Let’s Build a World!

A common topic I find among writers, especially fantasy writers, is worldbuilding. Creating the setting around the characters, making the place feel real, authentic, and so tangible and believable that the reader can just about exist in it in truth during the moments when they see the words on the page. I released my own book just a couple of days ago and my editor put up a post on his blog about it. There, he talked about the worldbuilding and creation of cultures, which led me to actually consider the topic from an objective viewpoint.

Everyone’s talked about worldbuilding, and there are a thousand and one articles about it all over the net. It’s more than just placing cities, villages, and geographical features. Sure, a lot of it has to do with geography – I’m quite sure most of it stems from the very thing – but there’s more to it than that. It’s about – like he said – creating the cultures of the people who exist in it. It’s about understanding their livelihoods, knowing what they eat, how they dress, who they pray to if they do, how their social and political systems work, etc, etc, etc. It’s about creating a setting and giving it history based on its evolution. It’s about asking a crapload of questions that seem mind-blowingly stupid, but are actually pretty relevant.

Yeah, this is a bit complicated. So let’s break it down. Note that most of all this is there for your own reference to give your whole narrative – with plot, action, dialogue, the whole shebang – a lot more life than the flat “mountain here, river there, castle in the middle, everyone is a white male, and women are pretty lamps”. Let’s make things bigger, people.

One: “I should have listened in geography class.”

A good place to start – like mentioned before – is the geography. It’s an easy place to start. Every civilization in the world had its cultural roots based on geography.

– Is the place near a river or on the coast?

– Is it mountainous or flat or somewhere in between?

– Is it rural or urban?

– Is it in the north or the south or somewhere in the middle? Where – fictional, fantastical, or not – is the equator? (Unless you have multiple equators. Or none at all. It’s your world. Go crazy.)

Evaluate. Find your answers. If you’ve got a number of locations, then think about each of them separately, but make sure they can all mesh together logically on a map. That’s why maps are important in fantasy books, at least for your own reference. A lot of fantasy stories, especially in the epic fantasy style, tend to involve a lot of movement on the characters’ parts, and if they’re traipsing from place to place, then those places to should be believable. You can’t start in snowy mountains and end up in a desert without logical explanation. Unless you’ve got “Beam me up, Scotty!” at work. Like I said, logical.

And no, magic isn’t always an answer. Note the ‘always’.

Got it down? Let’s move on.

Two: “Dig a little deeper and you’ll know.”

Based on these answers, we can start answering some other questions. No, it’s not over-complication. This is good stuff to know. Makes the whole all the more real.

– If the setting is near a water, then do they use it for farming or for trade? If the former, what do they grow? If the latter, what do they trade and with who? If neither, then do they have a navy? Otherwise, what?

– If it’s in the mountains, is there a mine? Is this a source of income? How do they get food?

– If it’s urban or rural, how urban or how rural? Great big giant city, decently sized town, little village, or a lonely lean-to  on a cliff overlooking a steep drop into a chasm?

– Based on how close they are to the equator, how’s the weather?

The last question there about the weather brings about even more questions about the people who live there. And so we go to…

Three: “And now, the weather.” *Music* (I love this podcast so so much.)

Darwin says that people evolved from rhesus monkeys. In that case, all of us must have looked and acted the same at some point in the last million years. With evolution, people trudged their way all over the planet – north, south, east, west – to the equator, away from the equator, into deserts, jungles, forests, tundras, moors, savannahs, etc, etc, etc. They started adapting to the weather and forming their civilizations based on the land around them.

And so we come to the questions based on the weather:

– What do the people wear based on the weather?

– What kind of houses do they build for themselves?

– What kind of plants grow there? Are they edible or of healing value? Are they poisonous? (These could be useful for small actions and interesting dialogue bits you might have.)

– What kind of animals live there? Can they be tamed or hunted? (Not every place has horses. Sometimes, one resorts to a camel or a reindeer. On occasion, an elephant might serve quite well.)

– What color would the people’s skin be? (And before you say anything about that being racist, it’s a fact that a person’s skin color is based on their ancestral roots and how close those ancestors were to the equator. It’s a game of melanin. Hotter the place, more melanin, darker the skin. So no, not everyone is white. It is literally impossible for every person to be white. And while “authenticity” is often used as an excuse, we’re talking fiction. You’re allowed to do whatever the hell you want. Worldbuilding is about setting rules for your imaginary place, but not all rules are cast in stone or steel. Diversity is cookies.)

Four: The Devil’s in the Details

Once we’ve got these general questions answered to figure out the way the people look and dress, how they live and what their livelihoods are, we have a fair idea of how the setting works. Then, we get into the nitty-gritties that give it life.

– How does the social system work? Are there social classes and how do they relate to each other? Patriarchy (still?), matriarchy, or does no one give a damn?

– How does the political system function? Is there a hierarchy? If so, plan it out and name them.

– What kind of religion do the people follow, if they do? Is there just one, or are there many? How well do they coexist?

– If there are multiple locations, then how are they related to each other? Friends, enemies, acquaintances, or no one cares?

Five: Make Some Magic

Every fantasy story has some sort of magic system. Thing is, it’s exactly what it is: a system. This means that it has rules. Rules that can’t simply be rules “because it’s cool, don’t argue with me”. Miracles do happen, but in day-to-day life, using energy generally comes at a cost. This applies to magic too.

How does magic influence your world and everything in it?

So, there you go. Five steps to create a fantasy world for your novel. And note that a lot of this is stuff you make up as you write. And it’s not there to put out in a giant info dump in your chapters. Information is nice, details are fun, too much is too much. You don’t have to spell things out to people. Also, remember that even with whatever worldbuilding you do, what you show to the reader should support your story in some way or the other. However awesome certain parts of your made-up world might be, if it has nothing to do with your story and simply exists because it’s awesome, you might want to slow down and rethink.

And ultimately, love the world you make. Love it with every pang of that beating little box in your chest that you call a heart. Because honestly, if you don’t, who else is going to?

One thought on “Let’s Build a World!

  1. Interesting and very inspiring information for the newbie, aspiring writers such as myself. Thank you.
    I’m writing a pseudo non-fiction/fiction novel about my own life, growing up poor in the US, being rebellious with my crazy Indian parents, and on a quest for real love and happiness with an Indian girl, or not.
    Just need help organizing the chapters. Any advice or a collaborative partner referral would be much appreciated.

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