How to worldbuild in an afternoon
I’ve written here a breakdown on my thoughts on the mechanics of effective worldbuilding in the context of building a rigorous framework for understanding storytelling. It’s an interesting read, but that’s not what this is.
This is more of a practical guide. If you’re someone that writes fantasy or sci-fi, but gets stuck on figuring out where your project should even take place, I’ll show you what I tend to do to get started. Even if you’re more of a “literary” fiction author or write realistic fiction, this’ll still apply to you. Good realistic fiction still engages in worldbuilding, after all.
Worldbuilding is important. It can prop up a project’s themes, set the tone, and make everything feel just that much more real (again, for a breakdown on how this is, see that other essay linked above). I’m not, however, of the opinion that worldbuilding does any good in a vacuum. Yes, Tolkien laid out his entire universe to an immaculate level of detail, but for every Tolkien I’ve seen, there are ten more writers that trip themselves up over the minutia dark-elf sexual reproduction cycles when they really should be worried about if the plot is properly paced or not.
Here’s my dirty little secret: my goal when I worldbuild is to worldbuild just enough to start the project. The nitty-gritty details: I just invent as I write. It’ll seem a little scary to those of you out there who love your spreadsheets, but the reason why I’m confident I can make a ton up as I go along is because, before doing so, I lay down the core principles of the world. The stuff being made up isn’t being pulled out of thin air, but derived from a conclusion from the rules I’ve set up for myself.
So, core principles, huh? The hell are those?
I think this’ll be made clearer with an example.
Genre and Central Theme
I like to start with a genre and a central theme, and then spiral outwards. For this mini example, lets say we’re building a far-future sci-fi world. Our theme is “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. An old classic. These choices were completely arbitrary. This whole process is creative, but it’s especially good to be creative here.
The first real thing that gets built is the core conceit of the world. The conceit is the thing that goes on the back of the project’s box. It’s what you answer when asked “so what are you writing about”. It’s how you sell this thing if that’s what you want to do. You have to think about this like a writer. It has to be something that will naturally help build the theme of the story.
So, for our example, I’ll choose our conceit to be “Most of the star systems in the Milky Way Galaxy are governed by one of seven major superpowers which compete with each other for dominance.”
How does this conceit work with our theme? You could imagine, for example, a protagonist living on one of these intergalactic nations trying to rise to power to help their nation defeat the others. So close to power, this protagonist could either be tempted by corruption, surrounded by corruption, or watch those they care about suffer from corruption.
Hey, speaking of protagonists, that’s where we go next. This isn’t about building the protagonist as a character and figuring out their personality. Rather, it’s about figuring out the world close to your central character. That, is, after all, the part that needs to feel the most real. If we say our protagonist for this story will be a politician looking to rise to the top, that immediately raises a ton of questions like “what kind of politician?”, “what’s the political situation like in their country?”, and “what does being ‘at the top’ mean?”
From there, we move to logistics. For this part, I usually ask myself a set of fairly standard questions. How do people communicate? How do people get around? How does society hold itself together? What do people eat and drink, and does it depend on where you are? The goal here is to provide yourself the mechanics to move your characters from scene to scene. If you want, a cool thing you can do here is make some of these logistical elements interact with your theme.
Suppose in our world we made these peaceful, moon-sized creatures with the ability to warp space-time. Say society breeds and trains them as their main means of space travel for the poor, while the political class flies around in cold, mechanical armed vessels. We could extend our theme of “absolute power corrupts absolutely” to show the difference between the politicians, who seem almost consumed by war and power, and those out of power, who live in harmony with… nature? Space? Space nature? You get the idea.
Last step (at least for this exercise): seeds. You’re not planning the entire plot here, just giving yourself possibilities for later. Focus on how your world generates conflicts and/or antagonists. Maybe the galaxy is approaching war. That’s a tried and true one. Or perhaps there’s just a resource crisis that threatens the galaxy’s poorest populations. Maybe we decide there’s some kind of ethnic conflict, or a conspiracy by a greedy corporation threatens to control countless populations across all seven nations. This is one of the more creative parts of the process; I like to let my mind run wild.
Bringing it all together
In the year 4316, The Federation of Species for the Defense of Interstellar Peace is one of seven major star system alliances that govern the Milky Way. Katie Krauss, a half-human senator from the planet Earth, is done watching the government she serves fail to protect its citizens from increasing military and political threats. She decides to run for chancellor. If a war must be fought, she wants herself and those she loves to be on the offensive, not the defensive.
The majority of inhabitants of the Milky Way travel the stars with ships strapped to the backs of Star Wraiths, enormous, gentle, space-faring creatures with the ability to warp and shrink space-time. When Star Wraiths across the Milky Way suddenly fall ill, the tense diplomatic relationships between the seven alliances collapse entirely in the face of economic collapse.
You’ll notice I kinda pulled names for things out of my ass here too. I tend not to get too hung up on names. Unless you want a name that works for thematic reasons, I’d prioritize just picking any name that’s easy to pronounce and distinct.
Anyway, we now have two plot seeds we can weave into the story while writing and we have good idea of where our story is taking place. It’s not everything that could possibly exist in a world. It’s not even enough to finish the story. But it is enough to start.
The process is tweak-able. You’re free to write down as much or as little as you want, and emphasize whatever you think you need to make your story successful.
Good luck, and happy worldbuilding.
If you liked this, leave and go worldbuild. While you’re at it, make sure to follow so you don’t miss whatever I happen to feel like making next. The conclusion to my three-part essay on The Rising of the Shield Hero can be found here, and the first short story I’ve published on Medium can be found here.
Until then, see ya ❤️