When I first started writing this post, I thought it was going to be an easy one to write. When I first started worldbuilding the world of Laoche, I found a bunch of question lists I liked online, and put them together into my own questionnaire that I thought encompassed everything you could possibly need to worldbuild. I’d just copy/paste that list of from my “blanks” document, mess with some formatting to make the enigmatic WordPress happy, and be on with my day. That’s when I stumbled across this website, a comprehensive worldbuilding checklist that includes more details than I could ever hope to come up with. It’s a great resource, and I’ve bookmarked it for future reference, but now I realized that I could just share this instead, and be out of a blog post. Instead, I’ve decided to explain how I decide where to start worldbuilding.
It’s very easy to get caught up in the world past the point where it’s relevant to the story. Big lists of things to consider don’t help with this either, because it’s easy to feel pressured to answer all the questions up front and build yourself a cage made of potential contradictions, or so overwhelmed that you consider switching to contemporary Earth. It’s also very easy to focus on your plot and characters so much you forget to put infrastructure into the background of the world, then struggle to fit in unique settings around the existing story that fit the themes.
I think it’s the most useful to start by asking cause and effect questions like, “What about the world influences the way my characters think?” and “What do I absolutely need to know to inform the plot?” These lists are supposed to be a guide where you can pick and choose what you want to work on, and what works for the story, then ignore the rest to figure out later, so your outline-stage worldbuilding can be as detailed or vague as you need it to be. If you find you need a certain gesture or fashion description as you write, then you can just come up with it on the spot, choosing what makes sense in that moment. Then add a comment or highlight to that section so you don’t forget what you came up with later. Your editing self will thank you for it. That all being said, I want to share my process on how to approach what aspects of worldbuilding in what steps so that I don’t get so overwhelmed and work on the most important things first.
Earth – realism
If you’re writing your story that takes place somewhere on Earth and doesn’t involve any paranormal, portal, or futuristic aspects, I really don’t know why you’re reading an article on worldbuilding but welcome! Your first step is RESEARCH. If you’ve never been to the places you’re writing, google maps is your friend, try to get your information from people who actually live in that area instead of tourist websites, brush up on your history and political current events, and be respectful. If you’re writing historical fiction, have fun going down that rabbit hole of your choosing! I’ve been there before, and it can be very fulfilling but also a little overwhelming and more than a little distracting.
The most important thing to remember is asking yourself “Will this break the immersion if it’s wrong?” If your female character is whining about corsets in an era where every woman wore a corset, that might attract the annoyance of the historical costuming community. If your don’t describe in explicit detail the design of the buttons and which company manufactured them, you’ll probably be fine. Keep your sights on which details are most important to the characters (would this character notice the buttons?) and the plot (are those cuff links foreshadowing because they belonged to the heroine’s late fiance?). For example, when I was writing Newsies fanfiction, I used the Library of Congress Nespaper Search to find headlines because the characters rely on those to sell their wares and make a living, but I didn’t spend time researching the textbook history surrounding the headlines because the characters only care about the headlines (and how they can be “improved”).
I’d also recommend reading books that were published in the time frame and by the demographics that you’re writing about to see what contemporaries cared about! If, by chance, you happen to be writing about early 19th century Europe, I’ve published a summary of The Count of Monte Cristo, which might be a good place to start! (shameless self promo oops. If you’re writing about early 19th century Europe you’ve probably already read TCOMC). If you’re writing in the modern day about a group you’re not a part of, do your research first by consulting those people, and consider hiring a sensitivity reader after you’ve finished drafting to double check you didn’t miss anything potentially offensive.
Familiar, but slightly sideways
This is the category I’d reserve for things such as fairy and folktales, anything with superheros, Urban Fantasy, “Low” Fantasy, anything horror/crime with a paranormal slant, ghost stories, cryptids, and scifi that’s still set on Earth but slightly in the future. That last item could include a lot of cyberpunk, steampunk, “insert-the-aesthetic-punk set on Earth here.” Specifically, this genre is for stories set on Earth with a fantastical or speculative element. If you’re writing a superhero story set on an Earth-like world but with different countries and cities, that would fall into the Speculative Fiction category instead, because that world doesn’t have Earths history and everything that goes with it. If you’re writing this setting, your biggest question will be How do I deal with the line between the familiar the the weird?”
If you’re dealing with a hidden world situation like Harry Potter where there’s a clear line between the wizarding and muggle worlds, you need to figure out how and why those worlds are separated and what happens when something crosses that line. I never actually finished reading Harry Potter because the inconsistent worldbuilding took me out of the story, but this can be really well done like in the movie The Incredibles – it takes a few minutes at the beginning to introduce the characters before the disaster that changed their lives – the legal battles that sent supers into hiding – then shows us the after effects of that event and how the characters are struggling to live with it.
If the line between the familiar and the weird is more blurred, you’ll have to figure out where and how those lines interact. Again, this is where the topic of scope comes up. What aspects of the weird influence your characters day to day lives, thought process, and beliefs? The level of technology, impact on culture, and any prevalent laws/government influence would be a good place to start. For some stories this might be building the city block where your character lives, and for others it might mean figuring out the logistics of inter-planetary military/exploration campaigns. Focusing on the natural cause+effect of any given worldbuilding decision will help guide this process to a natural conclusion and cover any contradictions along the way.
In my story Runaways (introduced here), there are two courts of faeries: the benevolent Seelie and malevolent Unseelie. I need them to be fighting each other, but since they’re functionally immortal unless killed, why would they risk their lives on petty squabbles like that? I realized that if they would want to battle, it would be more convenient to do it with proxys, getting mortals to do the actual fighting for them. So in this story, Unseelie steal human children to be soldiers, and the faeries they leave in their place act as spies. The Seelie don’t like the idea of child soldiers, so instead they give willing humans gifts of magic powers, which is how you get folk heroes. Much of the worldbuilding in this story follows from this basic premise, as I bring that conflict into the modern world, and focus on one family that’s caught up in it. However, since the human world largely doesn’t believe faeries exist, and my characters are children who don’t care about the criminal justice system, I didn’t bother worldbuilding how governments deal with lost human children. That can be filed as a “missing persons” case, if it’s even noticed, and I don’t need to come up with a new law or department that investigates these situations.
Runaways is an example of ground-up worldbuilding, where I started with a world and situation, then found a story in the premise by looking for conflict. I’ve talked a little bit about the “ground up” vs “plot down” method of developing stories in my post about creating characters, and with this sort of worldbuilding, I normally find myself making “plot down” characters. Since I found the plot by exploring changelings, I built my characters to fit the archetypes that I needed to tell the story: one is a human girl going into the fae realm to rescue her sister, one is a fae who grew up in the human world, and one is a human that was taken by the fae and raised in their realm. Their personalities developed by working down from the plot that came out of the world that I built from the ground up.
These are the stories that require the most expansive worldbuilding and most original settings: genres like high fantasy and scifi that takes place in other galaxies. It’s likely that in the course of writing your story, you’ll have to at least touch on nearly every item in the list I linked above, and that’s a lot to tackle all at once. Again, I’d first advise you to look at your plot and see what you need to figure out first, then follow cause and effect from there, but if you don’t know where to even start, this order might help give you an idea. The important question to ask here is “How do these elements relate?”
- Are you writing nonhuman characters with fundamentally different lifespans, anatomy, and physical needs from humans? If so, figuring out the basics of habitat is a good starting place. Society will evolve differently at the bottom of the ocean or underground, so starting with the key geographical factors that your characters will have to deal with will help inform what kind of culture can grow out of it.
- Depending on what resources your new location has, the local government may need to regulate their use or trade for what they don’t have. Depending on how defensible the location is, their military will have to adapt to be good at the terrain, or they may be pacifists because they don’t need to fight often. Their resources will also determine how technologically advanced this society is. What sort of logistics are required as far as things like public transportation and utilities go?
- If you have a magic system, how does that work? What are the effects of magic on this society’s logistics and culture?
- What does the culture look like? What do these people value and how does that effect things like their class structure, education system, and major religions? How do they see outsiders, and what does the average family look like? These fundamentals can be determined by decisions you made in the first three steps, or you can build a society specifically to reflect certain aspects of your character. Resources can also influence more visible aspects of day to day life like the local cuisine, fashion, and stories.
- Now you have a culture! How does it interact with the other cultures/powers nearby?
For example, in Laoche I needed flying characters for plot reasons, so I created the Avians. The thought process for building their city that features in Storge went something like this:
- They could be nomadic, or they would want to settle down somewhere that could accommodate that sort of lifestyle. The world needed to have the right gravity and atmosphere to allow them to fly in the first place, but not be too different from Earth because I also have humans. I decided to make a world with similar gravity to ours, but add a canyon with large deposits of magical materials, including ones with anti-gravity effects.
- Their homes are built into the cliff walls, carved out and balanced on top of each other like a Jenga tower, reaching hundreds stories into the sky, and they can easily get between the sides of the canyon since they don’t have to climb up/down the cliffs.
- Fresh water could come from the river that carved out the canyon but they would need to trade with humans for food. Because they can fly and humans can’t, they could be a military power, but their easily defensible position and sense of justice means they have a strictly pacifist culture. This becomes plot-relevant because there’s a civil war going on amongst the humans, and now my villain can threaten a trade embargo, which might starve the city.
- Magic in this world at this point isn’t very well understood. The resource of magical elements they have are valuable, and they’re willing to trade them. They use the magic to carve their homes out of the cliffs, and become craftspeople, with a strong emphasis on education in magic and the trades. One of my main characters, Acheran, is a charm maker who studies magic in a scientific sense through his art.
- I wanted the culture of this city to be matriarchal, so tying into the education, I developed a university and let the government be run by a council of Magistras who each take care of a different department. Chara is the Magistra of trade, so she’s responsible for dealing with the villain. There’s also legend that the land was won from the humans by a young scholar avian woman in a competition of riddles. They have two religions – a polytheistic one that worships nature spirits of the mountains, river, sun, and air, and a monotheistic one that worships the Artist because of their attention to trades and crafts.
If you’d like to read more about the Worldbuilding of Maaren, I have two posts on that topic (part 1, part 2). That example makes it seem easier than it really was, since in retrospect I can look back and put the process into four steps, but the brainstorming took several months and hoarding inspiration on Pinterest boards. Now though, I know where to start, and which trails to follow, so building the rest of Laoche has been a lot easier because of that four step process. Laoche is an example of plot down worldbuilding. I started with a cast of characters I loved and a plot for them to live out that was built from the ground up, then I looked at the needs of that story and worked down to the workings of the world from there. If you need help with outlining, I also have a post about how I go about that process. Now that I have the important pillars down and the first draft of Storge done, I’ve spent more time focusing on the little details to round out the world in my descriptions. I’ve continued worldbuilding through the editing phase, but now it has a different scope and focus than the whole epic.
I hope these categories give you some perspective and staring points for your project! If you’re looking for other worldbuilding resources, I have several linked in this Writing Help Masterpost. If you’d like, take this as an opportunity to share your favorite lore in the comments. I’d love to hear about my reader’s worlds and how you got there! Thank you for reading, and happy creating! 🙂