Welcome to world-building!
A lot goes into this aspect of fiction writing, and we have a lot of ground to cover in this post. We’ll begin by talking about what world-building is and what it isn’t, look briefly at the different types of world we can build, and then finish off with some questions and tips for you to follow.
What is World-building?
Before we go any further, let’s look at that definition:
World-building: the art of creating a new fictional world.
World-building is not a complex term, and I think it’s safe to say most people know what it means. But how does it differ from the setting?
Setting is the time and place (or when and where) of a story or poem. It’s introduced from the outset and provides a backdrop to the characters and events unfolding in your narrative.
And our friend world-building is all of the background work that goes into the setting. It’s all of the cultural, geographical, historical, etc., information that goes into the setting.
Of course, not all world-building is done to the same extent. The degree of background work you must do depends upon the genre you’re writing in. For example, you’ll be spending more time creating a world that doesn’t exist, such as in most fantasy and science fiction novels. But if your tale is set in today’s world, you won’t need to do as much because the setting is already familiar to most readers.
The Different Types of World-building
Believe it or not, there are four types of world-building that you can do. Like I’ve already mentioned, you can base your story in the here and now, but you can also create an alternative reality, parallel universe, or an imaginary world.
So what are the differences between an imaginary world, parallel universe, and an alternative reality? Let me break it down for you:
- An imaginary world is an entirely made-up world. It exists only in the head of the author and those who read their books. The world is built from scratch with its own cultural systems, values, beliefs, government, geography, etc.
- A parallel universe is a universe that theoretically could exist alongside our own without being detected. (It’s a physics thing, along with fiction.) However, this other universe is different from ours in a fundamental way. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis is an excellent example of a parallel universe.
- An alternative reality explores life if the events of the past didn’t happen the way they did. For example, what would our world look like if the Allies didn’t defeat Hitler and his armies? Or if the Industrial Revolution never took place.
That doesn’t mean that these made-up worlds lack research. Most of them require more research than you think (and again, this will also depend on the genre you’re writing in).
For instance, in most science fiction novels, you’ll need to understand the technology you’re using. No, it doesn’t mean you need a Ph.D., but it doesn’t hurt if you try to understand some of the basics. There are ways to get around this, like not explaining how anything works, but it’s up to you.
Planning vs. Pantsing Your World-building
Depending on how you like to write, you may start with detailed notes on what your world will look like or start with an idea or character and see where it leads you. Neither way is wrong, but each method comes with its downfalls.
For example, planners can run into the problem of overplanning their world to the point where they neglect to write the story. And pantsers usually write a few plot holes into their tale by accident, making the revision process harder than necessary.
There’s no wrong way to build a world. Just be aware of the potential pitfalls of each form of writing, so you can try to nip it in the bud before it becomes a problem.
World-building Questions to Ask Yourself
(I also want to note that this isn’t a complete list of things you can and should consider when building your world. You may think of more questions as you move through the list, and there are numerous websites out there that offer you more questions to work with.)
- Do you know the general layout of your world? Do you have a loose map of it in your head? Where do different places lie in relation to others?
- How does the location of different landmarks and countries influence their trade?
- How do the climate and terrain differ in different regions of your world?
- Do the climate and terrain affect those living in those environments? What happens when the environment changes (due to natural changes or others)? How does it affect the livelihoods of the people who live there?
- What are the weather patterns like? Are specific locations more vulnerable to some aspects of nature?
- What plants grow in which areas? Do any of them have any unique properties?
- What wildlife is common in which areas?
- How many people are living in this world? How does this affect the world?
- Are your names based upon certain cultures?
- Do they translate to something?
- Does the name fit the world and cultures you’ve built into it, or will your reader find it jarring?
- How are troops obtained? Through conscription or voluntary enlistment?
- Who are the country’s allies? Why are they allied with them? Are the allies happy with the arrangement?
- Is the country at war or close to it? Why? With who?
- What are the key military fighting techniques?
- Are there any noteworthy weapons or transports?
- What branch of the military excels? Do they have a powerful army, navy, etc.?
- What about previous wars, alliances, and treaties? What prompted them? How did they influence interacting cultures, countries, and warfare?
- Is there public education, or is schooling reserved for the wealthy?
- How about books? Do “peasants” and the middle-class have access to them, or are they solely in libraries– at schools and in wealthy estates?
- Is it common to know how to read?
- What are the basic tasks and facts people learn as children? Does it differ between genders? How about between social classes?
- Are studies valued or looked down upon culturally (generally speaking)?
- Is the government a monarchy? A democracy? A republic? Does this change per region?
- What pros and cons are there in the political system for your characters?
- Are your characters satisfied with the system, or are they ready to rebel?
- Who are some past noteworthy rulers or government officials? Who do the citizens remember now, and why are they remembered?
- Is there an essential governing document (like the US Constitution)?
- Is it a patriarchal or matriarchal society? Or does it attempt equality?
- What’s the currency?
- How is incarceration determined? Is there a court system?
- What about capital punishment? Are people regularly executed, and what are the capital crimes? How about the method of execution?
- What are the most important laws of the land? What laws are particularly unique to your world?
- Related to the above topic of government, does religion have a place in the government, or is there a separation between the two entities?
- Does the state mandate religious practices? Do those who don’t comply or those who have a different belief system face persecution?
- What do people believe in this religion? What myths surround it?
- Is the religion monotheistic? Polytheistic?
- Are there holy texts? Scriptures?
- What practices or services do worshipers attend? What’s entailed in them?
- Who are the religious officials?
- Are there particular holy days to note?
- Is there magic? If yes, how does it work?
- Are magic users accepted, feared, or persecuted?
- What can magic do and not do?
- Do only an elite group use magic, or is it accessible to all? Do you need to specialize in magic, or can commoners use it as well?
- Are there any magical creatures? If so, describe them.
- Is magic a learned skill or an innate talent?
- What is the price/cost of using magic?
- Do magicians need to meet any specific criteria? Be celibate? Go through a ritual?
- Does magic require tools and props?
- How is one magician stronger than another?
- Can magic be combined to increase its strength?
- What defeats magic?
- Is any magic illegal?
- What is magic most commonly used for?
- What denotes status in this world?
- How does courting work?
- What traditions are there surrounding life milestones (I.e., birthdays, weddings, births, deaths)?
- Are there particular superstitions?
- Are there any prevalent conspiracy theories circulating in society? Or are they heavily frowned upon?
- What are the fashions like? The trends? What influences (modesty, climate, status) does it have?
- What’s the architecture like?
- What’s the food and drink like?
- Are there any special festivals that people attend?
- What are the typical gathering places for inhabitants of the world when they have spare time?
- Are there national or regional stereotypes at play? How are they dealt with?
- Is gender binary, non-binary, or something else?
- What are the dominant social norms and practices?
- Are there primary social conventions and practices that your civilization shares?
- What type(s) of technology do they have?
- How do the lower classes live?
- How do they make livings?
- Are there any races other than humans living in this world?
- How did/will your civilization develop? Is it at a point of increasing or decreasing social stability and peace?
- What core details in the past (conflicts, discoveries, encounters with other peoples) shaped your civilization?
- What does the future look like for your characters? Is their society moving towards a utopian age, or are hardship and strife worsening? What is driving either change? (E.g., foolhardy environmental destruction)
- Does your world pull from “real world” events? If so, what ones? How much do you know about these real-world events?
When you have answered all of these questions, think about them for each region in your new world. Essentially, how does this all change per region?
Tips for Creative World-building
While the questions are essential to your world-building process, there are some other things you need to consider or will help make the process easier. Here are some things to think about:
The best way to learn more about world-building to see what works and what doesn’t is to read widely within your genre – not just the celebrated writers but also the ones who are ridiculed. That way, you know what to do and what not to do.
Also, those books that you read can inspire you to do something similar with your world. Reading provides so many opportunities for inspiration.
Draw a map
This tip is a standard one for world-building, and that’s because it’s helpful to know the lay of the land, so to speak. It can be easy to make a mistake if you do not know where things are, especially when you’re moving from one region to the next.
Additionally, readers love maps. It helps them immerse themselves into your story more and follow along with events. They also make great content magnets for building your newsletter list.
Research is essential to world-building
I know this seems a little strange because you’re creating something new, but knowing how something works in real life will help you figure out how it works in your made-up world. Additionally, you may want to stage epic battles in your novel but don’t know where to start.
Well, our history can help you with that. And don’t feel weird about using real-life in a new world because many authors use this trick, such as George R. R. Martin.
Don’t smother your story with world-building elements
Chuck Wendig makes a great point on his blog about this. In his opinion:
“[Y]ou build a world to serve the story or stories you want to tell; you do not tell a story that is slave to the world-building. Story comes first. World-building supports the story.”
World-building is there to support the themes, characters, mood, conflict, culture, and plot of your story. It isn’t the story itself, and world-building shouldn’t be used to hide underdeveloped characters and plot lines.
You only need to give details to the reader that they need to know. These details are things that help reinforce ideas and themes. Things that drive the narrative forward.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t give details to readers that bring them deeper into the narrative. Please do that, but know when to say enough is enough.
One more thing here, leave some mystery to your world. We don’t know everything about this one, so there should be some things that baffle society in your world too. Plus, readers love unanswered questions. They’ll want to keep reading to see if you answer them.
Watch for stereotypes
I’m going to call on Chuck Wendig again. Here’s what he said:
“If you’re world-building, don’t rely on stereotypes. Noble savages and white heroes and damsels-in-distress and people of a single race acting in a single way. No culture is monolithic, skin color does not determine demeanor or magical racial bonuses, men are not all one thing and women are not all another thing. Stereotypes are lazy at best, harmful at worst.”
Please think twice about why you’re portraying a group of people in a particular way. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to recheck your biases or develop a new solution.
Small world-building moments are just as critical as the big ones
It’s easy to get caught up in the big-picture aspects of world-building, like politics, magic, etc., but it’s the little things that can convey so much to your reader. How people greet each other or their attitude towards the environment can say a lot about society’s values.
Your world isn’t static
There has never gone a day in the history of this earth where things have remained the same. I know it may have felt like that this past year, but something new has happened every day.
Our view of the world changes, our knowledge increases, something significant happens in our neighborhood; a war is fought or won, and so on. And all of these things affect the world’s inhabitants in some way. There’s conflict, and this conflict can affect our characters.
I challenge you to consider the world and setting as a character and see what that does for your plot. Remember, everything on this planet (and your imaginary one) is interconnected somehow, and what changes in one place will affect what happens in another.
Software for World-Building
Don’t worry if this feels overwhelming because it is, and many people know this. Of course, this created a market for world-building software that you can use.
Honestly, I don’t think you need one to build your world or write your novel, but I also know that it can help some people. So ProWritingAid composed a list of the most popular world-building software out there. Most software programs were created to help game designers, but they can help out on the novel front.
World-building provides the backdrop to our stories. It gives it a richness and basis for it to live in, whether it’s a new fictional world or the one we already inhabit.
A world is not something pluck out of the air at random but something rooted in reality. It draws on our own experiences in the here and now but explores them in a new place.
Fictional worlds also allow us to escape from our current realities and have become unique places to while away time. All of this has to do with the planning that goes into that world by the author.
What’s your favorite fictional world? Do you have any world-building tips for others? Let me know in the comments below!
Happy Earth Day!
Stay safe, everyone.
Until next time.