Worldbuilding is the art of creating a fictional world by combining research with imagination. It is the fundamental building block through which your setting expands and allows readers to grasp a complete and comprehensive perspective of your story's world at large. While you've committed to exploring these details for the sake of your story, you may not know where to start. How do you begin building something that can easily take on a life of it's own? If the task seems daunting, that's okay! With this guide to help you get started, you'll be reaping the benefits of your new universe before you know it.
Where do I start?
It goes without saying that before you can build your world you have to have some idea of the kind of story you're looking to write. It doesn't matter what topic you choose, your story is going to benefit from the research and creativity you'll be employing as you work, but you should have a solid understanding of your overall concept, characters, and a general idea of what you might like to achieve. The important thing to remember here is that you need to keep an open mind and allow the research to take you where you need to go, but also to be disciplined enough to know when to reign it in.
A good way to begin the overall process is to ask yourself this question:
What do I need?
Begin by outlining specific questions you have or to identify what your work needs before you start. This is because once you get going you're more than likely to get swept up into the journey of discovery and forget why you're doing what you're doing. Having a road-map so to speak gives you a grounding place. It will help keep you and your research in perspective, so that you can still be open to new ideas but can then apply them to your novel.
For example, when I started brainstorming for my fiction novel Star-Crossed, I began by asking myself what questions were relevant to my story. As it takes place in a completely made-up medieval kingdom, I knew that I needed a mix of factual information from the Medieval era, but that there was also room for creative license.
The story follows three privileged young adults who live within a giant insular estate known as Hyperian Manor. It is a vast compound that is home to all of the wealthiest families in the kingdom, providing it's own twisted world of intrigue, betrayal, romantic dalliances, and secrets. To those born into the cutthroat world of manor life, they have no choice but to find ways to survive under the strict social order, or perish in the process.
I knew already that Hyperian Manor was located in a large city within a larger Kingdom, and that it was the second most powerful governing force within said kingdom. I also knew that it would sit on top of a mountain plateau overlooking the sprawling city that it looms over. That was the geography bit of worldbuilding. I also knew that I needed to know basic things about Medieval life, such as clothing, architecture, and lifestyle. What I didn't know, and needed to know, was what type of society Hyperian Manor actually was and what made it different from the lives of the peasants that lived apart from them.
My worldbuilding had to answer a lot of societal-based questions:
1. What are the rules that people live by? Who enforces them?
2. What cultural elements play a part in manor life?
3. How does religion fit in?
4. What moral/ethical codes apply?
5. Is everyone happy within their pre-determined roles or are there people who long for something different?
Your questions may look similar to mine, but cover other topics such as geography, government, culture, weather, etc. There are no right or wrong questions. There is also no right or wrong amount. Generate as many as you feel you need. You may even find that your research brings up even more as you progress.
The first thing I always do whenever I start building a new story is create a project binder for it. I separate out sections for worldbuilding, planning, plotline, characters, etc. As I'm the queen of organization, I also utilize color codes and post-it's, but you definitely don't have to go that far. Figure out what system works best for you and run with it.
It helps to also have a notepad and pen, (or a word document) handy so you can write down your questions and any information you find. Staying organized will also play a key role in being able to apply what you've found later on. Keeping a folder in your binder will also aid in easy flip-back's to relevant details you want to add into a chapter without having to break your writing focus. This becomes increasingly important when you start worldbuilding because of the accumulation of information it generates.
Be open to the unexpected
Once researching begins, be open to the possibilities. While the point of research is to find out the answers to your questions, it's also to discover new things and to explore avenues to new ideas. You may begin your search by looking at the geographical layout of a particular region, and wind up inspecting a temple of ruins you didn't even know existed. Sure, your first location was cool to begin with, but ruins in the middle of nowhere? Now that's a story. You want to remain open to different revelations because you never know where they will take you or your story. Being too rigid with your questions will cause you to miss out on the unique details that help make a story more memorable.
Refer back to your questions
To keep yourself on track, refer back to your questions often. This will help you return out of the rabbit hole you find yourself in several hours into your google search. Refocusing will allow you to reassess where you are, what you still need, and redefine your questions to suit your new purpose. Do this often and you'll find your search will be much more beneficial than if you leave yourself to your own devices.
What facts do you need?
Deciding which facts you need while writing a fiction novel can feel like a challenge in and of itself. Unless you're writing historical fiction, you probably don't need to know absolutely everything there is to know about the time period you're researching. So how do you determine which facts are crucial and which are nonessential?
We do this by thinking about "why" we need these facts. If you think about it, storytelling is the art of creating an illusion. Unless it is nonfiction, we are weaving a tale that is essentially a lie with a purpose. We then have the difficult task of making the reader believe it is true.
This is why having facts with a basis in reality matters. In order for a story to seem plausible some of it has to be true. By using the tidbits you find, you are essentially laying out breadcrumbs and asking your reader to follow. You are also asking them to believe what they find along the way. They must accept what you are telling them and emotionally invest in order for your story to be successful.
The purpose of your research here is to establish plausibility. It's the art of misdirection. You use these facts to distract the reader from the made-up details. You are basically saying "look here at this fact" while sneaking in a tidbit of fiction right behind it. If done well, the reader won't pick apart the fiction because they automatically accept it as fact. This is why it's imperative to make sure your facts are accurate, as inaccuracies will ruin the illusion.
Know when to stop
One of the biggest challenges of researching is knowing when to stop. It's so easy to get wrapped up in all the cool and fascinating things we learn that it's less about figuring out how to begin, and more about finding a way out of the landslide afterwards. Worst yet, when we finally fight our way out, we feel the need to jam pack our stories with every little tidbit we find. The result is that our once fictional piece reads more like a research paper...and trust me, no one wants to spend their free time reading that.
Stick to these topics below to keep you out of the landslide:
If you're new to worldbuilding, I hope this helps you get started! If you're familiar with the process or even stuck somewhere in the middle, stay tuned. The entire month of April is devoted to worldbuilding tips and tricks. Subscribe today to never miss a post.