Worldbuilding for Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Speculative Fiction
What makes a good story? Yes, you need characters and plotlines that intrigue your readers. But, importantly, setting is also one of the major story elements. In speculative fiction writing, having a well-developed setting, typically means creating a new world (or part of a world) from scratch. Creating a world for a story and conveying its features to your readers is called worldbuilding.
Things to Consider When Worldbuilding
Magic, Technology, and Limitations: First and foremost, what makes your world different from Earth? Why can’t your story take place on our planet as we know it (even if set a few centuries in the future or the past)? Perhaps your characters have access to technology we can only dream of. Or maybe your world is full of magic. If so, you have to decide on the limitations of these tools. What can characters do and not do? Limitations may lie in the physical or monetary costs of using magic or technology, or government-set rules and consequences, or something else. Making the limitations of magic and technology clear for yourself and your readers ensures that your character has flaws. If your protagonist can solve every problem with a swoosh of their wand, your story won’t be very interesting.
Geography: Where are the major divisions between sovereign regions (countries, kingdoms, etc.)? How defined are the borders? Think about the major landforms (mountains, rivers, etc.), especially in the region your character lives in or travels through. These can dictate the obstacles they are likely to face and reveal where the largest civilizations may be. Geography is the cause of almost every major world event, so understanding your world’s geography will give you a better understanding of your world’s history.
If on Earth: Stories like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson take place in secret, hidden parts of our home planet. Setting your story on Earth means you don’t have to put as much consideration into the geography or culture of the world. Instead, you have to do your research to make sure you are accurately representing the group of people or setting you want to represent. Additionally, you have to figure out the relationship between “the real world” and your science fiction or fantasy part of Earth. Is your part of the world hidden from some people or known to everyone? Is there any ongoing conflict between the world we know and the world you have created?
Language: Even though your story might be written in English, your characters could have a different variation of the language. For instance, they might use metaphors or idioms specific to their world. Readers will have to warm up to these quirks in the language through context clues, but they will help make your world more well-rounded.
Religion & Culture: Almost every culture has a religion, and while this may not play a role in your story, it is worth thinking about. Does your world have one religion that everyone is required to follow or so many religions that neighbors rarely follow the same religion? Is the prevalent religion monotheistic or polytheistic? How large is the impact of religion on the life of the average (or not so average) person, especially your character?
Social Classes & Government: How many social classes—if any—does your world have? How defined are these classes, and how easy is it to move between them? How much power does the government hold over its people? How much power does the public hold over the government? Once you have a clear picture of your world’s social structure, you can place your characters somewhere on the ladder. This can help you understand inter-character dynamics and point out how characters may feel about money, government, etc.
History: Think about the wars, the plagues, and the other major historical events that have shaped your world, and thus your characters. Assume your world has a Queen. It could be a world that has had queens for the past three centuries, so no living person remembers a different world. Or, the Queen could be the only living heir of the deceased King in a world that has never had a female ruler. Or, the Queen could be a new ruler, taking the place of the anarchists that ran the world after the ruin of the last dynasty. Or, perhaps the Queen is secretly the old sorceress who was banished from the kingdom one hundred years ago. Knowing the history of the world can help you better understand your characters’ relationships with their world.
Acceptance and Accessibility: How diverse is your world, especially the region your character lives in? Diversity can be a result of historical events, such as wars that might have spawned mass displacements of people or cultural awakenings that resulted in numerous religious conversions. Also, are people (especially those in charge) typically accepting of all types of people, or do they hold prejudices? Are public places easily accessible to people with disabilities?
Though you may have considered all of these aspects of your world and have a strong understanding of it, you don’t have to give your readers all this information. Readers don’t want to read blocks of text in the first chapter describing the history of your world. On the same note, there is no need to add information that is meaningless to the plot just to prove your world is three-dimensional. These are examples of infodumping.
Instead, you should include information where it makes sense, giving your readers a good understanding of the factors at play in your protagonist’s decision making or the threats that may befall them. Tying in little bits of information as they impact your characters makes your readers much more likely to remember these pieces of information and get a good understanding of your world.
What is your favorite world from a speculative fiction story? Let me know in the comments!