabit is an organic entity. It lives, it grows, and it develops. Civilisations rise and fall within it; some leave lasting impressions and legacies, others simply cease to be. Every person, every race, and every culture leaves their mark on your world’s backstory, shapes it. Remember one key point, all worlds that ever existed have seen conflict, in much the same way your characters have. Your world shouldn’t be any different.
3. Worlds are a vessel
No world, regardless of how well it’s designed, can be a substitute for plot. The worlds you create are there to serve the story and not the other way around. They provide rules that stop your narrative venturing into the realms of Deus Ex Machina, but rules are made to be broken. Don’t let the setting dictate the story — that way ruin lies. Your world has the power to change or reinforce theme and tone, beyond that, plot is king.
4. Don’t rely on stereotypes
Don’t, just don’t. It’s lazy and everyone is looking at you and pointing.
Populating a world is hard work and, although stereotypes exist, no one has ever created a “catch all” stereotype. People that share the same culture and belief systems are never identical. They will each have an individual interpretation of their experiences. Stereotypes can be a starting point but nothing more — put the work in.
5. Devil’s in the (little) details
So what if you know the entire hierarchy of your world’s religion, will your character ever experience it. Unless your story is about their epic rise to become the latest [Insert sacred-sounding title here], your time will be better spent on exploring world currency, food, clothing etc. Give a thought to the everyday. This will ground your characters a whole lot more than all the bureaucratic details of the church.
6. Don’t give everything away
Your readers are intelligent creatures. You don’t need to tell them all the inner workings of your world. Keep something back to maintain mystery.
If it helps, think of the vision of your world as comprising of two parts: World View and Story View.
- World View is all that you, the writer, knows about the world. It is the true way the world works e.g. gods disguise themselves as nice old men.
- Story View is the truth as your character believes it e.g. that nice old man is nothing more than that, he can’t possibly be a god in disguise.
Only the writer needs to know everything. Only the writer needs to know the rules.
Well, that about sums it up from me. I hope to post a few examples of world creation in much the same way I did for my characters so stay tuned for those.
If anyone has any questions, or just wish to add anything, do so in the comments below or by dropping me a line on the contact page.
Need more help? Check out these prompt questions from Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America