I’ve scoured the internet for worldbuilding tips and methods. I’ve read just about every list of questions, every article on developing fictional cultures, and watched a million video series. They all tell you about these hypothetical stories and situations you could plug them into, but what they don’t offer is a feeling of grounding. We don’t see this process, and so it still feels almost mystical. So, I thought I’d give a shot at showing something different. Outlining my process for worldbuilding, as I develop a brand new, completely undeveloped story. And I’m sharing it step-by-step with you. From initial concepts, to revisions. But I figured it would help if I started with an article on what worldbuilding entails, to me.
What is worldbuilding? Where do you begin? Should you be creating some sort of profile or answering a list of questions? What’s important and what can be skipped? These are all really important questions, and far more common than you may believe.
Worldbuilding is the process of developing a fictional universe and revealing it through story. It’s learning about a place that has never existed before that moment and figuring out what its rules are. This applies to any form of fiction, not just science fiction and fantasy. There are rules in the world you are trying to show your readers, and the more your world differs from our own, the more you’ll need to know. This is why science fiction and fantasy often have such a strong focus on worldbuilding. There’s a lot that needs to be explained.
So where do you begin? At the First Step. Figuring out what your basics are. You more than likely have a basic idea. Maybe it’s just an image in your head and nothing else. This time around, I had a basic idea of a world where the ability to read was rare. I knew I had a character, that she could read, and that she was forced to keep it a secret. Already I knew a few things about my world, just through those few things.
Worldbuilding, is about asking the right questions. A lot of places will give you long lists of things to ask yourself about how your world works, but what you end up creating is a beautiful painting and nothing more. You’re writing a story. A story is conflict and character. And the world is a stage for that. It’s a representation of those elements.
The questions I ask myself are based off consequences. If this were true, what would that mean? How would that work? Take our character, Lilian. We don’t know a lot about her, but we do know she has a conflict. She can read, but she isn’t allowed to let anyone know. Why is that?
Maybe she lives in a society where women aren’t allowed to read. This would put her in an interesting dynamic, but it wouldn’t explain why she likes to read so much and who taught her. And if someone taught her to read, how come they don’t care that she can do that. Oftentimes the first idea you have won’t be your best. It’s too simple, and it doesn’t quite fit.
So, maybe literacy is uncommon. Perhaps it’s something only the nobility do, and for others to have the gift is rare. But why must she keep it a secret? Literacy being uncommon doesn’t mean illegal. The conflict must come from somewhere else. I decided that I wanted her to have a family. I imagined a brother and a sister, but no mother. And I started by toying around with the idea of a world where books can be found everywhere. Ancient texts were common and they contain power.
In a fantasy world, we often have magic. And I knew I wanted this to be fantasy. I imagined ruins of ancient libraries dotting a vast kingdom that long ago had once been home to the greatest collection of knowledge in the world. And I thought of what it would mean if books held their own power. So you begin asking more questions. If books contain power, they can be found all across the kingdom, but only the nobility can read them, you would imagine a system to maintain power.
People very rarely want to share power, and systems of government are often times little more than systems of keeping power in certain places. Usually amongst the wealthy. The idea became that in this world, people could create magic from books. Read through a book and see the word for a tree and using your gift you could read the word aloud and make a tree grow from the book. But like all magic, you must put in limits. So how to keep something like that from becoming overwhelming…
Perhaps the book is destroyed in the process. Only so many books in the world, you don’t want to burn them all up. But it would need more than that. If that were the only limit, then most of the books in the world would have long ago been destroyed through use. I imagined that with practice, and a little skill, you could learn to read aloud not just a single word, but a group of words. Or a sentence. Or a paragraph. And if you were truly gifted, entire pages. Each reading, each spell, burns that book up, so you have to be careful with what you choose to use it for.
Certain books will be prized for the strength of certain passages. Nobility would spend years memorizing a single book, word for word, just so they could better know what abilities they have at their disposal at any given time. But you may find yourself with a book with a powerful passage about a wall of fire that could bring your enemies to their knees that you’ve been saving for years. After all, the threat of power is often enough. But then suddenly you have to use the book for a different phrase in it, because you have no choice. Rather than summoning the great wall of fire and destroying an army, you’re forced to use it to pick a lock.
Most books don’t live in these extremes. And in truth, most nobles only study the skill as a standard of station. It’s a game of who has the better book. And also, who has the skill to use the most words from a book. Some may only have the talent to bring a single word to life, while another may be able to bring a whole phrase into being. These elements are shaped by your imagination when created.
And so the beginnings of a magic system came into play. But not only that, a system of government, economy, and traditions. It tells me a large part of what is valued in this kind of world, and what isn’t. By asking the right questions about each of these facets, you’ll be brought to many different alternatives along the way. Which one do you choose?
Whenever multiple possibilities come up, weigh them against your story. Hold them up to your character and your conflict. A girl who can read, but must keep it a secret. Does it add to that, or does it complicate it? After a few days of listening to my character, I’ve gone through a single day of brainstorming the rest of the world.
I know that her father is a Librarian. A non-aristocrat who can read, trained by the nobility at a special school and given the task of tracking down books for them. Like collectors. I know that if you’re discovered to have the ability to read, you’re given one of two choices. You either pay for a personal tutor to train you on reading and magic and controlling your powers, or you go to the one school in the country that teaches it. You get separated from your family and sent far away to learn a job where you’ll work for the nobility for the rest of your life. The price for being able to read is your freedom.
I know her greatest aspiration is to write her own historia (the term for these ancient books), and that her greatest fear is lose her family (since the death of her mother). This means that her fears are in direct opposition to her goals. She can’t write a historia without people knowing she can read and getting the proper training, and she can’t do that without being taken from her family. This creates inner conflict. Notice how worldbuilding slipped into character development so easily?
That’s because it’s connected. Stop trying to write them separately, like they’re independent. They aren’t. Each will influence the other. Your only goal is to keep asking questions and then taking your answers and weighing them against your story. I’m going to keep adding in concrete details over the next few days on my Worldbuilding Process, in a comprehensive series that’ll take us through all my stages. Let me know in the comments what you think of the story so far, what your initial stage is like, and keep an eye out for the next part in the series, where I’ll go over some specific details to keep in mind. There will be some outlines, and profiles, but they’ll relate to how I use them. What works for me, might not work for you, so keep that in mind while reading this. Oh, and on a secondary note, this blog post was exactly 1667 words, which is exactly how much you need to type each day to finish 50000 words by the end of NaNoWriMo. Looking at it from that perspective, it’s not that much is it? If you’ve never tried NaNoWriMo, I suggest giving it a go. Feel free to ask me any questions about the worldbuilding process or writing in general. I’m always willing to help out. Happy worldbuilding, and good luck on your own writing adventures!