A Blog Sized Compendium of Worldbuilding for Fiction
What do Middle-Earth, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Panem have in common?
Lord of the Rings, Marvel and The Hunger Games have, undoubtedly, alluring storylines. But one of the biggest reasons that they are iconic is that they are set in very memorable worlds. The blood, sweat, and tears that the creators have put in to make the world realistic are all in the details. In this article, we will lay the foundation on how you can make your story world gripping.
A story world is the time and space that your story is set in.
Your story world is the foundation of the tales you spin.
It is where your heroes and antagonists reside, it is where stories of valour and bravery are mythologized.
It is the world that your story hinges on.
If your mission is to set your story in a fictional world, it is imperative for you to also build it with a strong foundation. The process of creating your fictional world is called worldbuilding. The idea is to create a world with a comprehensive understanding of its mechanics – geography, history, ecology, politics, culture, etc. Used mostly in science fiction and/or fantasy writing, worldbuilding is a key to providing your reader with an immersive reading experience.
Worldbuilding Automatically Strengthens Your Story
John Truby, in his book The Anatomy of Story, wrote, “A great story is like a tapestry in which many lines have been woven and coordinated to produce a powerful effect.” It’s a pretty cliched analogy, but Truby makes a great point here.
Think of it like this: your story world is a character of its own. It has its own life, far beyond the confines of your characters’ personal lives. It gives context and provide value and reason for the choices that your characters make. Giving your story an in-depth insight into your world’s history and culture makes your creation real.
Part I: Elements to Consider while Worldbuilding
There’s this adage: writing is the closest you can come to playing God. That’s exactly what your task at hand is. You are the master of this world, its omniscient, all-powerful creator. And with that kind of power comes quite a bit of responsibility (sorry, we just couldn’t resist it). Your story world is a complicated web (sorry, again!) of layers and elements.
But don’t worry, we’ll take you step by step.
Having a physical understanding of where a story is set really heightens the reading experience. Locations are the most corporeal element of your story world. Stories cannot happen in abstraction, right? Every story happens in a place at a time. So you cannot let your readers lose a sense of place. Practically speaking, make geography your best friend – if you haven’t already. Here are some of the things you can think about:
- Flora and fauna
- Landscape and terrain
- Sources of water
- Natural resources
Make a map, if you can. That would be pretty cool. (We’ve attached some sources for cartography towards the end of the article.)
Society and Politics
Fictional or real, every person lives within a society. And societies are pretty complex. Since larger socio-political issues like class struggle and misogyny are explored in novels, giving an insight into your story’s social and political setting gives your story context, as well as a justification for your characters’ choices and actions.
This might be the most complex endavour you have ever undertaken, so here are some things to start off with:
- social structures including classes and class divide
- Economy: resource collection, money
- Political structures: governments, government structures, power politics, power relations and clashes.
Identify points of conflict within these societies. If you are writing social science fiction or writing about war, for instance, think about how social struggles affect your characters and their worldviews. For example in The Hunger Games, a lack of resources and neglect from the Capitol prompted Katniss to revolt against her government and eventually become a symbol of resistance.
Culture and History
Stories do not occur in a vacuum. They are the results of long traditions of history and culture. Any world would be incomplete without a history and culture. They the bedrock of human life and your characters will look one-dimensional without such a context:
- Art and entertainment
- Myth and legends
- Food and drink
- Significant historical events + how they have shaped/changed your characters’ lives (Eg: war and change in regimes)
It is one thing to come up with a constructed world for a series of books (or even a book). But it take a tremendous amount of effort and dedication to come up with a language for it. Sone of the most seminal works of sci-fi and fantasy have done exactly that. Elvish, Dothraki and Doublespeak are all examples of constructed languages (or conlangs).
Yeah, even the thought of it is pretty overwhelming right? For now, we’ll pass on the baton to linguists and experts of language constructions. You could start here.
Science and Technology
Are science and technology crucial elements of your universe?
Do you have robots? Do your characters time travel? Is your universe intergalactic?
Whatever the case is, you need science. (You need science irrespective of what you’re writing, to be honest.) Don’t defy basic elements of science like gravity and mechanics. Even if you are going beyond current science, make sure you back it up with more science and, oh, also, make sure you have a VERY good reason for deviating from current scientific trends.
Even laypeople can tell something is off, and readers will be thrown off/put off by a lack of consistency. You don’t have to be explicit about these things, but make the mechanics of your universe evident enough to ensure that there is no cause for question. Logical consistency (even in fictional universes) is key.
Part II: The Two Approaches to Building Your World
There are two ways you could go about building your world:
- If you already have a premise, you must create a world that will enable you to realize your premise in writing. Think about elements that affect your story most, and begin from there. This is known as the inside-out approach.
- Alternatively, you can create your larger world first. Figure out geography, the general mechanics and other systems that you want to be writing about. As your world becomes more and more detailed, you can then think about potential stories within your world. This is known as the outside-in approach.
Part III: Some General Guidelines
- Your world is independent of your story. What this means is that your world, as worlds generally are, is much larger than the story of the characters that you are writing about. The focus may be on your character(s), but the world around them is far from static. What you as a writer need to ensure is to make sure that your characters do not function in a vacuum. Don’t lose sight of the characters and other dynamic elements in your story.
- DON’T DEFY BASIC LAWS OF SCIENCE. Lapses in logic can often be rather glaring and tend to put off readers instantly.
- The Butterfly Effect: Accounting for causal relations is a feature of good storytelling. An air-tight story must be air-tight from the beginning. With proper research and proper worldbuilding, you can achieve both.
- Don’t dump information. An excess of information can make the text sound technical. But you’re writing a story, right? Weave your details within your story: drop subtle hints about your world rather than writing about it directly. The goal is to make your reader think: this could have happened.
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