How to Worldbuild without Losing Your Mind

May 12, 2022

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?


Worksheets either lead me to dissect the anatomy of every system and specimen I invent or neglect information that would support the plot. After the first draft, I might revise my story so much that the entire list becomes irrelevant. If I obsess over details at the beginning, I might not need anything I jotted down at the end. 


Yet numerous stories, like Red Rising, The Scorpio Races, and Fawkes, would not be the same if the characters had been relegated to a formless void, a stereotypical backdrop, or a place without color factions, carnivorous horses, and stone plagues. These authors managed to fill in the categories that would enrich and empower each scene instead of distracting readers—but how?


The early stages of worldbuilding should revolve around two factors: the protagonist’s development and his world’s guiding principle.


How Your Character’s Development Relates to Your World’s Guiding Principle

The premise of a speculative novel usually relies on one or two elements that drive the protagonist’s inner journey. In The Scorpio Races, the island of Thisby hosts an annual competition that challenges entrants to ride on the backs of capaill uisce, man-eating horses that inhabit the ocean. In Fawkes, a stone plague sweeps through England amid contention between the Igniters and Keepers. In Red Rising, people are sorted into castes based on the color streaks in their hair, eyes, and hands. 


If Sean Kendrick wins the Scorpio Races, he can keep Corr, the capaill uisce he trained. But he falls in love with a contestant who hopes to use the prize money to save her home, turning the climax into a test of his selflessness. In Fawkes, the stone plague creeping across Thomas’s face makes him desperate to gain control over his life, only for him to realize that he must surrender his magical gifts to White Light. In Red Rising, when Darrow disguises his inferiority and infiltrates the elite Golds, he discovers that leadership requires trust, which he continually damages with his dishonesty.


Because character growth and story world are meant to intersect, one won’t be compelling apart from the other. You’ll either end up with a character who needs to learn a lesson but no external forces to serve as his teacher, or a world that teems with wonders but lacks a purpose. In contrast, when you brainstorm both in tandem, you’ll give your story cohesion.


How to Develop a Story World Based on Your Character’s Arc

I rarely have a timeline of the protagonist’s transformation when I begin a first draft, but occasionally the outcome is clear enough that I can shape everything else around it. That’s the angle I’m going to approach this section from. Ideally, you’ll know where you want to take your protagonist, but if you don’t, you can apply the advice after you’ve explored.


The lie that influences your character’s mistakes can be one of the strongest connections between him and his surroundings. In Red Rising, Darrow fears that anyone who uncovers his identity will kill him because that’s how Golds have treated his ancestors. Similarly, in Fawkes, Thomas is reluctant to put faith in the snarky voice that keeps invading his thoughts because he believes White Light will escalate the spread of the disease over his body. Because of the social construct that Darrow has been forced to conform to, and the philosophy Thomas’s father has pounded into him, both characters are more inclined to embrace an unhealthy response to trauma than the truth.


Suppose that your protagonist is trying to prove himself. He grew up as the only mortal child in a family of seven older immortal brothers who have defeated griffins, moved stars, and reformed mountains. If he can’t achieve grand deeds on his own, he must not be worth the air he breathes. And he’s tired of his brothers laughing at his feebleness. So he resolves to become a hero by slaying demons on his own. Not only does his lie originate from his world, it also generates a goal and an abundance of problems.


Now that you’ve reinforced the falsehood behind your protagonist’s choices, you can nudge him toward change through consequences. No matter how quirky or strange a story world is, wrongdoing will result in temporary success and eventual disaster. Although Darrow fools the Golds, half of his friends abandon and betray him after he’s exposed. Thomas strives to cure the stone plague alone, but despite a brief improvement, his condition worsens. And in the case of the mortal baby brother, his plan to exorcise demons from a village fails because he refused to accept help. Though the fallout may be unique to your story’s setting, you don’t need to manufacture a replica of Middle-Earth to mete out memorable punishments.


Remember to Add Coolness

Intentionality in worldbuilding will save you time—and gray hairs. But you can still have fun. Some of the most thrilling story worlds evolved from concepts the authors couldn’t resist daydreaming about. So if fire magic gets your blood pumping, include it. Monsters with a thousand eyes that bake pancakes every other Tuesday for the Assassin’s Guild? Go for it. Worldbuilding is an aid for your storytelling, but it should also engage readers, and it won’t fascinate them if it doesn’t fascinate you.


As you’re flirting with all of the possibilities, though, be sure to marry your story world and your protagonist’s arc. You need both theme and creativity to make his struggles and triumphs inspiring, so don’t focus so much on crafting the perfect story world that you forget to let yourself love every piece of the process.



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