Updated: Feb 13, 2020
Worldbuilding is a word you hear thrown around a lot when it comes to writing, especially if you dabble in the fantasy or science fiction genres. Whether you're a new writer, experimenting with a new genre, or just feel like your story could be missing something, worldbuilding is a crucial element that will bring your story to life--but not a quick or easy one to master. It's a common struggle for writers, myself included--where do you start? How do you make it realistic? How do you incorporate it into a story at all? If you're finding yourself lost in the massive realm of worldbuilding, I hope my mini guide to the basics will help.
What does worldbuilding involve?
Okay, so the name is pretty self-explanatory. You're building a world. But what's involved in that process?
Worldbuilding includes all the elements of the world of your story. Physical features, places, cultures, languages, races, creatures, magic, technology, societies, religions--you name it. Whether it's a hidden world within our own (think how bland Harry Potter would be if the wizarding world wasn't so developed and colorful!) or your own Middle Earth, there's a long list of elements to consider. It takes time and creativity, and is a fantastic exercise in letting your imagination go. And while there is a lot to tackle, it can be a ton of fun.
Where do I start? How?
It seems to be a common question from a lot of writers I run into--where exactly do you start worldbuilding? The answer is really that it's up to you. Whatever aspect of the world is coming to you, run with it. In my worldbuilding I find that one aspect I build leads to another which leads to another, and so on in a sort of spiral. As each piece--people, places, rules--builds it adds a little onto another. All these little bits of your world are tied together and affect each other, your job is just to figure out how.
If you're stuck, try asking some of these questions and seeing where things go. You never know what might pop up.
- Is magic real? What can it do? How does it work? Who can use it?
- What technology is available, and to whom? What can it do? How easy or difficult is it to get? To make?
- What's the environment like where a character is from? What wildlife is there? What plant life? How does it affect the society they live in--does it dictate their clothing, ways of travel, diet, work, hobbies, views of the world? How do they take advantage of the environment? What dangers are there?
- What's the government like where a character is from? Who makes laws and decisions? How are leaders chosen? How are laws enforced, and how are criminals caught and punished? Are the leaders well-liked or hated? Benevolent or cruel?
- What languages are there? Who speaks what? How do their writing systems or alphabets compare? Is it common for people to speak multiple languages or otherwise easy to translate between, or does it cause problems?
- How are science and religion viewed? Is one favored over the other or is there a balance? Are there multiple common religions, or one predominant one? Are they monotheistic or polytheistic? What do their beliefs center around? What religion does a character practice, or do they not practice any at all? How does their religion tie into their backstory, role in the story, and relations with others?
- What is the class system like where a character is from? What advantages and disadvantages does it involve? Where in it does your character fall?
- What legends exist in your world? Fabled places, artifacts, or treasures? Mythical heroes? How do these legends affect a given society or people? Does your protagonist believe them? Are they true, or partially true?
- What races exist in your world? Humans, elves, vampires, something else? If there are more than one, do they live together or separately? What are the relations between them like? Hostile or cooperative?
How do I incorporate worldbuilding into my writing?
You may have heard the term info-dump before in relation to worldbuilding, and I'll repeat what probably a million others have said: avoid the info dump at any cost.
An info dump is, quite simply, a dump of information on your world that may or may not have any relevance to what's going on in your story. While that's fine for notes or working things out in your planning, it's not good for your writing. Not only are info dumps tedious to read, but they ruin the pacing of your story and pull the reader right out of the action--the opposite of what you want.
The trick with worldbuilding is to weave it bit by bit into your narrative. Select the information that's necessary for the particular moment and work it in without pausing the scene to explain it. There are a lot of ways to do this, but my two favorites are:
1. Everyday Life: this piece of worldbuilding is something normal to the protagonist. They experience it every day, so they have no more reason to stop and explain it than we do to stop and explain what a hamburger is. While it can be necessary to work in a little extra description to make things clear to the reader, for the most part these details can be mentioned as if they're everyday facts and then we can move on. No more info needed; readers aren't dumb.
“Good afternoon,” Tae greeted her cheerily, his lanky form moving like liquid away from the fisherman’s booth.
“Where in the gods’ names have you been?”
Tae hesitated only a moment, choosing his words. “As Tybal of Arcatraissa, I decided that it was my duty to investigate the humans who have recently began living nearby. I’ve decided that they don’t pose a threat to us, you’ll be happy to hear.”
“That is not your decision to make,” she said, still cool and calm as only a queen could be, striding towards him. “I am Titania, not you, and you will follow my orders without exception. Your authority is limited, as difficult as that may be for you to grasp.”
“And yet I am the one preparing to take the throne, while you are the one preparing to leave it.”
The above excerpt from Arcatraissa involves mention of the 'gods'--implying there is a polytheistic religion the fae are at least familiar with, if not follow--as well as introduces Tae's title of Tybal and follows with the mention that he's preparing to take the throne, putting Tybal as a fae equivalent of something like a prince. Both are these are small but important details to the world of Arcatraissa but, being everyday things to protagonist Tae, not ones that he would naturally stop to think about or explain.
2. Explain to the Newbie: Probably an easier to recognize and use technique, but it can be tricky to keep from going overboard, so be careful not to overexplain. When your main character is in an unfamiliar situation, it can be a perfect time to introduce some worldbuilding to the reader by introducing it to the protagonist. If they're seeing something for the first time it's that much easier to describe it smoothly to the reader, and if there's another character, a book, or, hell, a Wikipedia article available it's easy to take advantage of it to explain further. The same concept can also be used in reverse, where your protagonist can explain a worldbuilding detail to another character unfamiliar with it and accomplish the same effect for the reader.
“Can you explain, please, Aven?” I asked, eyeing Moray as it—he? She?—flitted around our makeshift camp.
Aven sighed, looking up to the sky as if it would give him an answer. “Moray is an old friend. Unlikely for us to meet here, but it’s not the worst thing.”
“And what is…Moray?”
“A water spirit. Vain and vicious little things, but useful to have on your side.”
I gave Moray another look. It seemed to be enjoying itself drifting on air currents, flashing and sparkling in the sun. Pretty, yes, but it didn’t look like it could do much—but then, I knew looks could be deceiving. “How so?”
Aven just laughed. “Don’t underestimate a sprite, I’ll leave it at that.”
The above is from upcoming Tide and involves protagonist Hania's introduction to water sprites, a rare and unusual type of being from the magical side of the world she's never been to before. Her confusion and curiosity lend themselves to explaining this new race without putting the scene on hold, taking advantage of her companion Aven's experience and knowledge.
Are there worldbuilding rules?
This may be open to interpretation and opinion, but I'd say there's only one rule of worldbuilding: stay consistent. Create and know the rules of your world, and stick to them. If a rule gets bent or broken, there better be a damn good reason for it, and plot convenience doesn't count.
Do you enjoy worldbuilding, or is it a weak point? What are your favorite tips, tricks, and tools to help?