Story worldbuilding impacts almost every writer in some form. Worldbuilding is usually a skill associated with speculative fiction writers, however historical, memoir, or even contemporary romance authors must create a world for the character(s). For contemporary writers, worldbuilding might be a quick exercise, especially compared to some fantasy writers who develop their worldbuilding over several years. Still, every writer can learn something from worldbuilding exercises. For this article, I’m going to focus on fantasy (F) and science fiction (SF).
In the coming weeks, you’ll learn from the following worldbuilding articles:
Article #1: Worldbuilding Checklist (this article)
Article #2: Digging Deeper into your Worldbuilding
Article #3: 9 Worldbuilding Mistakes to Avoid
Article #4: Worldbuilding Bible
Note: If you want more in-depth basic worldbuilding information, refer to the great resources listed at the end of this article. I’ll be touching on the basics, but moving into manipulation and building on foundational knowledge. These articles are created more for authors who are already writing and developing worlds, but are possibly stuck, and for more experienced writers who need a refresher.
The SFWA website has a great list of questions for authors to develop, test, and enrich their world. These are fairly standard questions, but I love how SFWA has the elements organized. I’ve taken their list, plus resources from Alex McDowell from the University of Southern California to create a modified list for quick reference:
Geography: weather, climate, mountains, rivers, etc.
We often think of this in a grand sense of multiple kingdoms, however, the focus can be on a single city, like in Mistborn, or in the science fiction movie, Minority Report.
Magic/Technology: limited and unlimited
Not all SF&F have magic or an emphasis on tech (example: The False Prince or The Thief), but magic is generally broken down into two categories: limited/hard (example: any books by Brandon Sanderson, or heavily science-based stories), or unlimited/soft (example: The Girl Who Drank the Moon, or The Hunger Games).
Culture and History: customs, language, important historical events, artifacts, ethics/values, religion, education, weapons, etc. (example: pretty much any fantasy novel with a queen or a prince!)
- Daily Life: food, clothing/fashion, transportation, etc.
- Government: type of government, politics, etc.
- Infrastructure: architecture, economy, money/trade, access to water, disposal of waste, etc.
Plants and Animals: zoology, biology, chemistry, etc.
So many of these elements can (and should) brilliantly tie-together or even overlap. Like the last bullet point, plants and animals can tie in nicely with the first bullet point, geography. If you imagine world-building as a circular grid, it’s easier to see how the bottom and the top bullets can flow nicely into each other. As you get closer to the center point of the circle, you’re getting more detailed, and further away to the outer edges is more general (or vice versa, depending on your preference).
So, if you’re thinking of these elements as a mapped grid, it’s not much of a leap for geography to overlap with plants and animals. Below are several more examples.
Examples of Geology influencing Plants & Animals:
• A great example is in The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, where plants are impacted by the terrain/weather. As you might guess from the series title, The Stormlight Archive, the story world endures frequent “highstorms.” The ecology of this world is incredibly developed, with tons of details about biological evolution. Plants literally move to protect themselves from the storms, develop rock-like shells, and frantically feed after every storm.
• In The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, we have unknown terrain in “the games.” The protagonist and the reader explore the unknown landscape at the same time. We are shown how technology impacts the geology and animals via unnatural floods and tracker jackers.
Examples of Magic Impacting Communication and Travel:
• In Harry Potter, readers are delighted to explore how magic impacts things like communication (interoffice flying notes, and owls) and transportation. Specifically, with transportation, JK Rowling created multiple whimsical ways to get from one location to another: broomstick, train, floo network, apparition, portkey, knight bus, hippogriffs, and many others!
Example of History Overlapping with Magic:
• The Paper Magician, by Charlie N. Holmberg, is set in Edwardian England. The magic is based on manmade materials found during this historical time, including plastic, glass, metal, rubber, and of course . . . paper. Having manmade items as part of the magic makes this magic system unusual, plus the historical accuracy, catapulted this book straight into the arms of a Disney movie option.
Examples of how Culture and History elements interplay:
• The Selection, by Kiera Cass, is all about “bringing down the system.” It delves not only into government and classism, but also into the economy, foreign relations, and fashion.
• In Survivors’ Club, by M.K. Martin, the characters race to stop an outbreak of a manmade virus. Not only is virology a focus of the story, but also corporate politics, ethics/values, and later . . . access to water and other basic infrastructure needs.
Narrowing the Focus
Unless you are a well-established author, like Brandon Sanderson, you’re probably going to want to make some tough choices about what to elevate in your story. This has everything to do with the story. The core of your story will help you decide what elements of worldbuilding are the most important.
The Hunger Games is a great example of making tough choices. While the world is wonderfully rich, Collins does not talk about every single worldbuilding element to the same degree. While food is greatly detailed (signifying the constant struggle for basic caloric intake), as well as fashion (signifying the over-the-top silliness of fashion and “brand” for someone who is going to fight to the death), other worldbuilding elements are less detailed.
We don’t spend much time reading about money’s appearance or transportation. We know that there’s a barter system, but also money is used, and we see that a train exists, but that’s about it. Obviously, the author knows about both the money system and the transportation, but those elements are not critical to the story.
More about this in the third article in this series!
Making it Interesting
In the next article, we’ll talk about what professional authors do to elevate their stories by using the above worldbuilding research. Find out what questions they ask themselves and how they twist the world to make it interesting for readers.