Top 5 Tips to Worldbuilding
The secret weapon of all great writers of fantasy and science fiction is effective worldbuilding. Almost every best-selling author in these categories has amazing worlds with exceptional depth and complexity. The challenge is how to do it.
When I started my debut novel, I didn’t think too hard about world building. It was supposed to be simple. I wanted to focus all my attention on the conflict and nothing else. Why would anything else matter? I learned from a rather pointed comment that worldbuilding does matter. As a reader, it makes so much more sense now. Why should anyone care about the outcome of the war if there wasn’t a world to return home to?
Creating a world that my heros fought for instantly ramped up the conflict. After all, if they failed, a little girl would die with a broken promise. Chilling, isn’t it? That’s what effective worldbuilding is. It heightens the story to untold levels, making readers rip through the pages to find out what happens next.
Pro Prep Work
Before diving into the top 5 tips to worldbuilding, there are a few things that can save your bacon down the road.
Balance in the Little Details
Writing is all about the little details. For example, many new writers make the mistake of being inconsistent. Having a character stand from the same chair twice is embarrassing.
In the case of worldbuilding the little details are overwhelming. Just think about our world: billions of people populate the earth, there are thousands of unique cultures, millions of different animals, enormously different political and social structures around the globe, and more. Trying to write everything would be impossible.
It is equally important to remember this with your own worldbuilding. Trying to identify every single detail about the way your world operates will drive you mad and more importantly keep you from writing the story that takes place there. As you formulate your ideas, keep an eye on how obsessed you are becoming with the details.
The Best Ideas
You will have hundreds of ideas. This is a magnificent aspect of writing; however, not every one idea will pan out. Use my top 5 pro tips several times for the same story and pick out the world that is the best in which to found your story.
A substantial percentage of writing is research. Even the most fanciful world will require research. If you are planning to base your world on something that already exists (like medieval Europe) then you have to do your research to make sure that what you are adding or taking away from the period is valid. Making too large a change can break your world and can confuse the reader, which is almost never a good omen.
Top 5 Pro Tips
It’s easy to get overwhelmed when trying to develop a new world. The best place to start is by establishing core concepts, or aspects/attributes that the culture revolves around. In the United States, a core concept is freedom. Most of its laws and structure revolve around protecting the freedom of its people.
Core concepts are simple. Just a single word or two that lay the foundation for the rest of your world’s social structure. A few examples are freedom, safety, unity, individuality, and equality. When it comes to execution of this core concept in a government or social structure, there can be a wide range of options.
Continuing with the example of the US, it’s easy to see throughout history where laws were altered to better fit what the belief of what freedom was and at the time. Preceding the civil war slavery was legal, segregation, prohibition, laws on firearm ownership, same-sex marriage, have all altered the level of perceived freedom of the people.
To truly add realism to your story, give different core concepts to the different “countries” of your story. It may be negligible differences between cities—like the difference between freedom and individuality or unity and equality, but those differences will bring realism to your story.
Once you’ve picked a phrase you want to use, try designing a map that suits it. If you use my process of mapmaking, you’ll have a solid outline of your world within an hour.
You don’t have to be a spectacular artist to make a map of your word. All you need is a piece of paper, pencil, and a bag of your choice of m&m’s/skittles/uncooked elbow noodles/goldfish.
Take your paper and put it on a flat surface. Dump your bag on the page in random spots. Once you have a satisfactory amount of material covering your page, look at it as a whole. Are there areas you don’t like? Push the medium around until it forms a shape you love.
Once you’ve shaped your landmass(es) carefully outline them with your pencil. For a more jagged coast follow the material closely, for a softer coast keep your lines loose.
If using a material with color variations (like skittles) you can assign colors to land features.
***Pro tip: if you know you want more of one feature, use more of that color or assign a radius area to that color.***
Pick one color at a time and outline that land feature. I start with the most common feature and work my way to the more specific ones.
As you mark off areas, put material away. This saves your time and helps show you where you have or haven’t marked already.
Once all your features are marked and your materials put aside, you have the option to fill in features, add detail work, or leave it as is. The point of this map is to show you where things are in relation to each other and help you have a better understanding of what your world looks like. If it isn’t “pretty” don’t worry, you don’t have to show it to anyone.
On its head
One of the fastest ways to generate ideas is to take the core concept of a society and turn it on its head.
America is such an easy target for this, but let’s get even closer, more personal. Let’s look at the New York City archetype. This is not intended to say that all New Yorkers fall into this summary, simply that this one perception of the culture. Ordinarily New York is seen as a city of harsh speed. Everyone has a schedule to keep and if you aren’t on it, you’re in the way of it. Because of high demands of a dense population, it is referred to as the concrete jungle, and one has to be tough enough to survive its playground.
If we were to turn this on its head for a fantasy story, we’d consider inverting some hard elements. Instead of a focus on practicality, structures could be developed for beauty. The hustle of everyday life could remain the same, but interrupted by distractions of performing artists. Rather than hard fast schedules, it would be interesting to see what would become of the city should a little more external observation be made.
While the overall aspects of a busy city remain the same, there are drastic opposites that create something unique.
This is by far my favorite technique. When I first started writing, this was how I came up with ideas. And by I, I mean my brother and I. We would spend hours sitting on the floor in the hallway between our rooms playing “what if” with my book.
The game is simple, pick a topic and ask what if about it until you hit an idea you love.
Example): Topic: Animals—prey—deer. I’m not an expert on the animal, but I know they’re herbivores, common in forests, are large game, and are designed to be agile and have a wide field of vision for detecting predators.
First instinct is what if it was a predator? In that instance, speed, and agility are traits I’d likely keep. I’d adjust the direction of the antlers to be better suited for attack, make the eyes sit more forward to lock in on prey, give them teeth for shredding, and paws instead of hooves, at least on the front feet.
This is a good start, but feels like something that’s been done before.
Change the environment
Fix a weakness
Change defining characteristics
Cross with another species
Invert its sleep time
The list could go on forever. Just keep asking questions until instead of a “deer” you have a new creation derived from a deer.
This works for more than just creating new creatures to populate your fictional world. The same can be done to invent unique races of people, cultures, religious beliefs, weaponry, environments, and social structures as well.
At first glance this technique doesn’t make much sense, but if done well can inspire genius. This strategy takes common aspects of the world and makes them rare and vice versa.
Brandon Sanderson’s “Stormlight Archive” does this brilliantly. In Sanderson’s Roshar it’s very uncommon for creatures to have hair like most mammals in our world do.
There’s no debating that Sanderson has a unique and immersive universe composed out of abstract ideas. The common rare technique is just one way he creates such amazing worlds.
Changing the wildlife isn’t the only way this practice can be employed. Any aspect of the world can be made less abundant to create new worlds. Oxygen, water, minerals, natural resources, flora, and fauna, sunlight, habitable biomes, inhabitable biomes, natural gases, even technology can all be adjusted in their rarity to shift your universe into something unique.
It’s not uncommon to run into further questions while practicing “core concepts,” “maps,” “on its head,” “what if,” and “common/rare”. While using these strategies, you may end up creating something that just doesn’t work. There are two solutions to having a broken world.
1). Let it go. If you’re doing your worldbuilding before writing your book, this is the easiest fix to the problem as you haven’t built on a a fragmented structure yet. One of the most important aspects of writing is accepting that not every idea is a good one, AND that’s a good thing. As writers we can see the tiniest slivers of stories in the most mundane of things—sometimes that can be overwhelming—but there’s no error in letting go of the ideas that won’t become much.
2). Fix it. Nice and direct. How is it broken? Figure out what is wrong and gorilla glue that stuff together. It may be beneficial to test the minor details to see if the problem is something that just needs a little more attention.
The next issue that can develop during worldbuilding is it not feeling complete. My top 5 pro tips can be fairly broad in their application, so to give you additional ideas on how to refine your world even further, I’ve listed 3 additional ideas to flesh out the details once you’ve shaped your world.
There is much to be said when it comes to the theme of a book. The same is true for the world you create for said book.
Think about your top three favorite (or the first three that pop in your head) stories. Specifically, focus on the world that the tale takes place in. Write all the things that make it unique.
The first part is to decide on a word or short phrase that describes your world and stick with that word.
Our world has seen some pretty incredible events throughout its billions of years in existence. From the first microorganisms, to the largest of the dinosaurs, to the catastrophic extinction of both. From the early ages of humankind, to wars, industry, diseases, and perseverance, this world has the richest history imaginable. When writing a book that takes place “off world” it is important to know similar details about what your planet knows.
You may get through the general idea of your world and want to dig in deeper. I guarantee these categories to open new avenues of ideas you may have missed in the general sweep.
Laws, punishment, enforcement
When it comes to truly masterful stories, having a unique world is a must. Readers adore new worlds and devour books that give them just that. Making a map for your planet will grant the vision. Using core concepts to pin down the main idea of your realm will plant the seed. Turing current examples on their head will nurture the soil. Asking what if will spout its growth. Applying common/rare will blossom your world in a stunning array of colors.
These techniques are used by every professional author and guarantee their success in effective worldbuilding. Rather than wasting time filling out pages and pages of questions about your world, you should spend your time actually creating it, that’s what these 5 tips do. Rather than giving you pages of stuffy questions, it allows you to BUILD your realm instead of talking about it.
Lastly, don’t get too hung up on the details. It can be fun to dig deeper and deeper into your world. However, as you write your story it can become cumbersome to manage thousands of details about your world. Not only that, but as your story evolves some aspects of your world may change. If you spend too much time focused on the world creation it will be harder to make the needed changes to grow your story.
Hopefully, I was able to help in even the smallest degree and I’m looking forward to sharing the next steps of making a EPIC story with you soon!