My thoughts on Worldbuilding
Create something beautiful from nothing.
There isn’t really a formula for great worldbuilding, so I won’t presume to tell you how it’s done. I can, however, touch on the basics and expand on what they mean to me. There are so many factors that come into play. It’s impossible to come up with a one-size-fits-all method for creating a dense, lived-in world. All the greats accomplish their believable worlds differently and for different purposes, but they use the same basic tools to do this.
This is all just my opinion. People like reading different things. Also, a bunch of these elements overlap so I’ll try to keep things as organized as possible.
Depth. How much worldbuilding does your story require? How much worldbuilding will your style/voice allow? To me, world-building is a blast which is why I can easily overdo it. I constantly find myself breaking up blocky info dumps and removing useless information about places or cultures my characters will never encounter during the story. Exposition should be a trickle as the story progresses. If you drop it all at once, the reader could get lost. It’s kind of like a block of cheese. If you shred it and spread it (I should trademark this), you can make something delicious. It can be difficult to eat the whole block at once. Not that I've tried. Just like exposition, the world you built should be fed to your reader in delicious, bite-sized bits. Your world should also be size appropriate for your story. Some people like a massive world to surround a tight plotline. It makes them feel like the story they are reading exists in an expansive world that can go on unchanged no matter the outcome of the story. A good example of this would be Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie. This can seem overwhelming or clunky if done incorrectly. Joe did this correctly, by the way. It worked perfectly for the story. Some readers generally don’t like this style of worldbuilding. I’m one of them. I think the world should be explored through the characters as they progress through the story. If I’m invested in a character, it’s like I’m experiencing this interesting world through them, with their senses.
Names. Naming places, peoples, races, casts, and factions are important for some authors and they create beautiful names. Tolkien is a prime example of this. Gandalf, Isildur, Rohan, Nazgul, Galadriel, and Legolas are some of the most well-crafted names in fiction. Tolkien knew when to create ancient and complicated names and when to keep it simple, though. Treebeard and my all-time favorite character, Sam have straight forward names in comparison because it works for them. I know Sam’s full name is Samwise Gamgee. Still simple compared to Tolkien’s other ancient-sounding names. Naming is not as important to me. Sure a name should fit a character or place, but the reader will never analyze a name as much as the author will. Fancy names can definitely be overdone. If I come across a name that I could never pronounce, I don’t even read it. My brain tags it as the name that starts with Txi- and that is how I will recognize that character, place or whatever. You could have spent hours naming an ancient ruin on a distant jungle planet Txiechtlan, and the reader won’t even try it out. Most of the time, they will be skipping it and continuing the story. Don’t stress. Don’t even think too hard about it. If you think a place needs a crazy name, give it one. If not, don’t.
Natural setting. What is the weather like in Txiechtlan? What plants or animals are around? What does the terrain look like? A jungle might be full of noisy birds and buzzing insects. A desert could be barren and windy. How does the natural environment affect the rest of the setting? How have the plants and animals adapted to their environment? I have not read The Way of Kings yet, but from what I know so far, Brandon Sanderson handled this well. In a world with extremely high wind speeds and rocky terrain, trees and grasses might develop a way to retract into the ground or pull their branches into their trunks to protect themselves. It’s your imagination. Go wild. Make something crazy and interesting but keep it believable.
Buildings. How do the people of your world shield themselves from the elements? What do the structures look like? Can the people of this world get the building materials required to construct those structures? Do they even have the skills? Vaulted ceilings on giant structures like cathedrals couldn’t exist until the flying buttress was invented. To my surprise, this was a lot later in our history than I assumed; around the 15th century, if I remember correctly. Facts courtesy of my wife, Erin. If you are writing a sci-fi story about deep space colonists who settle on a desert planet similar to mars, it might make sense if they dig their shelters into the ground. You can also look into what technology is in development for habitations on mars. 3D printed houses made from mars dirt are achievable within current technological restraints. How long have these people been settled in Txiechtlan? The new world colonies in my book, Well of Bones, have only been settled by the technologically advance old world nations for a couple of hundred years. Expansion into the frontier is slow going. It wouldn’t make sense for my characters to encounter extravagant cathedrals made from marble or alabaster. As with everything in your story, don’t go overboard. Your character won’t notice flying buttresses unless he/she has never seen anything like it before, or they are an architecture junkie.
History. An extensive history can add a lived-in feel to your world, but the story must be affected somehow. If a space ship full of colonists left earth for their own survival, it might be appropriate to elaborate on why eath could no longer sustain them. Nuclear war? Overpopulation? Oppressive government? Do you even want to specify? If it doesn’t change the story, there really is no need to. Of course, it’s up to you. It’s a personal preference. Just don’t force-feed the reader a block of exposition. Just keep in mind how history affects the story. If it doesn’t, you don’t need it. You can still have hints of historical info to create a more vivid setting like art, architecture, and food. History molds culture and by showing off a culture, the reader can get a taste of history.
Belief system. How does a belief shape your world? Does a snake worshiping cult inhabit Txiechtlan? If they sacrifice every third-born son of each season cycle to the snake god, how would that affect pregnant mothers? Would they be true believers and totally down to give up their babies? Would they try to escape into the jungle? Has this been happening for thousands of years? I’ll use the crusades as an example because they are easy. The crusades happened because the Cristian Europeans of the middle ages were true believers of the pope's word and wanted to retake the holy land in the name of God. The Muslims, on the other hand, wanted to retain control of the holy land in the name of God. This, of course, led to extreme violence. Both the Christians and Muslims attempted to dehumanize the enemy with propaganda. This is just one instance in our history that was almost exclusively perpetrated by belief systems. What belief systems exist in your world, and how do they shape it?
Politics and societal structures. These two are heavily shaped by belief systems. Some other things that came into play, are culture, history, class systems, ethics, and geography. Is your world made up of sovereign city-states or a vast empire under a single ruler? How is a law passed and upheld? How is aid given, if any? How is work done? What does the division of labor look like? Peasants, serfs, warlords, chieftains, a council of elders, democracy, required military service, reserved citizenship. How does anything get accomplished? Robert Heinlein focussed his worldbuilding almost exclusively on describing the political and social systems in Starship Troopers. You can see this a little bit in the movie but of course, the book goes into greater detail. Voting rights are reserved for citizens. One of the ways to gain citizenship is through military service. Not bad right? Wrong. Humans are at war with a brutal insect race that can shoot acid from their faces. If you have not read it, please do. Besides the beautiful worldbuilding aspect of it, the book hits heavily on the dangers of propaganda.
People. How do they interact with each other? How do they react with other races? Do they support their government? Do they fear magic users? How do love and romance work? Are gender roles different from our own? Why? The social structures, belief systems, and cultures shape how we interact with each other. In your world, given the way you created it, how would those people act?
Diversity. This could really be its own subject for a blog post, but for now, I’ll try to keep it short. Diversity is great. People love to see themselves in characters. They connect easier to those of their kind. As a straight, white male, I don’t have any difficulty finding a character who mirrors me at least on a superficial level. Authors have always written straight white males and for that reason, I’m by no means an expert in feeling left out. I also do not like writing what I don’t understand at least to the level in which I’m writing it. All great authors write what they know and if we ever want to get on that level, we need to do the same. That being said, our world is full of different kinds of people, and it would be ridiculous to write a world without diversity. Unless, of course, there is a reason for the lack of diversity. Be careful, though. Don’t include token characters just to check a box. If a character of an interesting race or sexual orientation occurs naturally in your story, by all means, include them. Everyone wants to be represented in fiction. If a gay person occurs organically in your story, by all means, include a gay person, but don’t force it to fit an agenda. The reader can tell a token character from a natural one and they generally don’t like it. If your story is based in the middle ages, a gay character may not be open about their sexuality and therefore might keep it under wraps. It’s just another thing to think about when creating your world.
Science and magic. How does technology affect your world? How does the use of magic affect the advancement of technology? If anybody could remove weeds with their mind, the hoe may not have been invented. That’s an extreme example but you get the idea. How would the ability to heal with magic affect healthcare? On the sci-fi side of things, look around you and notice the problems you face on a daily basis. How might those problems be resolved through technology given 10, 50, 100, 1,000 years? Dune by Frank Herbert is an amazing example of worldbuilding rich in both technology and magic.
Plot. The story you tell. How does my plot fit into this world? Does the plot shape the world? In what ways does the world shape the plot? What are your characters trying to accomplish and how will your world affect them in this task? What are you trying to accomplish as the author? Does this world help you do that?
Basically, observe the world around you and think about how it might look as the world you created. How would you accomplish the goals you have set for your characters? How would you navigate the environment to do so? What unique and interesting things would you encounter along the way? Constantly keep believability in mind. It doesn’t have to be realistic as long as it’s believable.
Thanks for reading my blog. The support means a lot. Please comment below if you would like to add anything. What books have the best worldbuilding? What don’t you like seeing in worldbuilding? If you enjoyed this or found it helpful, don’t forget to like and share.
Also, just a reminder: Well of Bones is still up on Amazon for pre-order for Kindle. Linked below. If you order yours before March 1st, 2020, you can get it for just $3.99. After the official launch date, it will be at the full price: $4.99. If a digital copy is not your style, paperbacks will also be available on March 1st. Check out the Well of Bones page to learn more about it. https://www.authorchasewalker.com/well-of-bones
Of course, when you are done reading it, consider leaving a review on your favorite platform. I would be extremely grateful.