9 Tips to Start World-Building
Worldbuilding is an essential component in most forms of speculative fiction. Faced with a history of amazingly fantastical worlds, it can be quite daunting. Here we will look at some of the initial concepts in crafting your realms.
1. Start Small
The most intimidating aspect of worldbuilding is the fact that you are building an entire world. You should start with smaller changes, allowing everything else to fall into the standards your readers know and understand. Once you have more experience with worldbuilding techniques, you can add higher degrees of complexity.
2. Identify Your Needs!
To help alleviate the overwhelming blegh of building a world, you can identify what aspects of worldbuilding your story will need and focus on those. Does a long journey across the lands play a prominent role in your story? Does it involve space travel? Are multiple cultures involved? Is there a magic or alternative physics system in play, and if so, do its details impact the story?
3. Build Geography
The cities, streams, plains, planets, and starfields of your world can have a significant impact on your stories and the peoples who develop there. Populations tend to be built along coasts for easy access to water and transportation. Powerful influences must be at play to drive populations away from easy access to water. Mountain ranges, forests, and deserts all have unique weather patterns which can come into play in your stories. Patterns of trade and warfare are greatly impacted by distance, whether you’re looking at inner city conflicts or intergalactic trade.
4. Discover History
The history of your world, migrations of populations, political interplay, and economic background can all flesh out your world. This information will lay the foundation for the culture, laws, and general feel of the people your characters interact with. Tolkien is the grand emperor of this form of worldbuilding, with Middle Earth showcasing an impressive interweave of geography, language, and mythology.
5. Introduce Chaos
Things do not always go according to plan. When looking at the history of your world don’t assume that everything people try to do will work, or will work how they planned it. We can see this in the near–comic book style spark which started WWI.
Blackhand assassins tried to kill a visiting Duke, but each assassin failed spectacularly due to timing and mechanical failures. Then the Duke stopped for a sandwich across the street from the last assassin’s fallback location. Once the Duke was killed the assassin tried to run and took an old cyanide capsule that only made him sick. He tried to drown himself by jumping off a bridge, but just flopped into a muddy riverbed where he was arrested and the plot’s details were discovered.
Elements of chaos like these can both inform your history and provide excellent points for your character’s involvement in the larger structure of the world.
6. Skip What You Don’t Need
Some stories call for understanding the rotational period of their world’s binary star system or how the physics and magic interact, but if you don’t need them for your story you can, and should, skip them. Leaving out the details that are irrelevant to your story’s needs will save a lot of headaches.
7. Do Your Research
Once you know what your story needs, it is time to do research and record your decisions for the world. If you are dealing heavily with military elements, then study those details of military history. For example, the armor development vs weapon development over time. (European vs Asian weapon and armor development makes for a great spectrum of different methods.)
Wikipedia is a writer’s friend when it comes to research because it helps you get a good overview of almost any topic and provides you with the proper search terms to continue your research elsewhere.
8. Use Tools & Aids
There are map makers, map visualizers, blocking simulators, culture worksheets, calendar makers, and many other kinds of resources available to aid your worldbuilding.
Moving away from software, one of the most invaluable tools is other people. Get in contact with experts on topics you are writing on. Experts generally love talking about their subject and are very passionate in sharing what they know. Many experts are sick and tired of seeing stories present their topic inaccurately and will gladly help you get it right.
Sharing your world with others allows them to ask questions about your world that you never would have thought of. Brandon Sanderson (and some other authors) presents his worlds as RPGs, giving the players incentives to figure out how to navigate the magic and social structures he has devised. He then incorporates their creations into his novels.
9. Sit Down And Write!
Eventually it is time to set down the world map and start writing your story. Worldbuilding is necessary, worldbuilding can be fun, but worldbuilding is not the goal of a writer. You have a story to write, so don’t let yourself get so enthralled by building your world that you never write the story. Research enough to write what you need to write, but keep your focus on the story, and write it.
These nine tips are by no means a comprehensive guide to the process of worldbuilding, but they should help you get started. If you have additional comments, tips, or questions, feel free to share them in the comments below.
(The header image is not original. We hunted for the appropriate attribution, but no one out there was linking to the original artist. If anyone has information on the original artist, please email CW at CW Guild dot c-o-m.)