The Tip of the Worldbuilding Iceberg

iceberg
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There is so much to write on this topic, but today I’m going to cover what you need to get started for NaNoWriMo. I also won’t be talking too much about my novel’s world, as discovery is a part of the story I’m writing. This post is more the process I’m using to do worldbuilding.

What is worldbuilding?

Worldbuilding is exactly what it sounds like: you are building the world your characters live in. This can be as simple as “the same town and neighborhood as I live in” or as complex as “I have created an entire universe and multiple languages from scratch.” Neither is better than the other, so long as it fits the story you’re trying to tell. 

A (terrible) example of why you should worldbuild first

person in yellow coveralls spraying plant
Those ninjas can hide anywhere.
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Rafael finally got to the last stair in the building, huffing as he stumbled onto the office floor. The windows opened to the massive cityscape, awakening for the day. He only had a moment to appreciate it before a shuriken whooshed by his ear, implanting itself into the wall. 

“Great,” he muttered. 

He ducked under the nearest desk and managed to get a clear view of the stairwell. Ninjas poured in from the floors both above and below, but he knew just what to do. Out of his pocket he pulled a spray bottle labeled NINJA REPELLANT and sprayed every one of those pajama’d assholes until they ran back up the stairs. All except one who was immune. Rafael had to take out his gun and shoot this one in the face. 

“My hero!” cried the prince. He stood and embraced Rafael, covering him in flop sweat. 

“Let’s get out of here. I’ll buy you a beer.” They then opened the door to the street on their left and shared a horse to the honky tonk down the old dusty road, stars settling upon the prairie. 

Wat

This story is a mess. Ignoring the brilliant writing (I’m just trying to prove a point, okay?), it can’t seem to decide on a location, time period, or even the make up of the building. Let’s break this down a bit, just in case you missed it due to my amazing storytelling: 

  • The very first sentence suggested Rafael had reached the top floor of the building (“the last stair”). However, once the ninjas started pouring in, they were coming from “the floors both above and below,” and at the end the ninjas “ran back up the stairs.” Then Rafael and the prince opened the door “to their left” and stepped out onto the ground.
  • The description of the view out of the windows suggests it is early morning in a city (“massive cityscape, just beginning to wake for the day”), but this quick encounter ends with them riding away on a horse and “stars settling upon the prairie.” 
  • The weapons used (specifically the ninja repellant) didn’t have consistent rules, working when it was convenient, not working when it was dramatic. 
  • Finally, we have ninjas, a prince, a modern day cityscape/country town, and a guy who carries a gun and rides a horse. What era is this? Why are all of these types of people cobbled together?

Sure, you could come up with all sorts of reasons why the details line up this way, but you won’t have the opportunity to explain it to your readers. Too many inconsistencies makes it a lot harder to suspend disbelief and, unfortunately, this is exactly what you need to do when you’re reading a story involving ninja repellant. 

Why

Proper worldbuilding gives your readers something to stand on: rules, physics, culture. Actions have consequences in a world fleshed out. 

Worldbuilding also allows your reader to fully disappear into the world. When I first saw the Cantina scene in A New Hope, I could see a whole world of possibility open up before me. I could imagine myself living and working in Mos Eisley. This not only made the events happening there feel grounded, but it also made me go back for the Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina book that came out afterward.

Finally, if you weren’t yet convinced, worldbuilding can help you if you get stuck. Going through the process of building a world, looking at its history and geography and cultures, can generate a heck of a lot of ideas. If, for example, you know there is a war going on between two factions, why not have your protagonist stumble upon a group of soldiers?

Even if you’re writing a story based off of a real place, it is important to understand things such as how long it takes to get from one part of the city to the other, or the history of different areas, all for the same reasons listed above.

How do you build worlds?

assorted map pieces
So. Many. Maps.
Photo by Andrew Neel on Pexels.com

To reiterate, there are so many books and blogs and videos covering how to create a world, and there is no way I can cover everything in one blog post. Because of this, I am going to cover just the very tip of the process I’m using for NaNoWriMo. So how am I building this world.

Imagine your world. Your real one. IRL. Meatspace. Let’s start with the simple things: what’s the name of the planet? The name of the country and the state or province you live in? Go farther down: city, county/parish, the part of town, your neighborhood, your building. Now think about places you go: restaurants, friends’ houses, work.

This is a lot of very important information, but all this does is create a map. 

Think about why things are the way they are – maybe read up on your city’s history. Was it started by merchants trying to scrape by on a popular trade route? Was it founded by a religious group looking for freedom or a promised land? The farther back you go in history, the more it sounds like a story anyway, but you’ll also learn credible ways to establish places in your fictional world. This is important, because it sets a sort of foundation for how and why your city was set up. Is it mostly markets or museums? Are there a lot of hospitals in your area? Did the city form organically, with winding streets that make little sense today or was it meticulously planned and set in squares? Is there a distinct divide in your town? Why? What’s the dividing factor?

Systems

Now think of all the systems you encounter: governments (federal and local), employers, HOAs, public transit. How and why  were they established? How do you interact with those systems and how do those systems interact with each other? Do they at all? Do they conflict? If they do, who wins out and why? How does this affect the way your world runs? How does this affect supply runs and emergency services and utilities like running/potable water or electricity? Could this be easily exploited or is it solid and secure? How does this affect the people’s attitude about where they live and who governs them?

Culture

This isn’t always just “‘MURICA” (or whatever other places exist out there*). There is a subtlety to everything. Such as: who do you consider your “superiors” and “subordinates?” Who does the culture you’re a part of consider your “superiors” and “subordinates?” Are these the same? Why or why not? What about your neighboring cultures? Are there any other cultures around you or are you in a bit of a culture bubble? Why? How does this affect the cooperation and attitudes between people in your area?

*I kid, I kid, I’m sure there are…a couple of other countries besides us…right?

Other questions to think about: Who do you live with and why? Why do you live in the place you do? Is it common for others to live in similar situations as you? How common is it for others to travel far from their place of birth where you live? How does this affect attitudes regarding “outsiders?” Do you celebrate holidays? Why? Do you celebrate the same holidays as your neighbors? How common is that answer in the country you live in? Why? What about religions, superstitions, rituals (religious or otherwise – think handshakes or promposals)? 

One more thing to think about when it comes to culture are your characters you’ve already created. Make sure they fit this world, and if not, then there should be the proper consequences. Are they loud and obnoxious, even though they work in a monastery library? Make sure they get hushed and punished appropriately. Are they openly a part of an illegal religion? Maybe they are being hunted down by the law enforcement of that town. Are they hiding their involvement? Maybe they’re just being watched – and you know in either situation they probably aren’t too pleased with authority.

Putting it all together

This is a ridiculously small sampling of the different things you can plan out while worldbuilding. You can also go back as far as you want – even to the beginning of time if that has any kind of bearing on your story or its setting. In my novel I’m having to decide on the nature of the universe and how existence came to be, even though that’s not revealed in this particular novel.

Most of what you write in worldbuilding won’t be used directly, but it will help to shape and color your world to make a story that feels like it actually happened.

I suggest you give this a try for NaNoWriMo. See how much of a difference it makes. The questions here aren’t enough to make an in-depth world, but it is definitely enough to inspire your own questions. Look at your day, your inconveniences, your friends, your activities, keep asking why, and see what kinds of ways you can draw parallels between your actual world and your fictional one.

As this is my favorite part of writing, I will definitely be posting more on this in the future.

Additional Resources

The SFWA has a resource by Patricia C. Wrede for questions to ask yourself while worldbuilding as well: https://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/04/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/

Avoiding “worldbuilder’s disease” by Michael Schultheiss: https://medium.com/@Michael_Schultheiss/worldbuilding-fiction-avoiding-worldbuilders-disease-a3a30196ae53