Building Strong Sci-Fi/Fantasy Worlds
Let’s be honest: worldbuilding is intimidating. You’re basically creating something from scratch, and when you compare that to how wildly big and diverse our real world is, that can become a daunting task. That doesn’t mean you can’t create your own big and diverse world, however; you just need to know what elements to keep in mind when building your world from the ground up.
First of all: don’t worry about getting everything down at once. All of my worldbuilding comes in layers as I revise. The first draft will have maybe 30-60% of the worldbuilding done — whatever minimum amount I need to move everything along. Then, in subsequent revisions, I’ll discover more and fill it out. This is the part where you add more to your map/notebook/worldbuilding doc.
So, where on earth do you start?
It can differ from writer to writer. For me, I like to make a simple, (usually quite ugly) map of the world I have in mind. I fill things out as I go, like cities and rivers and the names of oceans. But for someone else, they might start with an idea for a certain culture, or festivals, or a language.
No matter where you start, there are certain things you need to figure out when you expand on your worldbuilding. Below, I’ve created a list of the most important questions you should ask yourself:
A. How do they dress?
- Think about the climate in which they live. Do they wear sleeveless tunics in a desert? Do they have fur-lined coats in a snowy mountain town?
- Are there certain articles of clothing or jewelry that are unique to this culture?
B. What language do they speak?
- It might be a good idea to do some research on linguistics. Create a list of common nouns, verbs, pronouns, determiners, and prepositions for any made-up language you choose to create.
- Please note that if you’re making up a new language and basing it on one from our world, try not to use real words from that language.
C. What do they consider polite? What do they consider rude?
- Take a look at our own world and how certain gestures can mean two completely different things depending on what country you’re in.
- Are there rituals or manners that are second nature to your characters? For example, when visiting an elder, do they bring some sort of offering?
D. What food do they eat?
- Again, consider climate and geography. Where a city/town/etc. is located will determine food sources, i.e. fishing, farming, hunting.
- What does food mean in this culture? Are there any spiritual or personal or societal meanings? What do the rich eat, and what do the poor eat? What’s a luxury, and what’s easily available?
E. Any festivals/holidays of importance?
- You can research some real world festivals and holidays to get inspired to create your own. What do these holidays mean to the people? How do they celebrate, dress, and eat on these days?
A. How is each country/state/planet run?
- This is where historical research really comes in handy. There are a bunch of different ways to take this: monarchy, oligarchy, aristocracy, a republic, etc.
- Focus on each country/planet at a time. How is it run? Is it broken up into states, or regions? What is the hierarchy of leadership?
- What does law enforcement look like?
B. How does it affect the citizens?
- Are they content or bitter with how they’re being run? This could lead to some interesting plot elements.
- What are some laws that affect how they live their lives?
C. What are relationships like with other countries/states/planets?
- Are they diplomatic? Are treaties being observed? Is a war going on? Are relations with another country tense?
- Are there any important connections, such as a strategic marriage between foreign dignitaries?
A. Is this a poor place, a rich place, a minimalist place, an extravagant place?
- This kind of ties back into the “government” section above. Is this country/planet/state/what have you suffering from debt, or maybe trying to pick themselves back up after a war or natural disaster?
- Who has money, and who doesn’t? Why? How does it change their lifestyle?
B. What might they best be known for? i.e. mining, manufacturing, military.
- A pretty straightforward way to differentiate your places. Bonus points if you can tie this into the plot somehow.
C. What is their currency?
- Coins, bills, jewels, food, trading, wishes, magic?
D. Where does their clothing, food, etc. come from?
- Who makes the clothes? Who brings the food? How are houses built?
A. What religion is prominent in this country/state/planet?
- Is there a main religion surrounded by smaller, less-observed religions?
- Or is this place more secular, and doesn’t have a religion at all? Do they have philosophies instead, or some moral code?
B. Are there conflicting religions within the same region?
- How do they conflict, and how do the people react?
- What about conflicting religions from different regions? How would observers of those opposing religions act when thrown together?
C. Does this religion impact the government at all, or is it separate?
- Does the ruling body make decisions based on your region’s philosophies, or does that have no bearing in matters of state?
V. Magic and Technology
A. Does everyone have magical ability, or only some people?
- Who has magic, and why?
- Do people need totems, icons, potions, or trinkets to perform magic, or is it more innate?
- What is the origin of these magical abilities?
- How much do non-magical people understand about magic?
B. What are the effects on society?
- Is magic shunned or embraced or revered? How do rulers/a government factor into it?
- Are there any leading organization within these magical circles, or is it a free-for-all?
C. Does this world have technology?
- How advanced is it? Is it accessible to the public, or do only certain places/people have it? Is it a luxury or a staple of life?
- Does technology blend with your magic in any way? Do they complement one another or are they opposing forces?
- What are the societal implications?
A. What does “diversity” mean in this world, and how are you portraying it?
- Are you basing a culture on one from our world? First, ask yourself: why this culture? How are you portraying it?
- Research, research, research. Hire sensitivity readers. Cultural appropriation is a real thing, even in SFF, and you don’t want to harm your readers.
- As you research, take a look at your sources. Are they written from the point of view of someone from this culture, or from the point of view of an outsider/colonizer?
B. Are there marginalized groups? Are they the same marginalized groups we find in our world, and if so, why are they marginalized in this world?
- If you’re making a world from scratch, ask yourself why certain groups are discriminated against. Also, ask yourself: do they need to be discriminated against? What if there was no discrimination in this country/state/planet?
- Is there discrimination happening within the same country/state/planet, or between different ones?
- Are they being discriminated against for reasons other than race/sexuality/disability? i.e. magic, nationality, religion.
C. How is race/sexuality/disability perceived? What are the pros of these in this world? The cons?
- How does one country/planet perceive the other in terms of their differences?
- Are there certain laws protecting people, or harming them?
- Are you keeping in mind and/or questioning the perceptions we enforce or dispute in our own world?
You definitely don’t need all of this to create a thorough and engaging world. Figure out what elements are most important to you, the story, and the characters, and then go from there.
Remember that you are the creator of this world. What you say goes. Pay attention to detail, look for the connective tissue, and find elements that help shape your characters and plot. The more devoted you are to crafting this world, the more tangible it will feel to your readers.