Some writers assume that writing speculative fiction is easy because we can “make up” our setting instead of researching it. But making up a world is like making up a story: it might be easy to put whatever you feel like on paper, but it’s hard to create something readers find believable and engaging. That’s why speculative storytellers have a craft of our own called “worldbuilding.”
Worldbuilding comprises everything we know about our reality and everything we guess about how our world could be different. It’s so complicated that a single article on worldbuilding will never do the craft justice. It’s so knowledge-based that you could research it for your entire life and still have thousands of unanswered questions.
Given the size of the undertaking, specialized articles on niche topics are generally most useful to worldbuilders. However, as valuable as it is to get into the weeds of evolution or language use, newcomers still need the big picture. Why is worldbuilding important? Where do you start? What pitfalls could you fall into? Let’s take a tour.
Why We Build Worlds
First, if you are creating speculative fiction of any sort, you are worldbuilding. You may not be doing it with much thought or intention, but as soon as you express something in your fiction that doesn’t match known reality, you have created a world. Anyone who consumes your work will look at everything you’ve implied about your fictional setting, and they’ll form a working model of your world in their head.
Their ideas about your world could either enhance or sabotage their enjoyment of your work. If you suggest that everyone in your world can teleport and then make your characters walk across the nation without further explanation, your audience will struggle with the contradiction. Instead of appreciating the dangers of traveling the countryside, they’ll be wondering why the characters are doing it at all. Problems like these are common when storytellers create worlds as an accident or afterthought. Thankfully, it’s easy to prevent obvious contradictions just by thinking of your world as a separate creation and taking some notes on it.
While a flawed world can detract from the story, a great world adds value above and beyond what the story could otherwise provide. Many speculative works are popular largely because of the fascinating worlds they feature. Putting time and thought into your world gives your fiction a better chance of getting onto a bestseller list.
World-First vs Story-First Methodology
Spec fic storytellers approach the process of worldbuilding differently. Some like to create a large and complex world first and think up stories to set there afterward. Other storytellers think up a story first and make a world that’s custom-built to fit the story they want to tell.
Many world-first storytellers invest enormous amounts of time creating a whole planet with different cultures on each continent. Since the world is large and diverse, it becomes a good place to set novel after novel, so the storyteller doesn’t have to create a new world for every story. These worlds are usually rich and deep, since they are so well thought out. Unfortunately, such worlds can become too complex for short stories. Another disadvantage of the world-first method is that it becomes tempting to put things in your story just to show off your world. This can result in weaker stories.
Story-first worlds are generally less detailed, but also less likely to distract from the tale at hand. The world will have all the features that make for the best story, though writing unplanned sequels could be challenging. This method also allows for a world that’s more focused on creating a specific impression. You may not want to read 20 novels set in the world of George Orwell’s 1984, but boy does it get its point across.
You can start by choosing where along this scale you want to be. If you’re delighted by the idea of building a world for its own sake, the former method is probably a good place to start. If you already have a specific story in mind, building around that story will keep it moving forward.
Goal-Setting for Your World
Regardless of whether you put the world or story first, think up some goals for your world. You can create a better finished project if you know what you want to achieve. The most important goal is a high-level concept or theme you want your world to embody. I’ll give you some examples:
- A world where humans are tiny puppets at the mercy of greater forces they can barely comprehend.
- A world that embodies infinite diversity in infinite combinations.
- A world where there is no longer a boundary between biology and technology.
A theme like these will make all the parts of your world feel like they belong together and help create a whole that is greater than the sum of those parts. A strong theme also leaves the audience with a vivid impression of the setting.
Once you have your concept, you can come up with significant features that you want the world – or the stories set there – to have. If your world is focused on blurring the boundary between biology and technology, you might want machines that engage in sexual reproduction or communities that trade manufactured body parts on the free market. The same goes for anything obvious you don’t want. If your world will be past the medieval era in technology but you don’t want your heroes to fight with guns, you should know that straightaway.
The earlier you think of important specifics, the easier it will be implement them. Everything in a world influences everything else. You don’t want to create half your world only to realize something important has been forgotten. In those situations, you could end up either rethinking everything you’ve already created or making too few changes for the new element to feel believable to your audience.
For more practice thinking up themes and specifics, I recommend the worldbuilding game Microscope. It’s a fun way to come up with concepts, and you can take your friends along for the ride.
The Major Categories of Worldbuilding
Making up a whole new reality can be overwhelming, particularly for those creating a non-Earth world. But we can break it into three categories you can tackle separately.
Magic & Technology
While technology and/or magic (technomagic) is technically a small part of worldbuilding, it’s of central importance. For one thing, storytellers and audiences care about it. You probably already know whether you want magic in your setting and how advanced you’d like the technology to be. For another, the technomagic of a world has an enormous impact on the plots of stories set there. The technomagic you create will determine how your characters solve problems and what kind of problems they can solve.
For that reason, poorly thought-out technomagic is also the most likely aspect of the world to cause plot holes. While wondrous technomagic is fun, it quickly makes problems too easy for characters to solve. That’s why the most essential thing you can do for your world is puts limits on how powerful your technomagic is. The deeper you get into worldbuilding, the more you’ll find that less is more.
If you are including magic, you’ll have a lot of fairly arbitrary choices to make. For that, we have some articles on creating magic systems. If you are including advanced technology, the best thing you can do is use the lowest level of technology that will meet your worldbuilding goals. Then think through all the ways an entire society of clever people would use that technology. We also have a handy list of common technology mistakes.
Next, you can think about what stuff is in your world. Is it an alternate Earth, a huge galaxy that includes Earth, or some other place where no one has ever heard of Earth before? If you like astronomy, dreaming up alternate planets that have rings, or rotate around multiple suns, or hold extra-thick atmospheres can be lots of fun. If you like biology, studying evolution and making up new creatures is a great way to go.
If you want to go easy on the science, you can assume that your world features a planet much like Earth that has life forms much like those we encounter. This is easier if you are writing fantasy. With fantasy, your audience will accept things like horses even if there are two moons in the sky. Science fiction requires a higher level of plausibility and scientific rigor. Even so, you can get away with a lot by saying the life forms in your world are descended from life on Earth.
Sooner or later, you’ll probably need some maps. Otherwise it’ll be difficult for you to keep track of what is where. If you’re artistic, your can make beautiful maps that your audience will enjoy looking at, but that’s not essential. Making a good map does take some basic knowledge of how terrain and weather works. We have some articles to help you get started with maps.
This is probably the part of worldbuilding that’s neglected the most. That’s too bad, because it holds incredible opportunities for making your world stand out. It’s also easy to include in stories. While your hero might have to journey to a specific place to see the great glass forest, their culture will influence everything they say and every action they take.
There are two common mistakes worldbuilders make with culture:
- Treating culture as if it’s arbitrary. You can’t simply make up whatever gender roles or religion sounds fun if you want it to ring true to your audience. Culture is the result of a society’s long history, its power struggles, and the efforts of its people to survive. It has its own logic. We have more on creating realistic cultures.
- Leaving culture untouched. If your story takes place four hundred years in the future, it’s going to be weird if everyone exhibits the same cultural quirks as people do today. Remove those handshakes and replace them with some other gesture. Forget those white wedding dresses; maybe people don’t get married at all. What your society acts like is up to you, but if your world is different from this one, the culture should be different too.
Ramifications, Ramifications, Ramifications
This is the most difficult but also the most rewarding part of worldbuilding, both for storytellers and for audiences. It’s one thing to decide that your world has a feature, and another to envision what a world with that feature would actually be like. Let me give you some examples.
- Andy Weir’s novel Artemis takes place on a moon colony. In the story, Weir describes how because of the low lunar gravity, every step on a standard set of lunar stairs is three feet high. People can jump super high, so why would they have normal stairs?
- If you introduce powerful offensive tactics like gun powder or dragon mounts to a medieval setting, the castles will largely disappear. Why? Because castles aren’t an effective military tactic if there’s the magic or technology to easily tear them down or get past them. People won’t have a practical reason to build them anymore.
- If one group of people has magic or technology that no one else has, they won’t be persecuted because of it. That’s because their magic or technology will make them more powerful, not less, and persecution happens to groups that are vulnerable.
You can quibble with my examples if you’d like, but there is no question that thinking through these kinds of ramifications makes worlds stronger. Not only will it reduce the number of plot holes or other unbelievable elements your audience encounters, but it will also push you to make your world more unique and more detailed. That results in better entertainment for your audience. And as any worldbuilding enthusiast will tell you, there’s nothing so satisfying as watching your creative choices ripple through every other aspect of the world.
Worldbuilding Is Political
If you’ve been reading Mythcreants for a while, you’ve probably caught on that no story is without political ramifications. Every choice a storyteller makes for their story broadcasts their values to everyone who consumes that story. A storyteller who tries to ignore the political implications of what they are writing will just end up sending political messages they didn’t intend. The best we can do is expand our awareness of what we’re implying by the stories we create, so we communicate only what we want to.
Because worldbuilding can be heavy on science and ideas that we correctly or incorrectly believe to be factual, storytellers can be tempted into thinking their worldbuilding is politically neutral. But in fact, worlds often make even stronger political statements than the stories set there.
As an example, let’s take The Wheel of Time series. In the world of Wheel of Time, men are more powerful magic users but can’t cast magic in groups like women can. The writer of this series, Robert Jordan, might have only intended to make a fun magic system. But in doing so, he also made a statement about what the inherent characteristics of men and women are. If he merely made the male characters in his stories better at magic but also less cooperative, a reader could say it was because of the traits of those individual characters. With it built into the world, there’s no doubt.
Your plot and characters can’t erase the inherent messages your world sends. No matter how badass the women in The Wheel of Time series are, it won’t change Jordan’s statement that they are not equal to men. No matter how friendly the men in The Wheel of Time series are, it won’t change Jordan’s statement that they are inherently less social.
So think about what you are saying by your choices. When in doubt, do some fact-checking. The statements you make will look a lot worse if they are based on obvious misconceptions.
While a large, complex, and rigorously thought-out world is the holy grail for most worldbuilders, it is possible to overbuild a world. Short works can be crushed under the weight of a unique and complex setting. Improvisational story forms such as roleplaying campaigns can benefit by leaving the setting flexible. If worldbuilding isn’t fun for you, you don’t have to make it into an extensive project. Just spend a little time on research, critical thinking, and notes about the aspects of the world that are important to your story.
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