I’ve been busy worldbuilding this week. It’s one of my favorite things to do in the process of writing sci-fi, and it makes me all giddy and drooly like a kid that’s been dropped into a toybox. Since I revisited my collected materials for the worlds I’m writing in, and have overhauled one of these entirely, I grabbed the opportunity to put together a list of important worldbuilding questions to share with you.
Not every author goes about worldbuilding the same way — and that’s perfectly fine, since not every genre needs it, and not every story is focused primarily on the setting. Also, not all aspects of a world or society are equally relevant to that particular plot. But even if you’re only using the setting as a wallpaper, you still need to understand how it works and why, so that you don’t accidentally slip and kill the reader’s suspension of disbelief. In fantasy and science-fiction particularly, if the reader’s trust is broken, it’s practically impossible to gain it back within the same book.
This list is directed to speculative fiction writers, but most of these questions can also be used to flesh out a historical or contemporary setting, and give you more ideas, more confidence, and more credibility.
So buckle up, and let’s go.
1. Where are we?
Are we on Earth or another planet? Is it this or another solar system? Are we in the past, present or future? If we’re on an exoplanet, what does it look like? Are there continents and seas? How about rivers, mountains, volcanoes, impact craters? How’s the gravity compared to Earth? Is there tectonic activity? Does it have moons? If it is a moon, does it revolve around its own axis or is it tidally locked to the planet it’s orbiting? If it’s a gas giant, what’s the atmospheric pressure like in the inhabited area?
2. What’s the natural environment like?
If we’re on future Earth, how has the greenhouse effect changed the environment? Any natural catastrophes that might have wiped out a continent or two? Any major human-induced planetary trauma? How about meteorite impacts or solar explosions?
If we’re on another planet or moon, especially one that is outside of our solar system that we already know plenty about, what is the ecological system based on? Is there water or liquid methane? Are there carbon-based, silicone-based or even arsenic-based beings? Is there vegetation? What is the atmosphere made of, if there even is any? Is the weather diverse, or the same everywhere?
3. What happened here before?
Every place has a history, even if there’s no intelligent life living on it. But history is even more important when you have an alien society, a human colony or—in the case of fantasy—a completely different human society than our known ones. What are a few major events in the history of the place that affect the present? They can be political, religious, natural or foreign in nature, but you must at least know a couple of them in order to understand where these people are coming from, figuratively speaking. And if there aren’t any people, what does the state of nature tell you about the ecological history of the planet?
4. How does its history influence the present?
How has society changed because of the events in its past? If it was attacked by an outer force, how has its attitude toward strangers and its defense systems adapted to that? If it was a natural phenomenon, how has it affected the housing and transportation, for example? Any atrocities in the distant past that people are still ashamed of? How about a big turn in religious beliefs, based on some major event? What event could shatter the belief system of a society?
5. What’s the linguistic situation on this world?
Are there more than one language? If so, and the people who speak them live in different environments, how does their language reflect that (think of how many words the Eskimos have for snow, versus the Afrikan bushmen)? When different cultures communicate with each other, which language takes precedence and why? If the only language spoken is a derivate of a current language—say, on a human colony in space—which language is it and why? What would you conclude if you found a human colony on an exoplanet where the predominant language is Chinese?
6. What’s the primary means of communication?
Also of particular importance is the way the people on your world communicate, because communication has a terrific influence on society and evolution. Do people use carrier pigeons or radio transmissions? Do they write letters or send emails? Are they naturally or artificially telepathic? Can they communicate over large or infinite distances, or are they limited by the means they use? Is there a particular protocol used in communication over larger distances? Does everyone benefit of the same type of communication? If not, how does that affect society?
7. What’s the predominant culture?
And with culture I mean the plethora of elements that affect culture: form of government, social classes, religion, races, sexes, professions, education, art and entertainment, sciences, etc. Before you have a stroke, remember you only need to clarify the main idea, the main shape and form of the society, not every detail. Unless, of course, you want to, in which case go ahead, dig in, have a blast!
At least you need to know whether the society’s focus is on warfare, scientific evolution, religion, consumerism, slavery and so on, and how does that affect every day life and the possibilities your characters have. For example if it’s a society focused on warfatre, its variety of weapons will far superseed that of artforms, while a society that’s focused on religion will have far more rituals and rites than a society focused on scientific discovery and invention (which would be in a continuous flux of change).
8. What’s the current form of societal normalcy?
Is it common for John Smith to be a worker with wife and kids and a small home of his own? Is it common for him to be a modern slave or a human energy factory like in the Matrix? Is it normal state for a citizen (or inhabitant) to be actively engaged in a community or is it every man for himself? Does Mr. Smith have access to basic technology like a mobile phone and a TV, or an own intelligent robot or a fire-spitting dragon? Is it normal for him to have three wives and health care that insures he lives to be 150?
9. What are some core moral values of this society?
Do people care about basic human rights and freedom of speech? Do they value competitiveness or conformity? Do they value art predominately, or science? Are they interested in other cultures or species, or are they xenophobic? Do they value tradition over progress or the other way around?
10. How do their values affect their mentality on a personal level?
Okay, I admit I’m rather interested in the psychological effects of a specific world on an individual, than in the global or political aspects of that world, so I tend to focus more on the life of an inhabitant than on that of his people. But even if your focus is the different, you should still ask yourself how the mentality of a native differs from yours, based on what the core values of his society are.
For example, if he grew up believing everyone is reincarnated, he might not fear death as much as someone outside of his belief and might be more ready to risk his life. Or if he was brought up to value tradition and history, he might be reluctant to change his ways even in the face of adversity. He might be heavily xenophobic, due to a history full of brutality from foreigners (or alien invasions), and so he might be extremely suspicious of your other-worldly character. All of these things will influence this native’s decision making process, and thus influence the plot. Besides, where’s the point in creating an entire world from scratch that’s different than ours in wonderful, interesting ways, and then have people act the same way we do?
11. What is this society’s most ardent need?
No society is ever in a state of perfect balance for longer than a microsecond. Figure out what the biggest need of that society is, because it will greatly affect its values and evolution. Does it need energy to fuel its increasing numbers (like we do)? Does it need new hunting grounds because the old ones aren’t fruitful anymore? Or maybe it needs genetic diversification? If the need for expansion is desperate enough, you might have a very aggressive society on your hands that won’t fidget long before invading new territories at great costs. Or maybe your society needs to sort out an internal problem like corruption, disease or dependency?
12. How does it go about satisfying this need?
The way a people tackles a problem or tries to satisfy a need says a lot about its nature. Is it trying to build or fight its way out of the trouble? Is it willing to risk something else of value? Is it canibalizing its resources or managing them sensibly? Is it indiferent to how it affects the environment or other societies / species? Does it shift its collective attention to evolving past the point of the need in a positive direction, or does it focus on eliminating the problem by any means necessary? Does it think long-term or is it short-sighted?
Now, after you’ve created a basic structure for your world, before you drop your characters into it and let them fend for themselves, ask yourself one more thing. It might help you use that wonderful worldbuilding to strengthen your plot.
13. What would it take to disrupt normalcy on this world?
And I’m not talking about the moon crashing into the surface of the planet, or the ground cracking open and unleashing a geyser of demons into the world. I’m talking about what a single individual—your protagonist—can possibly do that is so disruptive that it turns him into enemy number one? Now how can you drive him to do just that, unwillingly or unavoidably? And what happens next?
Okay, so that were more than 13 questions. They were rather areas to be explored when creating a world from scratch, and I’ve not even mentioned all of them. If you’re asking yourself a bunch of extra questions I’ve missed in this post, then my work here is done. *grin*
A small piece of advice: don’t get caught up in worldbuilding to the point where it’s the only thing you do, but don’t neglect it either, or leave it for the rewrite, because the setting alone can give your plot a huge boost of ideas and possibilities, and it’s just a pity not to use that to create the best story you can.
And have fun, go wild! Worldbuilding is one of the most awesome, playful and wildly imaginative parts of writing. It kicks major ass!
Oh, and if I’ve unintentionally excluded an aspect you’re just itching about, please add it in the comments. I always welcome your input.