An Introduction to World-Building
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If there's anything I've learned as a writer, it's that building a fictional world is easier said than done.
When well-developed, a fictional world feels realistic and approachable, even if it contains otherworldly elements such as magic or time travel. But behind the approachable facade lies the blood, sweat, and tears of the world's creator, who hand-crafted everything from its geography, religions, cultures, technologies, political systems, and more.
Each of these elements affects how the story's characters see and experience their world, and so writers who are looking to craft incredible fictional worlds of their own can't afford to skimp on the details. But just what details should be considered? Let's break them down in today's introductory guide to world-building!
Two Methods for World-Building
There's no right way to go about building a fictional world. However, generally speaking, there are two main approaches you can take to simplify the process. Let's break them down below!
Approach #1: The Inside-Out Method
If you already have a story premise in mind, there may be one or two key functions your fictional world must serve to fulfill that premise. With the Inside-Out approach, you begin world-building by developing those functions first. Once you've worked them out, you then craft the remaining elements of your world, paying special attention to how the key functions you've outlined affect each one.
For example, if you want to write a story about a group of people who can control time, you'd first work out the limits and abilities of those people's time-bending powers. You'd then consider how their powers affect their cultures, religions, government and technologies, and so on.
Approach #2: The Outside-In Method
With the Outside-In technique, you begin by crafting a general understanding of your world's geography and boundaries. You then work to create increasingly specific details for your world. Boundaries become territories, become countries, become governments and cultures and so on...
In most cases, authors who use this technique first create their worlds in-depth. Only when their worlds are relatively complete do they begin to craft characters and stories to tell within those worlds.
Both of these methods can result in original and fully-developed worlds, as can any method in between. Which method is best for you will likely depend on how developed your plot and characters are before you begin to world-build.
Don't be afraid to try out different techniques over time, however. Sometimes it takes a bit of exploration to discover the methods that work best with your creative process.
The Key Elements of a Successful Story-world...
Now that we've outlined how to go about building a fictional world, let's break down the specific elements that must be addressed to fully develop a world that will blow readers away.
Geography covers a lot of ground (yep, I went there!). When writing speculative fiction, you must create every last detail of your physical world, which, naturally, can be pretty overwhelming. So, let's break it down together, shall we?
1. Locations. Consider the general layout of your world. It might be a good idea to break out a sketchbook and pencil at this point. Begin by creating continents and countries or planets and solar systems. Keep in mind that most borders aren't uniform. Your world's territories will likely vary in size and shape.
2. Water. Without water, there wouldn't be life. Identify sources of water in your story-world: oceans, rivers, springs, lakes, bogs, and so on. You'll likely want to centralize towns and cities around freshwater sources and/or consider how freshwater is distributed across the landscape.
3. Landscapes. Speaking of which, your world probably isn’t one big flat expanse of empty land. Now's the time to sketch out natural landmarks, such as mountains, valleys, deserts, forests, plains, hills, and wastelands.
4. Climate. Weather affects many aspects of daily life. Think about how seasons will work in your world. Which places remain hot or cold year-round and which places get a taste of all four seasons?
Consider how the weather affects the growth of plant life, which in turn affects where and how animals live in their environment, humans included.
Our world has hundreds of thousands of cultures, both modern and ancient. Thankfully, as writers, we only need to develop the cultures that are relevant to our characters and their journeys. Here are a few aspects to consider when crafting cultures of your own:
1. Power. There are very few cultures in our world that truly exemplify equality for all. Most cultures have systemic power structures, in which people of a specific gender, religion, sexuality, and/or race hold power over other people groups. Take time to consider the power structures within your own cultures now.
2. Government. The group that holds systemic power within a culture likely also controls its government. Therefore, consider how the governments within your world run as a result of their systemic beliefs. What laws rule the land? Who creates those laws? How are laws enforced, and what rights do the people within each culture hold?
3. Religion. Most cultures practice one or two dominant religions, and religion therefore has a large affect on the culture's laws and social norms. When creating a religion, consider the deity(s) being worshipped, how worship is performed, and what the religion preaches about good, evil, and the afterlife.
4. Art and Entertainment. Culture has a massive impact on arts and entertainment, and vice versa. Take time to consider who creates the art within your culture, what types of art are created, and how that art is valued.
Similarly, what sports, races, fights, and games are played by the people in your culture? Are there professional actors, comedians, musicians, or magicians? How do these people live and who pays to see them perform?
5. Relations. Cultures frequently clash, and so conflict ensues. After developing your world's cultures, consider what each culture thinks of the others. Which laws and norms in one culture are reviled by another? Which are envied?
Conflict aside, also consider how cultures interact in terms of economy. What resources abound within the territory belonging to each culture, and how might those cultures use their resources to barter, trade, or otherwise increase their wealth and ensure a certain quality of life?
#3: Social Classes
Differing social classes naturally arise within cultures, and may also be enforced the government. Which social classes characters belong to, however, will greatly affect their experiences and worldview, so let's take time to create them now.
1. Divisions. Begin by identifying the boundaries of each social class within your culture. Are the classes defined by wealth or some other defining factor? If magic exists in your world, consider who controls it and how that might effect the way people are divided.
2. Food and Drink. Being necessary to survival, food and drink are often valuable commodities and can greatly define the social classes within a culture. Consider the types of foods each of your social class's can access, and how that affects their health and lifestyle.
3. Professions. The professions that are generally available to each social class within a specific culture in your world will depend on the type of fictional world you're creating. Consider now what fields of work must be fulfilled in order for your story-world to run smoothly. Which peoples fulfill each role?
4. Appearances. Appearances are powerful tools in defining social power. Consider what materials are available to each of your cultures' classes for use in clothing and adornment. What can each social class afford? What are the popular styles within each class?
Consider as well how the people within each social class may vary in skin tone, build, coloring, hairstyle and other physical defining features.
Unless it is newly-born, your fictional world will likely have a good deal of history. Fortunately, you don't have to know the entire history of your story world in order to write a good story. Instead, simply craft the elements that most affect your story's plot and characters. Here are a few aspects to consider:
1. Traumatic Events. Wars, famines, and plagues can all have a major impact on a culture and its people. Consider whether any of these traumatic events have recently struck your characters' people and how that changed the face of their landscape, population, laws and norms, and beliefs.
2. Power Shifts. If your fictional country or religion has recently come under new leadership, contention is inevitable. Consider how this shift in power has affected the culture's laws and norms, and whether certain people groups may choose to rebel against this change.
It isn't a requirement for your fictional world to contain magic, but if it does, you'll want to spend some time hashing out the boundaries of your magic system. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to get the ball rolling:
- Who receives magic in my world?
- How do these powers manifest themselves?
- Is magic wild or can it be controlled?
- Can magic be learned or are people simply born with it?
- Where does magic come from?
- Are items such as wands or staffs needed to use magic?
- Is magic practiced or shunned by religious leaders?
- Do any of the social classes fear or ban magic?
- Is there good and evil magic?
- Can magic be defeated or destroyed?
Technology can be an even more complex aspect of world-building than magic. If you're basing your fictional world's technology off a specific era of human history, you'll want to do your research.
If, however, you're creating a futuristic story-world, here are a few questions you can ask yourself to begin defining your world's technology
- What technologies do people use to communicate?
- What technologies do people use to travel?
- What powers technology?
- What technologies have been developed solely for entertainment?
- What technologies have been developed to fulfill people's everyday needs?
- What is weapons technology like?
- Who created these technologies?
- Who can afford these technologies?
- How does technology affect education?
- What technologies does the government utilize to control the population?
Beyond World-Building Basics...
Today, we've covered some of the most important facets of a well-developed fictional world. World-building as a whole, however, can be an incredibly complex and personal process. You may wish to delve into even further detail or consider creating additional elements such as fictional languages, otherworldly races, unique species, and so on.
It's plain to see how overwhelming the world-building process can become. It doesn't take much for it to become a never-ending exercise. More than anything, however, I find it important to remember that world-building should always benefit the story at hand.
Not every detail you create for your story-world must or should end up on the page, though you're certainly welcome to create as much detail as you like. But first and foremost, you should always focus on crafting the details that affect who your characters are and how they will see and experience their world.
Ensure your world-building serves your narrative, writer, and you can't go wrong. Happy building!