Not-so-shameful confession: I’m something of a “pantser” when it comes to writing, especially fiction. When starting a new project, I tend to jump right in without a plan or outline to guide me. At most, I will have a scene or a character in mind that I want to explore to see where it leads, and I love the freedom that this approach affords. However, once I decide that it’s an idea worth pursuing seriously, it’s time to go back and do some “worldbuilding,” organizing what I’ve written so far and filling out the little nooks and crannies of the setting to make it more real for both writer and reader (but not, necessarily, more realistic – for instance, the late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld universe is highly unrealistic from the standpoint of physical possibility, but the setting itself has a wonderful sense of reality).
There’s tons of information about worldbuilding you can find with a simple Google search (like this article, which reinforces some of the same ideas I’ll discuss momentarily), but for me, worldbuilding is a little bit like playing a game of twenty questions with myself about the setting and characters. These are the questions I usually start with:
- Who lives in this place?
- What kind of government do they have, and why?
- What is the dominant religious institution, and why is it dominant?
- What are the competing faiths, and what kind of relationship do they have with the dominant one?
- How does the military function, and how much influence does it have over civilian life and/or government affairs?
I focus on these questions in the beginning mainly because I enjoy ruminating on the sort of high-level details that provide a glimpse into the society as a whole. While some writers tend to focus more on the characters in the beginning, filling out the attributes of each character and then creating a world in which to place them, I find starting at the society/culture level more effective, because once I give reality to the world I can better understand what kinds of characters populate it.
I also ask questions that help to flesh out the religion of the culture in which the story takes place. The power of religion to shape the course of a society is immense, and so it’s a good idea to explore how it impacts the history, events, and characters of your narrative. Some questions regarding this topic might include:
- What kinds of stories do these people tell themselves about their place in the world?
- What do they believe about other cultures? Are they generally inclusive or exclusive of others? How do they see themselves in relation to these other cultures?
- What myths and legends do they believe in, and why?
- How have these mythologies changed over time, and what caused them to change?
It also helps to understand where each of your main characters comes from (both genealogically and geographically – never underestimate geography when worldbuilding*), and what their major desires are in life, as this will impact both the events of the plot and how each character deals with them. For instance, a woman who had particularly cold parents might desire a sense of belonging, and someone who always received unconditional approval might suffer from a seemingly paradoxical inadequacy complex. Someone who lives in a sparsely populated frontier might tend towards hard-driving independence, while city-dwellers could be apt to uphold societal norms.
You might be wondering why one doesn’t just write and let all of this fall into place on its own. Isn’t time spent worldbuilding just time taken away from the actual story you want to tell?
Well, yes and no. As with research, you want to avoid getting so caught up in the process of worldbuilding that you lose sight of the actual goal: to tell an interesting story. This is especially true if, like me, you particularly enjoy tackling the bigger-picture elements that worldbuilding necessarily involves. I can – and do – sit and write about these things for hours when I’m having a particularly good worldbuilding session, and when that happens I am keenly aware that not much of the actual story I want to tell is being put down on the page.
That said, I often find that, if I’m having trouble figuring out some plot point or struggling to understand how my characters might react in a certain situation, a little detour into worldbuilding gives me tools to help solve those issues. Figuring these things out in advance not only makes it easier to visualize the setting and characters while you write, but also creates a more complete and believable world, one that is easier to understand.
Indeed, what often results from my worldbuilding is a variety of documents that I refer to as “artifacts:” myths, legends, and even government decrees such as laws and legislation, each of which help answer why and how things came to be in the particular slice of history where the story takes place. Answering the question “Why are things the way they are?” is key to understanding the real world, and I find that being familiar with answers to that question in my fictional worlds helps me to create livelier, more intriguing stories. Sure, it’s hard work, but it’s also a lot of fun.
And isn’t that why we write in the first place?
*Jared Diamond’s excellent non-fiction book, “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies,” is a great overall resource for exploring why geography is essential to understanding the development of human cultures.
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