Writers of fiction talk a lot about “worldbuilding.” This process can apply to pretty much all fiction, since for every story, writers must create a believable setting that readers can feel a part of, whether the action is taking place in Philadelphia or on Mars.
However, the term is especially important for fantasy and science fiction writers, since they tend to create entirely different worlds from the one we currently live in.
What Is Worldbuilding in Writing?
The best writers are those who are able to create an otherwise unbelievable environment and make it so realistic that readers are swept into its space, as though it were a real place.
The fictional worlds that sci-fi and fantasy writers build can include magical, medieval worlds, or even apocalyptic dystopias. It may even be our current world, but with certain characteristics that set it apart.
The challenge is making these worlds believable and lifelike enough to lure your readers in.
Why Is Worldbuilding Important?
Your characters do not move, walk, or talk in a vacuum. They need a place to live and do their stuff. The fiction books that we read and the movies and TV shows we watch all take place in their own “world.”
The setting of any story can determine a large part of its impact on readers. For example, the love story of Jack and Rose in the movie Titanic would likely have a much different effect if it hadn’t taken place on a sinking ship.
But fantasy and science fiction novels thrive on the magical and impossible. Building believable alternate worlds is a crucial skill for the fantasy and science fiction writer.
Real World Fantasy vs. Second World Fantasy
Before you start worldbuilding, ask yourself this important question: does your story take place in our world, or an entirely fictional place?
In real world fantasy, the writer sets their story in our present world, here on Earth. The fictional elements come into play through various details that you tweak to highlight the differences (but also similarities) to reality.
Second world fantasy refers to an entirely made-up world. The land of Narnia in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and Middle Earth in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy are classic examples of second worlds.
Second world fantasy writers have the freedom and the responsibility to do whatever they want with their stories. Historical rules do not hold any sway over their decisions.
Helpful questions to guide your worldbuilding of a second world include:
- What are the characters like in this fantasy world?
- Are they the only species, or are there others?
- What language do they speak?
- Is it a planet similar to Earth, or drastically different?
- Is it a magical place?
- What technologies do they have?
How Do You Do Worldbuilding?
Experts hold to two main ways of worldbuilding: the outside-in and the inside-out approach.
In outside-in worldbuilding, you build your world before anything else. You focus on fleshing out the world before you plan your plot, characters, or conflict. You might keep the details in your mind, written out on paper or typed into a file.
The details may include languages, histories, and many more, giving you a structure with which to write the storyline.
For inside-out worldbuilding, you start with characters and build the world around them. Tolkien used this approach when he wrote The Hobbit: he started with Bilbo Baggins, and then built Middle Earth around his story. The same world then housed The Lord of the Rings trilogy with Bilbo’s nephew Frodo.
So how do you build your own world for your story? The following guidelines can help you make your world a realistic, breathable place for your characters.
1. Think about the story you want to tell.
Your world serves your story. Look at the components of the story you wish to tell: what is your point? Who are the characters?
What events will serve to develop your characters? Are you telling a light fantasy, hard science fiction, or a dystopian novel? These considerations will help you decide what kind of world to build.
2. Create a map.
The natural environment will also influence your story, and one important rule in worldbuilding is that the world you create must have logic underpinning it.
You can start by sketching a map of your world for yourself. A fantasy map will help make your book more authentic and plausible.
Many fantasy readers enjoy consulting a map to see where the main characters are traveling within the story.
As you create your map, think about the terrain: are there mountains? Deserts? Rivers? Remember that the landscape of your world will affect the scenes that you write.
For example, in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, the terrain involves a lot of caves and ravines that house the goblins, the main antagonists in the story.
3. Explain the rules.
In worldbuilding, it may be tempting to defy all logic. Truly, in fantasy worlds, the logic may be different than in our regular world, but be sure to explain the rules so your readers know what to expect.
However, don’t pour out all the rules in a prologue. Many readers skip the prologue anyway, and that makes them miss important elements of your story. Instead, weave the rules into the narrative.
4. Research and write.
A sci-fi universe needs scientific principles. If you are writing a sci-fi novel and creating an entire universe, be sure to do your research.
For example, if you are creating a planet with rings like Saturn, you need to understand how that would affect the characters living on that world.
The natural environment in your world will greatly affect how your story goes. However, researching takes time, so you need to know just how deep you want to go.
5. Write a history of your world.
Write a history of your world. A survey detailing as much as you need will help you better understand and develop your world, even if you don’t end up sharing these details with your readers.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the author begins by sharing a detailed history of Middle Earth. This history sets the stage for many of the events that will take place in the main story.
Despite the fantastical characters, this makes the scenes more lifelike and believable.
If your world is our present world, you may write an alternate history. This involves reworking the histories of our current world or recreating it with certain aspects intricately changed. Experts consider building an alternate history as being trickier and requiring more extensive research.
Start with asking yourself “What if?” and consider different possibilities. George R.R. Martin’s The World of Ice and Fire is an informative history of his world, which detailed events that led to The Game of Thrones.
6. Describe the details.
Your world has its own background, so it’s important to describe the details.
The history and natural environment are part of your world, but you also need to describe other details, such as: What is the government like? What is the culture? What kind of technologies are available?
If you’re writing a dystopian novel, consider motivations behind mass-destructive plans.
You may find it helpful to keep a notebook or journal with you so you can write down any details or inspiration as soon as it strikes you.
Even if you don’t write about these details explicitly in your book, they will help you develop your setting more thoroughly, and readers will feel the difference.
Building New Worlds
Your story’s setting is just as important as its characters and plot. Whether you’re creating a new planet or writing about Earth in 500 years, taking the time to thoroughly develop your setting will definitely pay off.
By using these worldbuilding guidelines, you’ll be able to create a world that’s realistic, captivating, and still relatable, no matter where it is or how many eyes its inhabitants have.
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