Worldbuilding is one of my favorite aspects of storytelling. Whether the story is fantasy, science fiction, or some dystopian future, a great world design can make or break a story’s credibility and inspire countless future stories. In celebration of this marvelous act of creation, I’m going to share two basic approaches to start building your new world.
But first, let’s discuss what worldbuilding actually means.
Worldbuilding is the creation of an imaginary setting, whether it be a small town or an entire universe. These imaginary worlds should have internal logic based on geography, history, biology, and so forth. They can be used for fictional novels, video games, tv shows, movies, and pretty much any other story-based media form. The best created worlds serve the story, enriching the setting of the characters and plot but not overwhelming them.
There are many aspects of a world you can latch onto when starting your story. However, I’ve found that there are two basic but reliable approaches to starting the worldbuilding process.
Top Down Approach
A fairly common approach to worldbuilding is what I like to call the top down approach. The concept is simple: you start with the details of the world you want to build, and then work backwards, figuring out the world’s history and so forth to support the end product you want. For instance, say I wanted to tell a story where my main character was a member of a tribe of blue-skinned people. To build a world to support this idea, I’d need to work backwards, and ask myself questions about how this group of people came to exist. Are they the only blue-skinned people in this world? Were they created by a higher being, or did they evolve? From these questions, I can start to branch off these few details I know and create a fully realized world.
The top down approach has its positives and negatives. It works well because it allows for a clear picture of the end product. In this way, it’s easier to not forget the story and be overwhelmed by the immensity of an imagined world. It helps with early character creation, too. However, if the creator doesn’t have a clear understanding of what the world should look like when they start, the top down approach might cause more problems than it solves. If I change my mind and make my blue-skinned people have the ability to fly, I might have to go back to the drawing board. So, for people without a clear picture of what sort of world they want their story to be set in, it’s better to start with the bottom up approach.
The Bottom Up Approach
The bottom up approach begins with the very foundation of the world you’re going to create. Basically, you start with creating a world (earth-like or not) to serve as your canvas. To this, you add geography. What does your world look like? Also, it’s a good idea to decide how the sciences play out in your world. Some storytellers are happy saying that physics, biology, chemistry, and so on are just like earth’s. That is just fine. However, if you want to play around with those, feel free. Just make sure you research things so they stay internally logical. If you want to build a world where photosynthesis doesn’t exist, you better know what photosynthesis is and why it’s important for plants. Now is also a good time to decide if your world has some special aspect, such as magic or a unique energy source.
Once you have your foundation, it’s time to add the people/life forms that inhabit this world. How does this environment affect them? It’s probably not a homogeneous group (and if it is homogeneous, you better have a darn good reason why), so adding various cultural makeups is a good idea. From here, it’s a matter of figuring out details like language, politics, history, and so on before refining the final product to fit your story. It’s important to keep that internal logic you spent so much time crafting, but you also want to make sure you leave room for your story. Hopefully a this point your imagination is firing on all cylinders, and you’ve found a great source of conflict or a really interesting idea for a main character.
So, how do you guys feel about worldbuilding? I’m considering writing a second post with finer details about what we need to think about when we build a world, like infrastructure and political systems. Would that interest people?
P.S. Sorry I missed last week’s post. My husband and I were a bit under the weather, and also I’ve been trying to finish my latest draft of Footfall.
One response to “Two Approaches to Worldbuilding”
I didn’t know you are an artist! More sketches, please?
I have to admit I actually don’t much enjoy doing worldbuilding, in part because it never feels as important or interesting to me as almost every other element of the story (despite my having great respect for books that do it well). I think that if I tried either of your two described methods, I would probably get restless and antsy much too quickly in my eagerness to start on the stuff I enjoy more. My vague approach to “worldbuilding,” such as it is, is to identify an element of the world that will influence the plot or characters, basically that will propel the story I want to tell, and just casually build out from there as I go. Like, “this world/country has a monarchy that is transitioning to a democracy,” and then away we go. The other details can trickle in as I go (and can get finessed and made consistent during editing).
I also think another very common approach to worldbuilding is to base it off of an existing world, the way that, for example, George R.R. Martin based A LOT of Westeros & Co. on medieval England and the War of the Roses.