Worldbuilding is one of the best things about writing science-fiction (or fantasy). But I suppose only SFF writers say that. Anyway. It’s great! It gives the “blank canvas” a whole new meaning. You’re not just preparing to paint an impression of reality, you’re creating a whole new reality of your own, one that is unique and alive within your story.
Or is it?
What if you work on your world for weeks, write dozens of spreadsheets or notes, create maps, invent species, build cities and cultures, write histories, birth and kill hundreds of people, only to realize that it doesn’t fulfill the purpose it ought to fulfill — it doesn’t come to life. It doesn’t support your story. It doesn’t click.
If that is the case, you probably forgot to take care of the following things. These are aspects which must be taken into consideration in worldbuilding, lest the story hang in a world of mists and shadows, without ever feeling real.
1. Basic infrastructure
There can be no human (or alien) civilization or settlement without plumbing, energy supply, or waste disposal. So you need to spend at least a little bit figuring out how all of this works underneath your story’s setting.
- How do your characters eat? How do they transport and store food?
- How is waste handled?
- Where does the water come from?
- Who provides the clothes and shoes (or gear)?
- What money system is there? Is there a single currency? Several? Electronic money? Where are the banks?
- How does the majority of people live? How does that influence the public mentality?
If you have more than one character, you will have more than one opinion and set of priorities, and thus you need to have a variety of facets to your world. Normally, beneath the surface, your storyworld is made of thousands or millions or billions, even if you never introduce us to everyone (thank you!). Make sure you have diversity.
- Have you created a monolithic culture, or a realistically varied?
- How many ethnic groups are there? Are they stereotypical or diversified?
- How many religions are there? How do they differ from one another? Which is dominant and how come?
- Was the hierarchy in your ruling power ever interrupted? Were there leaders in your history that made mistakes? Were there some which came from outside the typical ruling class?
- Do you have corruption, or is everyone impeccable from an ethical point-of-view?
In a story, you can only present a fragment of the culture your characters live in (or encounter). But you need to give us a sense of completeness, to make us believe there is more to the world than what we see in the actual story. Don’t build your world like a bad Western movie set, with propped up house facades. You can include tiny glimpses of the richness behind what we see, to let us know your storyworld is complete and real.
- Are there other cities beside the one we’re in?
- Other colonies? Other worlds? Where are they? How are they different?
- Are there prisons? Holiday resorts? Cemeteries?
The events that have happened before your story begins need to be part of a logical chain of cause and effect. Don’t invent events that are convenient as background story, but would make little sense if you tried to explore them in any detail (or write a story about them). Don’t scatter events across your history like crumbs on a duck pond. String them together logically.
- Have past events led to the present in a logical, understandable and retraceable manner?
- Do the choices your characters make at the beginning of the novel make sense in the context of their past?
- Why is the stuff that’s happening now, happening now and not before or later?
- Does the magical or technological element that makes your story unique, have widespread repercussions throughout your storyworld, or is it just a prop?
The reality of a place is given by the interplay between all of our senses. In order to feel at home in your world as we do in ours, we need to not just see it, but hear it, smell it, feel it and taste it. Sensory impressions enrich the setting greatly, and help us submerge into the story.
- How does your protagonist smell? Ever perfumed? Ever sweaty?
- How does the food smell? The streets after a summer rain? How does the air on your space ship smell?
- How does the town, or city, or colony dome sound on a busy day?
- How do different character perceive the same environment?
Have you spent some thought on these aspects of your worldbuilding?
Have you read books which failed to pay attention to them, and thus felt somewhat unreal? How about books who delivered plenty of them, and felt as though you were really there?
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This post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge, April 2014.
In 2012, my W post was — 13 Warning Signs You’re A Writer