Look around. Take note of three things in your environment right now. Think about them in detail: what they are, where they came from, what they mean to you (or don’t), what they mean to the people around you.
That’s the gist of worldbuilding. When you start a new project, no matter what genre, you have to shape the world it takes place in. After all, your characters need something to interact with—and something to run around in.
But creating a world, or altering one that already exists, can be daunting. I mean, where do you even start? The culture? The economy? The religion? The language?
Part of it depends on what type of world you’re trying to build. Below, I share some thoughts on three different types of worldbuilding:
A secondary world is one that is completely separate from ours, i.e. Middle Earth, Westeros, literally every planet in “Star Wars.” When you have this secondary world, it’s like having a blank canvas. You get to create everything; you get to be the ultimate decider, the supreme god, the—you get the idea. So, what sort of things should you keep in mind when you’re filling in your canvas? Here’s a basic checklist:
- How is each country/state run?
- How does it affect the citizens?
- What are relationships like with other countries/states?
- Is this a poor place, a rich place, a minimalist place, an extravagant place?
- What might they best be known for? i.e. mining, manufacturing, military.
- What is their currency?
- Where does their clothing, food, etc. come from?
- What religion is prominent in this country/state?
- Are there conflicting religions within the same region?
- Does this religion impact the government at all, or is it separate?
- How do they dress?
- What language do they speak?
- What do they consider polite? What do they consider rude?
- What food do they eat?
- Any festivals/holidays of importance?
Once you have your basics down, you can dig deeper into specifics, such as regional variations of dress and speech, or even architecture. The more detailed you are, the richer your world becomes.
If you’re wondering how on earth you’re supposed to get all this information: research. Research is your friend and your foe, your enemy and your lover. Delving into history is invaluable to SFF writers when developing new worlds. You can either base something in your world on something in our world, or you can take bits and pieces from all over to spin something completely unique.
And speaking of history:
My debut novel, Timekeeper, takes place in an alternate version of Victorian England. “Alternate” simply means that the author has taken a specific period in history and twisted one or several aspects to turn it into something different. So, for example, my Timekeeper world has been twisted to include time magic and clock towers that control time.
Other examples of alternate historical SFF books include This Monstrous Thing by Mackenzi Lee, Leviathan by Scott Westerfield, These Vicious Masks by Kelly Zekas and Tarun Shanker, and The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye.
The common denominator in these books? Magic and/or technology that was not possible during their time periods. (I guess you could say magic isn’t possible in this time period either. Or is it?)
Let’s say you’ve chosen a specific time period and setting, like the Ming dynasty in China. And let’s say you’ve decided what speculative elements to include in your story, like magic or advanced technology. You then have to figure out how to blend the historical and the speculative together.
Here are some questions to ask yourself: How does the speculative aspect affect the setting? How has history changed because of these new additions? How is the culture/society of this setting influenced by the magic/technology?
And always remember: research, research, research.
If you mostly write contemporary, or contemporary SFF, you might think you have it a lot easier. But even in a contemporary setting—even set in present day—you still have worldbuilding to do. Remember that little exercise I asked you to do at the beginning of this post? Yeah, that.
For example, think of Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle. This is a contemporary fantasy/supernatural story, but at the same time, it is so rich with worldbuilding that you feel like you’re standing next to the characters as they explore a magical forest during a muggy Virginia day.
This type of worldbuilding relies mostly on your senses and your observations of the world around you. What color is the sky during summer? What sorts of trees grow in this area? Where are people most likely to be on a Saturday night? What disasters, manmade or natural, have touched this place in the past? Do the schools have rivalries? Are people divided by class/race?
So there you have it, the three basic types of worldbuilding. Daunting? Yes. Possible? Absolutely. Remember—you hold the paintbrush, you decide where you want to draw your lines and add color. It’s your world. Go and make it an awesome one.