All stories happen somewhere. Whether your story is highly advanced sci-fi, sword and sorcery fantasy, urban fantasy, or any of the other many subgenres of speculative fiction, chances are you’ll have to do at least a bit of worldbuilding. How much worldbuilding you do depends on the story, how long it is, and where the plot takes the characters. Novels will generally require a lot more worldbuilding than short stories, for example. How much worldbuilding you do also depends on your writing style; some people don’t do very much worldbuilding at all, only as much as the plot requires them to, and some people (myself included) do tons and tons of worldbuilding, much more than is actually required for the story.
Both of these approaches work, as long as they both meet the basic requirements for worldbuilding: Your story needs to feel like it’s happening somewhere, that there’s something beyond just the central conflict of the story, and not like the characters are just walking around in a plain, grey, featureless field of blandness. The world needs to have flavor, and it needs to feel like it could be real. However, you also don’t want to bog down your story with too much information on the world. You don’t want to have tons of references to that city over there that you never see and that plays no role in the story, and you don’t want to go into detail about how the complex government system works if it isn’t important to the plot. Generally, stories are about the characters, not the world they live in.
The most important things about worldbuilding, in my opinion, are these: Know how much worldbuilding to use in your story, as I outlined above. Try to be at least a bit original–usually, readers aren’t going to be super thrilled about a story set in a generic fantasyland that looks like it came right out of the Dungeons and Dragons core rulebooks. The best way to make sure your world is original and hasn’t been done to death is to read a lot. And lastly, you want the world to feel real, like it could actually function even if it has magic or advanced technology or whatever. One of the most important ways to make a world feel real is to think about the logical consequences of the ways your world is different from our own.
Logical consequences are what should happen when you add something strange to a world. If you decide that everyone in your world can fly, don’t just leave it at that. Think about what would happen if everyone could fly. How would transportation change? What would combat be like? etc. A good example of logical consequences would be the effects of the many years long seasons in A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin: Everyone fears the coming of winter. They have to stock up tons and tons of food in the summer to survive the winter. Many aspects of their society are built around how to survive the long winters. When you introduce something magical or not of this world into your world, you need to think about how it would affect the world. I find it very annoying if I’m reading a book, and the writer comes up with some neat concept that would have interesting effects on the world, and then doesn’t even bother to figure out the logical consequences.
Research can help a ton. I did a lot of research on economics, for example, when I decided that I wanted time to be currency in one of the novels I’m writing. You can also ask friends and fellow writers what they think the logical consequences of something would be, as they may come up with something that you had never thought of before.
That’s just the very basics of how to worldbuild, and what to think about while worldbuilding. In the next few posts in this series, I’ll talk more about what to actually put in your world. Next up is governments and social structure.