My Personal Process: Worldbuilding, and Where to Start?

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.

Speculative Fiction

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?”

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. If you have a magic system, how does that work? What are the effects of magic on this society’s logistics and culture?
  4. 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.
  5. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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! 🙂

March Goals Recap

Happy Easter! Thank you for being patient with the delay in my posting schedule from Friday to today. I wanted to observe Good Friday with my family, and didn’t think it was appropriate to post this at the same time, so I waited to publish it until after the holiday. A new post on worldbuilding will be going up on this upcoming Friday too, so that will get me back into the regular schedule.

That being said, I’m happy to show that I did win this month after two relatively unsuccessful months. The spring semester is still in full swing, and with the way my classes coordinate, I have an exam in a different subject nearly every week. In February, I didn’t realize this, and was way too ambitious with how many goals I set. I also tried to multitask, so I made incremental progress but didn’t get anything actually marked off. Keeping that in mind, I was able to change my approach for this month, and I think it worked pretty well!

14 / 22 goals overall

5 / 7 Writing Goals

Finish “Four Hours for Bridge Four” – this is my Stormlight Archive fanfic. It’s mostly drafted, but the last 4 chapters need to be fixed up before I can post them, and I didn’t have time to get around to that unfortunately.

Write two chapters of “Lost and Found Again” – this is my poor Newsies fanfic that’s on indefinite hiatus while I prioritize other stories. Since I chose to not multitask and prioritize Storge, I wasn’t able to do this either.

Draw 15 things – Class doodles save the day again! As always, you can check out my OC art on my Instagram under the “my art” highlight on my page.

Finish Mort / start reading Oathbringer – Audiobooks save the day again! I’m in part 3 of Oathbringer now and I’m losing my mind a little, but I’ll stop myself there before this post turns into a Stormlight rant lol

Finish TCOMC series and publish all the March posts on time + canva graphics – this is a goal all of it’s own because that series (and the graphics to go with it) were a huge time commitment. I’m very happy with how it turned out, and that it was pretty well received! I promise I’ll pick a shorter book for April’s Worldbuilding Reading Rec though. (In case you missed it: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)

Post 2x a week on Instagram – I’m very bad at remembering to do this so I post reminders, and sometimes ignore the reminders, but I did manage to do this! I think I’m going to combine the goals relating to the website and IG for April because I’m starting to think of them as two sides of the same coin.

Edit 5K of Storge – I know 5000 words (that’s right, not 50,000 like during NaNo), is a really small amount in the grand scheme of things but this felt like a huge achievement to me. I’d stalled on this story because editing is so time consuming and reading my old writing is a special kind of painful, so overcoming the mental block was a big deal. The thing that helped pull me out of being stuck was a non-writer friend asking how the story was going out of the blue. For as much as I ramble online, that honestly took me by surprise, especially when he expressed his interest in reading it one day. I ended up writing two entirely new scenes for chapter four and coming up with some fun worldbuilding lore. Really hoping to keep up that momentum in April!

In April, I’ll also be working on Runaways for Camp NaNoWriMo! I set a pretty small goal (only 10K words out of the planned 35K), but I’m hoping to overshoot that, rather than miss a larger goal by a small margin. As of the day I post this, April 5th, I’ve already got about 3000 words done! Good luck to everyone else doing nano, and let me know what you’re working on in the comments! 🙂

Runaways: A WIP Intro

Summary:

Cecilia disappeared. She didn’t wander off following fireflies again. She isn’t hiding in the library, and she couldn’t go out into the storm last night. No, Hannah is sure that faeries stole her sister, and she’s taking the search into her own hands. Armed with their father’s green coat, a steel pocket knife, and a red string tied round her ankle, she stomps into the first mushroom ring she finds to demand her best friend back. Soon she finds herself on a dangerous and extraordinary adventure, navigating between the Seelie and Unseelie courts and trying to find her way back home before dinner.

Main Characters:

Hannah: 13 years old, totally mundane human, and the oldest in her family. Clever, unconditionally loving, and protective. She’s got Pure Underdog Fairy Tale Protagonist energy with a heaping side of Too Curious For Her Own Good.

Cecilia: Supposedly 10 years old, runs away into the forest one Halloween to find the Seelie court and protect her family from a horrible fate. She’s mischievous and quick witted, but likes nothing more than climbing into bed with her older sister to read stories long after the lights are supposed to be out.

The Taken: A mysterious girl with no name who attacks Hannah when she enters the faerie woods. She looks human, but wields vicious magic and answers to an entity called The Piper.

The Piper: A boogeyman, one of the unseelie court. One of those creatures parents invoke to convince young children to behave.

Setting:

This takes place in a vaguely modern-day Earth. Hannah and Cecilia live in the countryside in an old farmhouse with their parents. They have a big garden, and woods in the backyard that are also home to a tiny hidden faerie realm. The Seelie and Unseelie courts are (broadly speaking) the benevolent but still dangerous, and actively malicious faeries respectively. They have an uneasy truce, but in the times when they did war with each other for power, the immortals didn’t want to die for the conflict. Instead, they steal changelings to do their dirty work, since it’s so much easier to let the mortals do that sort of unpleasant fighting. The faeries they leave in the child’s place act as spies and keep the humans from getting involved. The practice has fallen out of use for some time, but bold unseelie still steal children occasionally for their own uses. Even though this great cosmic sort of battle is taking place in the backdrop, the story just focuses on the sisters.

Faeries have all the magic powers and wish granting abilities as the old legends and stories. Sometimes they’ll bestow magic unto a particularly exemplary human that finds them, but always beware of a hidden “catch.” These people are known as “powers.” This story takes place at Halloween and so there are cameos from different minor nature spirits and the aesthetic has a lot to do with the weather changing and fog on the fields and red leaves fringed with frost. Some of these background characters include folk heroes, various trickster spirits, and “Jack,” one guy from the the mid 1100s that was clever and unlucky enough to star as protagonist in no less than six faerie tales.

Basic Informaton:

Genre: Portal Fantasy novella, middle grade/YA

Themes: Family, sisterly love and bonds, escaping evil

POV: Third person deep/limited, mostly from Hannah’s POV

Status: Outlined, using a combination of the Hero’s Story and a 3-act-structure

Goal: 35K words, 12 chapters. Hopefully I’ll be finished with drafting by the end of the year! My plan is to try to self-publish this story first, so I can make all my rookie mistakes on a different WIP from Storge. I know there’s a lot to learn about the process and I’d like to grow my author’s platform with a smaller standalone debut novel before releasing The Laoche Chronicles. For comparison, Storge has 7 POVs, 4 suplots, and is 110K+ words long. I now have three original projects going at the same time: drafting this story, editing Storge, and outlining the Laoche Chronicles, so I’m going to do my best to divide my free time between them so that I can get done on time. Wish me luck!

January Goals Recap

General goals: 20/36 – WON BY TWO
Creative goals: 6.5/13 – WON WITH NO MARGIN

I barely scraped past the mark this month, but this is also more goals than I’ve ever set before – ten more than my usual average of 26. Because I was on winter break for most of this month, I wanted to be as productive as possible on my creative projects, since I expected to have more time for them. I also started a new job with a wildly unpredictable schedule, so my designated writing time was a lot more scattered. Ironically, I might be more productive during the semester when I know I have an hour each morning to write before classes. I’ve posted the rest of my goals to my studyblr, which is also where I’ll be updating on a day-to-day basis for the new semester! If you’re curious at all about how this fantasy writer is also a chemical engineering student, you can go check that out.

Now the question is, What have I learned from my over ambitious goal-setting in January? Nothing. My February list has 34 goals. Wish me luck!

  1. Get my computer fixed – My computer had the problem of dying almost immedietly every time I took it off the charging cord, so I bought a replacement battery for it and now it only dies after about 3-4 hours. Still not great, wouldn’t work if I were running around campus, but just fine for moving from my card-table desk to the kitchen table for a change of scenery. Hopefully I won’t have to buy a new one for another year!
  2. Edit 15k words of Storge – I returned to re-writing in the last two weeks of the month, finishing 3216 words. This let me finish chapter 3, which was the difficult one I put on hold after my grandfather passed away in December. I’m glad to be past it, and happy with how it turned out in the end. I also spent a lot (a lot) of time doing line-edits, starting from the beginning of the book! Using the free version of ProWritingAid for this, which only lets me do 500 words at a time, and I finished ~4600 words this way.
  3. Beta read for Jana – @siarven‘s Dreams Shadow is fantastic! I really enjoyed reading it and I highly reccomend checking out all of Jana’s work.
  4. Write 5 chapters of Lost and Found Again – I didn’t even touch this story because the muse had other ideas. See below for the other fanfic I did work on!
  5. Fill in holes on brain dump sticky board for Laoche/figure out end of series– We’re getting there! My best friend helped me figure out several plot holes and the overal structure for the trilogy. Now I need to flesh it out into a proper outline, but I have an important starting place now!
  6. Schedule writing time so I have a routine for it – My “on call” job meant that planning out a schedule in advance was impossible, but I have a routine scheduled for February. Still doesn’t count as a check-off though.
  7. Rope my sister into doing photoshoot with books and stuff so I have photos to use for writing IG – She’s been busy with school and this is low priority, but I took my own photos periodically. No check-off for that either.
  8. Schedule all of January’s posts for website and make Canva posts in advance – all 5 of them went up on time! I’m really proud of some of these! Here’s some links so you can go back to any you might have missed: 2020 Year in Review + 2021 plans, How I Develop Characters, Character Voice in The Chronicles of Prydain, Storge’s First Scene, and an Interview with Katie Koontz on her story Groundhog Day and one of her OC’s Bolte
  9. Turn IG into free professional account and post 2 times a week  I don’t understand IG at all but this has been a good WIP of it’s own!
  10. Read 1 HG wells story from book I got over vacation – These aren’t even that long I just got distracted
  11. Read Oathbringer – this is a *really* long book so I didn’t finish it but I made good progress
  12. Read Mort – I’m halfway through! If I bothered to focus on any one book I might have actually marked off one of these goals.
  13. Draw 15 things – I did a lot of character studies this month, trying to figure out the designs for my Laoche cast. This goal is a constant to keep myself working on this skilll whenever it’s not Inktober, similar to how my monthly word count goals keep me writing whenever it’s not NaNoWriMo!

Other things I did that weren’t on the list

Normally if something grabs my attention in the first day or two of the month, I’ll change my list to include time for it later. These two did not fit that category, but I spent enough time on them that I wanted to give them an honorable mention.

  • Four Hours for Bridge Four – I started a new Stormlight Archive fanfic! It’ll be a short work and I’m really excited about this one, since it’s a collection of six one-shots based off the verses a sea shanty I rewrote to be a work song for the Bridge Four characters. I’ve drafted over 4.5k words of this already and hope to finish posting it in February. I reread half of Way of Kings doing “research” for this fic.
  • I also did a read-aloud for my younger siblings of The Book of Three – the first book in The Chronicles of Prydain. It’s a reread for me so it doesn’t count towards any goals, but it was really fun to revisit these characters, do all the voices, (almost lose my voice), and watch their reactions to hearing the story for the first time.

That’s all for today! Are you enjoying these goals updates or would you rather see me do something else? What sort of projects have grabbed your attention and demanded all your time? Tell me about your writing goals in the comments and thanks for reading! 🙂