I mainly write in the fantasy/sci-fi/speculative range, so worldbuilding is a massive part of my writing. Now that my rough draft is finished, I’m researching and brainstorming ways to refine my setting and really make it seem alive. I thought I’d share a few of those tips with you all today.
First of all, what is worldbuilding?
I guess the name is probably self-explanatory. Worldbuilding is creating a world for your story. If you’re writing contemporary fiction, that might be as simple as creating a suburb or a school that doesn’t exist in the real world. If you’re writing sci-fi or fantasy, you might be coming up with an entire planet full of unique ecosystems, history, and cultures.
I’m definitely more on the planet end of things, although I have written stories that took place in modern settings, and one that was partially set on a giant space station. Worldbuilding is almost like creating a character; each world has its own personality, background, and other characteristics that make it unique. Additionally, even though the world itself may not have a goal, your plot or characters probably want to shape it in some way. It’s an integral part of your plot.
You might also have sub-worlds
So you have your main world where all of your characters live, where their society is built, whatever. Sub-worlds, or sub-settings, are the smaller places within your story where your scenes are set. Say your main story world is a big city. Your sub-worlds are your characters’ houses, their jobs or schools, the places where they like to hang out, and so on. Those sub-worlds may not need as much development as your main world, and in fact developing them should contribute to building your main world, but you do need to make sure you give them some attention
Sub-world development is going to depend a lot on your story. If you’re writing a short story and your setting doesn’t change, you probably don’t need to worry about sub-worlds at all. If you’re writing a novel, your characters are probably going to move around. Even if they’re trapped in a cabin for the entire novel, they’ll move–the kitchen becomes a sub-world, the living room is a sub-world, and so on. You might even zero in on smaller settings, so maybe the couch or the shower become sub-worlds. I know this is starting to sound ridiculous, but I’m trying to give you possibilities here. You may not need to go into that kind of detail, but it’s there if you do.
Things to keep in mind when worldbuilding
Obviously, there’s a lot you can consider. I’m just going to give you some highlights today, and maybe we’ll revisit this in the future and go into deeper detail. Some of these may not be relevant for you, depending on the kind of story you’re trying to tell.
Also, sensory description is key. It’s not enough to tell people what something looks like. What does it sound like? What are the tastes and smells like? How does the ground feel beneath your characters’ feet? You need it all if you want to give your readers a complete picture.
This is going to vary a lot depending on the scope of your world. I’d at least look into things like geography and climate so you know what the weather and seasons might be like. Also, what kinds of flora and fauna are present in the ecosystem? What challenges do these things present to people?
History and Culture
What’s the background of your society? How did the people who are in power attain that power? How do their subjects feel about them? Also consider things like religion, festivals, foods, economic systems. How do people dress? What’s a typical family like? Are there traditional gender roles? If so, what are those like? How do people of different races or nationalities behave toward one another?
There’s a lot you can do with this, and it can affect the ways your characters behave and interact. An example I like to use is Dawn Cook (Kim Harrison)’s Truth series, where people who live in the foothills have a problem with feet–if you’re going barefoot you might as well be naked, and nobody eats anything that has feet. The reasoning behind this is never fully explained, and other cultures don’t have the same issue with feet, but it’s something that helps give characters a little more dimension.
Architecture and infrastructure
How are cities and homes built? What’s the difference between a rich person’s house and a poor person’s house? How do people get from place to place? Also, how do they get water and food? What kind of technology exists to make people’s lives easier, how does it work, and who’s in charge of keeping it operational? Again, there’s a lot you can do here.
The things beneath the surface
What’s going on that your characters may not necessarily notice, but you want your readers to see? I feel like this is especially important when your characters are people of privilege–who’s supporting that lifestyle, how do they live, and how do your characters react to them? These are tiny, subtle details, but they can make a massive difference in the way readers interpret your story and your world. Does your protagonist walk by the homeless person on the corner, or do they slip them a dollar? Who’s picking up the trash and cleaning up the messes? What happens to the people on the fringes of society?
You can use this sort of thing to clue your readers in to the deeper details of your world, but you can also use it to set a character up as an unreliable narrator. There are so many options.
Don’t forget to have fun with it
Worldbuilding is another one of those topics that’s extremely subjective and personal. Each story you write will need different amounts of development, and then you also have to figure out how much to show your readers and what you can leave out. It can be a lot, but it can give your story a lot of depth, too, so don’t be afraid to really get in there and build a universe for your characters to explore.
I hope you enjoyed this little overview of worldbuilding. I want to revisit it and break it down even more, so please look forward to that in the future. Tomorrow, though, I’m moving on to another post about research and character development and I hope you’ll join me for that.