I tend to procrastinate about worldbuilding because it overwhelms me. I’m expected to design an alternate reality that’s as complex and nuanced as my own. Considering the thousands of cultural customs, geographical differences, and historical events attached to every inch of Earth, the task seems too infinite for my finite imagination. Where do I start? How do I determine when to stop? Which ideas should appear in my story, and which should remain archived inside my brain?
Have you ever started reading a book you expected to enjoy only for the setting to stymie any connection you might have had with the characters? You keep losing your bearings because of weird place names. The info dumps about the magic system make you zone out. And you can’t even pronounce the religion that’s dividing two people groups. Fifty pages in, you’re still not invested. Disappointed, you toss the story onto your did-not-finish pile, where the memory of it fades into oblivion.
Worldbuilding is a term that’s usually associated with sci-fi and fantasy. However, as an author of contemporary fiction, I’ve discovered that I can borrow principles from those genres to provide vivid backdrops for my scenes. Consistent, well-structured settings enable readers to viscerally experience the same sensations as the characters, so any strategies that add more layers of realism are a win.
Worldbuilding is, at its core, an imaginative divergence from reality that begins with a question. It’s most integral to fantasy, science fiction, and Dungeon Masters, but regardless of the genre (or role-playing game), the void that the characters float in remains colorless and empty until the author wonders, “What if…?” The infinite possibilities and choices can be overwhelming, paralyzing you before you even begin your first draft. How do you keep track of all the pertinent details? Are you wasting time naming the flora and fauna or actually moving your story forward? Before you rush to your favorite search engine and type in “worldbuilding questionnaires” (trust me, hundreds will pop up), you need to remember these three guidelines.
Worldbuilding and plotting are two separate processes, right? Wrong. Like every component of fiction, story world and plot are interlinked. Or rather, they can be. When you take the effort to use worldbuilding to deepen your plot, your book will feel intentional and whole.
Although every genre has its own challenges, many writers shy away from setting their stories in the past because of the extensive research involved. Dozens of details need to be factual, including linguistics. Why are some historical novels so immersive? Because the authors understood how to translate their research into dialogue, narration, and action that convey the bygone era in its full splendor, without resorting to anachronisms that yank readers out of the story.
Perhaps you’ve spent years drawing maps, creating languages, and brainstorming customs and cultures for your story world. Your worldbuilding document is packed with ideas, and you leave it open for reference as you write. However, worldbuilding can transform from a blessing into a curse if readers become so frustrated that they want to escape your world instead of exploring it. I’m going to help you reverse that curse with three tips for developing worlds that are both hospitable and richly detailed.
When we hunt for clichés to remove from our manuscripts, we pay attention to characters, plot lines, and even phrases, but we have a habit of overlooking settings. Genres, however, tend to recycle details to the point that readers can predict the culture they’re going to encounter before opening a book. They might still enjoy the story if it’s crafted well, but they won’t experience the wonder of exploring unfamiliar territory. As writers, we should be striving for greatness, but we can’t achieve this goal if we rely on copy-and-pasted settings.
Numerous books, blog posts, and worksheets claim that filling in hundreds of categories makes a story world complete. But without a goal at the center, your brainstorming will lack direction, and the details you come up with won’t fit together. Whereas if you integrate your story world into your plot and characters, every aspect of the culture will have a purpose. By following three steps, you can pull readers deeper in.
When you write, you don’t aim to recreate reality. Instead, you excitedly create a secondary world. Although a few aspects resemble reality to make the story understandable, other aspects are intentionally unrealistic to make a point. If this describes your work-in-progress, you know I’m talking about speculative fiction.