Writing a good science fiction or fantasy book requires a good setting. This is setting is usually made up – or partially made up, as in urban fantasy. Worldbuilding is the process of creating such a setting. I’ve created several imaginary worlds and learned a lot while doing so. Here are five tips for people sitting down to create their own world.
#1 Worldbuilding is about conflict
I started worldbuilding my first fantasy world by thinking up some country names. Then, for each country I started creating a long list of its rulers and their partners. Then I added cities and landmarks. And so on, and so forth.
Sound legit, right? Also sounds boring. The thing is, all the information I describe above only comes alive when you salt it with conflict. Two countries aren’t interesting unless they have a contested border. A list of rulers only becomes exciting when three heirs die on the same day and the fourth suddenly comes to power. Cities and landmarks on a map are pretty boring until you name a pass ‘marsh of dead kings’ or something similar.
Instead of starting with boring names, start with conflict. Which countries are there and who are they at war with? What factions does each country have? Those are the important things. The rest is filler.
#2 Imaginary worlds are like icebergs
Are those long lists of names and maps really necessary at all? Well, yes and no. The thing is, a story world is like an iceberg. Only a small part of the world will be visible in your story, but there’s a lot more underneath the surface.
To make a world in a story seem real, it must have depth, meaning there must be more below the surface than you actually use in the story. The invisible part is needed to make the world coherent.
For example, if there was a big war in the country of your story with its neighbors about lumber, you might mention this war in passing. You can also make all the newer houses made of stone, while the older ones are made of wood. Not all readers will put two and two together. However, these kind of details will make your world come alive.
If you fail to do this, you could end up with your writing smelling of the Unfazed World smell.
#3 But don’t let the iceberg sink the story
Worldbuilder’s disease is what happens to writers who spend their time worldbuilding instead of actually writing. That doesn’t mean they won’t produce any stories, just a lot less than they might want. Tolkien only finished two (novel-length) stories in his life, instead spending years crafting his world. Of course, Tolkien isn’t a failed writer. If you spend your days worldbuilding and that makes you happy, then you should. The disease part comes in when you actually want to make stories, but never get around to them.
You only need enough world to make it seem there’s an iceberg below the surface. There doesn’t have to be an entire iceberg. Yes, that seems to contradict the previous advice. The trick is to find the correct balance between the two.
Another danger is that you become so eager to show off your world that you start adding info dumps, which is very bad form.
#4 Expand as you go
My tactic for creating the correct worldbuilding iceberg, is to start with a solid foundation, then start on the story. As I write, I run into missing world details and continue worldbuilding from there.
Of course, adding to your world on the go is also a good way to avoid writing. You can find yourself worldbuilding as a way to excuse writer’s block. I had a good portion of this after writing the first half of my first attempt at my novel Aperture. I only realized after a few weeks that my 30,000 words of story were the problem, and not the world. That ended in me throwing out the entire story and starting from scratch. The upside: I needed almost no new worldbuilding.
#5 Your world needs an angry god
Another trap of worldbuilding is that you might get too smitten with your world. Your story should always come first. If you need to move a city on the map because your story requires it, do it, even if that means throwing out that pretty map. Unless you need to change something that was already in publication, don’t hesitate to change your world.
Sometimes your world needs an angry god – a.k.a. you – to destroy portions of it. Yes, it’s so pretty, and yes it’s so wonderfully crafted. However, the world can start to overshadow the story, or sap the conflict from it. You really want to avoid that. By changing the world that way, you also increase its complexity and depth, often making it more realistic in the process.