One of the things I love most about writing speculative fiction is that I get to completely create whole new worlds. Some are not like our “reality” at all. Others are so close that at first glance they might seem the same—until you stumble across that one small detail that isn’t quite what you’d expect to see outside your window: people unexpectedly switching places with their doubles, beloved and usually benign animals going to extremes to defend a human, nature spirits who appear in person to bestow gifts on the humans they protect.
But worldbuilding isn’t just a matter of making stuff up. Well…okay. It is about making stuff up, but it has to be stuff that makes sense, or is at least credible. Good worldbuilding takes time and a lot of thought and research. You, the creator of said new world, must know every nit and grit about its layers. Even if this minutia never shows up in your tale, it should all be in your notes.
Because as you go, your world and characters take on a life of their own. They need to react in—and to—said world, which gives texture to their personalities. If you don’t already have a fully developed world into which they can grow, you’ll have to create their reality on the fly, which increases the chances of inconsistencies and plot faults.
Having no pre-structured world in your own mind tends to make it harder for you, the writer, to be precise with your prose. We all know that every word must move the plot forward. Every word is valuable real estate within the acceptable word-count limits (every genre has one). Pre-defining all the details of your world helps to avoid info dumps to explain something you add in chapter 15, when a few choice sprinklings of details or foreshadowing earlier in the narrative could have made the Dreaded Dump unnecessary.
There are a number of websites out there that offer guidance on this tricky fiction skill. If you write fiction, I strongly recommend you read as many as you can find. Take classes either in real-space or online. Note the tiny details in books you love—pick one up and flip through to see if you can point out the worldbuilding details that author included.
Meanwhile, here are my top three tips for good worldbuilding.
1. Don’t forget the infrastructure. Do the research to make your world’s foundation credible. Be sure you know everything there is to know about your world’s governing system, politics, imports/exports, financial status, laws and enforcement policies, level of tech, everything. How many nations does it hold, and how do they differ on a political, cultural and social basis?
Don’t forget the less-than-glamorous parts, like food production, animal husbandry, waste management, transportation and road maintenance, etc.
2. Think hard about any magic systems extant on your world, as well as any extra-ordinary gifts or capabilities of your characters. Note them all down in your supporting documentation. Does the system make sense? Is it consistent? What are the rules? What are the characters’ limits and weaknesses when it comes to magic or similar talents? Remember that it isn’t realistic to make characters infallible or indefatigable or undefeatable.
Once your magic system is ironed out and ready to use, you can explain the basics within the framework of the story (without info-dumping), or you can simply place the system into your created world in a setting that accepts it, and show through the characters’ actions and reactions how it works. Use your magic when it first makes sense to do so. Don’t wait until your character is three quarters of the way through the manuscript to pull out that one undivulged magic capability or magical thingamabob in order to save her butt when that same skill/tool could have worked in other situations earlier in the novel.
3. Configure the more variable details for your world: its natural features like plants, animals and landscapes, weather/natural features, social structures, the customs of its peoples, its religions or spiritual practices, creative endeavors, ethics, and all the rest.
What about national or international conflicts? Are there wars or skirmishes in this world? If so, what are they about? When/How did they start? Were they resolved? If so, how? Are there tensions between different groups of people? Races? Classes?
There’s a lot more to worldbuilding than these three tips, but they at least scratch the surface. If you want more, check your local writers’ center or university for classes, or look online for worldbuilding blogs or workshops. Here are three I’ve seen that might provide useful information. For what it’s worth, the SFWA questionnaire is the one I used to begin my own long novel series. Personally, I found it most helpful.