Hello, Write Owls! Welcome to Day 15 of Storytelling 101. Today we’re talking about worldbuilding.
Worldbuilding is when writers create a world for their stories to take place in. While many of you probably think this only applies to fantasy and science fiction stories, it applies to all stories. Regardless of what kind of story you’re writing, you have to build the world it takes place in. If you’re writing a contemporary romance, you still have to choose a location for it. Even if you choose a real place, you still have to create the home your character(s) lives in. Many writers choose a fictitious small town for their contemporary settings. They need to know the specifics about this fictional town. Roughly how many people live there? Is it in the mountains, on the coast, or in a prairie? Does it have a library? What’s the demographic?
When stories take place in the past, writers have to research the details. Sometimes you can’t find historical data that tells you what you need to know—we don’t know everything about the past—so you may have to make some things up using educated guessing. These same ideas apply to contemporary stories that take place in a foreign location like another country.
Science fiction and fantasy are the two genres where writers get to be really creative with their worldbuilding. Anything is possible in these imaginary settings. My advice is going to be tailored toward these two genres since they’re the ones I’m most familiar with, but some of these points are applicable to other genres as well.
Worldbuilding can be broken into two main categories: physical and cultural. Physical worldbuilding involves things like the flora and fauna, climate, landscape, astronomy, etc. Cultural details are everything involving people like religion, government, education, genders, language, etc. It’s really easy to go down the worldbuilding rabbit hole and spend ten years building your world and never writing your story. To avoid this, consider Brandon Sanderson’s suggestion of picking one physical thing and one cultural thing to focus on. You don’t need to know the ins and outs of every facet of your world—just the two things you chose—but you should have a general idea of most of it.
Sanderson also suggests viewing worldbuilding as an iceberg. The reader will only ever see the tip of it, but it should feel like there’s a whole iceberg there. Don’t show the whole iceberg (Sanderson). That will overwhelm your reader and/or bore them. Avoid info-dumping worldbuilding information, too (Moreci).
In fantasy novels, there are often magic systems. They can be hard (strict rules) or soft (few or no rules). The magic system in Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo is hard because the Grisha (magic-wielding people) can only do certain things with their magic. Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings is soft because readers have no idea what he can and can’t do. Most magic systems will fall somewhere in between hard and soft.
Keep in mind magic influences the world (Moreci, Sanderson). If your characters can control fire, they probably don’t need ovens. Do they trap their flames in jars and use them for light? If your characters can control water, they probably don’t need plumbing. They can just magic water into their bathtub, cooking pot, etc. They also wouldn’t be able to die of dehydration in a desert if they can just summon water. Keep these effects in mind when writing magic into your story.
There are a few things to avoid when worldbuilding. Medieval fantasy worlds are way overdone and cliché. Try making your fantasy setting different. Don’t build a monolith. People and cultures are diverse. Your world, whether fantasy or not, should be diverse. If your world isn’t diverse, it’s because you made it that way, and you can change it (Moreci). Avoid cultural appropriation. Don’t go stealing things from real cultures to use in your story, particularly minority cultures. The people in these cultures have lost enough of their identities to colonialism and other damaging practices. Don’t perpetuate it by using distinguishing characteristics or flat-out copying their cultures.
These are the basics of worldbuilding. If you have any questions about this topic, please leave them in the comments; and I’ll try to answer them either as a reply or in my Q&A on Saturday.
Feel free to answer these in the comments if you want to chime in!
1) What’s your favorite sci-fi/fantasy world?
2) Have you ever built a world before? If so, what was your favorite thing to build? If not, what are you most looking forward to building?
Moreci, Jenna. “Common Worldbuilding Mistakes.” YouTube, uploaded by Writing with Jenna Moreci, 20 December 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tj3yTH1sY5M
Sanderson, Brandon. “Lecture #6: Worldbuilding Part Two – Brandon Sanderson on Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy.” YouTube, uploaded by Brandon Sanderson, 6 March 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2KpWOLTXx8