Worldbuilding is a complicated craft, and with so many possible settings out there, it’s difficult to give advice on the subject as a whole. Fortunately, there are some principles that are useful across the board. That’s what we’re talking about today: best practices that will serve you no matter what kind of setting you’ve dreamed up.
1. Audiences Care About Conflict and Novelty
Some audiences will care about your world simply because it’s part of their special interest. Anything with airships has my automatic attention because I’m complete trash for zeppelins and all their kin. However, that type of interest/subject matchup isn’t common. No matter how well detailed a setting is, most audiences won’t care about it by default. This is why spec fic has a bad reputation for dull worldbuilding info dumps. Authors want to tell their audience all about the world, but they haven’t given the audience a reason to care.
So how do you give the audience a reason to care? There are two widely applicable options: conflict and novelty. Novelty is the trickier path, but it’s also one of the critical elements that makes stories popular, so let’s look at it first. At the most basic, a setting is novel when it has something the audience hasn’t seen before. It’s the excitement of exploring strange new worlds and finding a magical doorway at the back of a wardrobe. If it’s new, it’s got novelty.
Of course, novelty is highly subjective, as different people will have consumed vastly different stories. To someone with no experience of high fantasy, even a factory-standard chosen-one story can seem fresh and cool if it’s surrounded with swords and magic. This is why something that seemed incredibly novel 10 years ago might be old hat now.
To maximize your novelty, you have to look at what other storytellers in your genre are doing, then do something different. Your world still needs to make sense, but a fresh take is what will make it stand out. This can be subtle, like a space opera where everyone has a spaceship as their personal familiar. Or it can be a complete rework of the genre, depending on how much energy you have for the process. The downside is that once a story is published, its world will probably lose novelty over time as more people read it and, if it’s successful, more stories are published with similar settings.
Conflict is a more reliable method for making the audience care about your world, but it requires getting plot onboard as well. Without conflict, audiences will probably tune out as you spend several pages explaining the life support system of your far-future arcologies. All the research in the world won’t be enough to make that interesting. But if your protagonist is running from the cops and they use the life-support chamber as a place to hide, then it’s interesting. Audiences will listen with rapt attention as you explain how often the algae beds need to be maintained because that’s how long your hero has before someone discovers them.
Ideally, your story will use a mix of novelty and conflict to make the world interesting. Novelty is something you can build in at the concept stage, and it lets you really stretch your creative muscles. Meanwhile, conflict doesn’t depend on what anyone else is doing with their stories. Human drama will always be interesting, so you can use it to highlight your world long after the publish date.
2. Ideas Spread
A hallmark of bad worldbuilding is the static setting. In high fantasy, this is a country where no one has heard about the hobbits who sell them pipeweed just a few weeks’ travel away. In scifi, it’s the cluster of nearby planets who don’t have any type of diplomatic or mercantile contact. These seem less like living worlds and more like a series of hermetically sealed bubbles.
The antidote for this problem is to remember that ideas spread whenever they can. Sometimes that means simple information, which is how Han China and the Roman Empire knew about each other despite never sharing a border. Of course, information is often distorted over distance, which is why Pliny the Elder thought there were dragons in India.
Ideas also mean technology, which is why it’s unlikely to find a steampunk empire next to a medieval fantasy kingdom. If a group of people have useful technology, it’s only a matter of time before their neighbors get hold of it. This can happen through trade, reverse engineering, or even parallel development. You can see all three in the proliferation of aircraft after 1903. Some folks bought planes from the Wright Brothers, others studied the Wright Flyers in action and then crafted their own planes, while still others had completely homegrown designs. Technology can also proliferate through good old-fashioned theft, like the time Emperor Justinian paid some monks to smuggle silkworms out of China.
This doesn’t mean technological development will be uniform across a setting. Some areas are bound to have more advanced tech due to wealth, available materials, and technical expertise. But if one country in your setting has flintlock muskets, it’s extremely unlikely that the people a few countries away won’t know what a gun is, even if they don’t have the incentive to use guns much themselves.
The most common way for ideas to proliferate is through travel. In lower-tech settings, travel is often difficult across land or water, but it will still happen. Natural barriers might reduce travel, and thus the spread of ideas, but they won’t shut it off entirely unless they are completely impassable. If someone can cross a barrier, they eventually will. This same dynamic holds true in scifi settings where space travel is expensive. Interstellar voyages might be rare, but if the tech for them exists, they’ll still happen.
In other settings, information itself can go farther and faster than any traveler. This happens via phone lines, scrying pools, ansibles, and all the other flavors of advanced communication out there. In these settings, distant people would not only be aware of each other, but they’d be in constant communication. That’s why it feels so weird when Star Trek or Star Wars characters don’t know what’s going on a few sectors over. It’s been specifically established in those settings that long-range communication is common; why isn’t anyone getting on the space phone?
3. Conflicts Arise Over Resources
Conflict is necessary for storytelling, and the best worldbuilding incorporates conflict at the ground level. These conflicts can be anything from all-out wars to simmering class disputes, and they provide a lot of benefit. Not only do they help get audiences interested in your world like we talked about earlier, but they also save you from having to create extraordinary circumstances to launch your plot.
As handy as built-in conflicts are, they have one common problem: Why does the conflict exist in the first place? Why do vampires and werewolves hate each other, exactly? What caused the rift between tree-dwelling elves and tunneling dwarves? If it’s not clear why two sides are fighting, the conflict feels contrived, and all the benefits are lost.
It’s easy to assume that the solution is describing just how much the opposing factions hate each other. Vampires will go on about how smelly and uncouth werewolves are, while the lycanthropes will howl about vampiric arrogance until the audience is drowning in urban fantasy clichés. The problem with this approach is that big conflicts rarely occur from hurt feelings alone.
Big conflicts are just that: big. They’re a lot of work, whether that’s feeding and equipping an army or paying for a public-relations blitz. People don’t usually go to that kind of effort just because of animosity. There has to be something tangible on the line, and that’s where resources come in. Sometimes these resources are physical goods like gold and salt. In other cases, different factions might be fighting over access to fertile farmland or setting tax rates.
In spec fic stories, the resources might be more exotic. If all supernatural creatures require supernatural gemstones to fuel their powers, that’s something vampires and werewolves could easily fight over. In the far future, interstellar republics might come to blows over access to subspace apertures. You have a lot of freedom here, as long as it’s something both sides benefit from having.
Once you’ve got the research situation figured out, you can add social, political, and even religious justifications on top of it. Dwarves and elves have been fighting over mithril deposits for centuries, leaving a lasting enmity that is not easily overcome. Dwarves see elves as brutal plunderers who take what isn’t theirs from the earth, while elves insist that dwarves cavort with dark powers in their deepest tunnels.
As a final note, this doesn’t mean all conflicts are going to be rationally measured and calculated. Humans fight over tangible gains, but they’re still humans,* so there’s a lot of room for error. Wealthy aristocrats, for example, are very good at acquiring more wealth in the short term, but sometimes they take so much that the populace rises up in violent revolution. From a purely rational perspective, it would be better to take a little less and ensure long-term dominance, but that isn’t how people do things.
4. What the Audience Sees Is Most Important
New authors often ask me how much of their world they should build. There’s an appeal to having an entire setting mapped out and populated, with detailed descriptions of every location and the people who live there. However, that kind of intensive worldbuilding takes time and energy, two things most writers don’t have in abundance.
Fortunately, that level of planning is rarely necessary or even beneficial for most stories. Audiences care about the part of the world they actually see, and that’s it. They won’t know that you spent countless hours fleshing out a city that the heroes never visit, and chances are the story won’t be any different for it.
In general, the most you need is one or two degrees of separation from the setting elements that are directly relevant to the story. If your story is about a war in the Kingdom of Unnamedville, then the most you need to figure out is what countries lie on the border and maybe an overseas trading partner or two. There’s no need to do detailed write-ups on the three continents that don’t play any direct role in the war.
Naturally, the more epic your story’s scope, the more worldbuilding you have to do. If your heroes travel the globe, then you’ll need to expand on all the places they visit. If your story is about an interstellar summit, then you’ll need some development for the various factions, even if their homeworlds are never shown onscreen. This doesn’t just apply to locations either. If your story is about conflict in wormhole trade routes, then it’s important to figure out the specifics of interstellar trade.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean you can’t do more worldbuilding than your story strictly needs. For some of us, worldbuilding is a fun and relaxing break from the hardships of plot and character. And if you’re planning to tell multiple stories in the same setting, then laying a firm foundation at the start can be very helpful down the road. So long as you don’t fall into the trap of including something in the story just because you spent a lot of time working on it, you’re good to go.
But for those of us who don’t find worldbuilding inherently fun, you only have to flesh out what the audience sees, and that’s it. You don’t need to simulate an entire world in your brain, or even an entire city if your whole story takes place in a single house. The worst thing that’ll happen is that some fan will ask about an obscure setting element and you won’t know the answer, at which point you can just smile mysteriously and ask them, “What do you think?”
5. Elites Won’t Hinder Themselves
Cultures are complex things, dependent on a seemingly endless number of factors that no one can keep track of. Fads often sweep through with no apparent rhyme or reason, leading some authors to throw up their hands and conclude that it’s impossible to be realistic with their cultures. As someone who lived through the inexplicable Pogs fad,* I sympathize. But there’s one constant that nearly always holds true: elites don’t create rules that hinder themselves.
This is something I most often see in stories that are trying to create weird cultural rules for the purposes of novelty. To make their fantasy or scifi culture seem strange and different, the author decides that reading has been completely banned: oh no!* That’s certainly strange and different, but it’s also totally implausible. While a sufficiently tyrannical elite might try to forbid the lower classes from reading, they would never give it up themselves because reading is too useful. Can you imagine a bunch of rich people deliberately choosing to turn every email into a Zoom meeting? I shudder to think.
Beyond imposing new rules, this dynamic also applies when powerful people want to do something that existing rules don’t allow. Early in Christianity’s history, charging interest was strictly forbidden, but then rich Christians realized they could make a lot of money by charging interest. At first, they found workarounds and loopholes, like getting Jews to handle the actual interest,* but eventually the restrictions fell away entirely. Note, this doesn’t mean that elites will always react the same way. A number of Muslim-majority countries employ interest-free finance, and the rich people there have different ways of maintaining power and influence. The point is that if privileged people want a rule changed, it tends to get changed.
Beyond off-the-wall ideas like no one being able to read, the most common way I see this problem manifest is in magic. There’s a common idea that magic exists only in the folksy wisdom of marginalized people;* rich people would never use it, sometimes because they believe in science too much, sometimes because they’re just not very smart. This always feels wrong because it’s the opposite of how rich people actually act.
When the rich and powerful find something useful, they don’t ignore it because it doesn’t fit their aesthetics; they exploit the heck out of it. In 99.9% of spec fic stories, magic is simply too useful for the rich to ignore. They wouldn’t ignore or disdain it; they’d buy out the mana supplies and jack up the price for witch consultations until no one could afford to get their hexes treated. The only way that doesn’t happen is if someone makes a dedicated effort to stop it, which is a great premise of a story, but not something that should happen in the background of worldbuilding.
So when you’re crafting the rules and traditions of your new setting, keep in mind who they affect and why. If the only metals in your world are radioactive, it’s reasonable that people of all classes would use stone and wood instead. But it’ll seem pretty silly if the nobility just declares that they don’t use metal anymore because its malleability is an affront to the gods or what have you.
6. Sometimes No Explanation Is Best
The hard truth is that a lot of the tropes people love to read about are inherently implausible. Masquerades, for example, are nearly impossible to explain without resorting to “god did it.” In the same vein, there’s no good explanation for why people wouldn’t use guns in most urban fantasy or postapocalyptic stories. Not only are firearms far more effective than other weapons, but they’re fairly easy to make, even by hand.
Knowing this, authors often tie their world in knots trying to explain the unexplainable. Vampires can only be killed by a wooden weapon to the heart, and demons are really old so they’d be slow to adopt new technology. That totally explains not using guns, right? Sadly, no. For one thing, it’s not hard to make wooden bullets. Even without that, high-caliber firearms would be perfect for putting vampires on the ground before staking them. As for demons not adopting new tech, after the twelfth or so demon is mowed down by a machine gun, it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t give the new-fangled firearms a try. Pushing it past that will just make them seem laughably incompetent.
When worldbuilders realize these inescapable truths, it’s easy to despair. What are we supposed to do, never tell stories along the lines of Supernatural or Road Warrior ever again? Don’t worry, there’s a better option: just don’t explain it. I know, that sounds weird. We’re worldbuilders; explaining stuff is what we do. I’ll explain.
In a vacuum, making a world more plausible is always a good thing. But in the trenches of storytelling, there are lots of things audiences care about as much or more than plausibility. Popular tropes like masquerades, urban fantasy fist-fights, and human-piloted space fighters are some of those things. Audiences want those aesthetics despite how unrealistic they are, because they’re just that cool.
The trick is to employ these implausible yet accepted conceits without drawing attention to them. The Expanse does this for its spacecraft. Given the advances in AI and UAV technology, it’s extremely unlikely that any space warships would have human pilots. Not only do computers have much faster response times, but they don’t need all the dedicated life support systems that organic beings do. And yet, audiences clearly wanted to see the heroes pilot their ship in epic space battles, so The Expanse employs human pilots and counts on suspension of disbelief to do the rest.
The Dresden Files takes a similar approach with its masquerade. It never explains why people don’t know about the supernatural; they just don’t. So long as the books don’t make a big deal about Dresden trying to expose the magical world, readers have no trouble accepting it. If there was an entire book about Dresden having to stop the local newspaper from telling people about magic, that would call attention to the conceit and readers would stop suspending their disbelief. Likewise, if The Expanse had an episode about Alex competing against an AI pilot, that would raise questions about why AI hasn’t already taken over. Fortunately, both stories know better.
So long as a popular trope doesn’t send harmful messages, there’s nothing wrong with putting it in your world and counting on your audience to accept it. You’ll need to judge which tropes are popular enough to get this treatment, but that’s all part of the worldbuilding gig.
The beautiful thing about worldbuilding is the near-infinite time you can spend researching for it.* With so much information just a search away, it’s easy to bury yourself in the minutiae of Bronze Age Mediterranean pottery or the construction of pre-Columbian road networks in the Andes. But before you do that, it’s helpful to get the basic principles down right, so you can be sure to build your world in a constructive direction.
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