By Eric Weiss
Worldbuilding seems like it should be easy. We all know what it’s like to exist on this planet. How hard can it be to recreate that feeling in a work of fiction?
The truth, of course, is that we often take reality for granted. Much of our understanding of it is based on intuition, in the sense that certain things feel plausible, while others feel ridiculous. We rarely need to dedicate much thought to the why, because we know it when we see it.
Unfortunately, writers do not have that luxury. It’s our job to dig into the details and figure out why certain parts of our world make us feel the way they do. That means that we need to peer into all of the nooks and crannies, just so we can create a fictional world filled with all of the little things that most people overlook, since those are the things that make us feel alive.
Every writer knows that filling in those details is easier said than done. In fact, worldbuilding can be quite an intimidating task if you don’t know where to start. That’s why we've come up with five basic categories to guide your worldbuilding, along with some questions to jumpstart the process. Here are five everyday places you can turn to for a bit of worldbuilding inspiration!
Most deserts are filled with vegetation. The cacti that grow there simply differ from the evergreens that grow in a forest, which in turn differ from the coral that makes up a reef.
Those distinctions point to the importance of flora in worldbuilding. Every biome is alive. In order to understand it, you need to have a sense of what things are living there (and if there is nothing living there, that detail is equally important).
The plant life should also inform your character creation, insofar as you need to know how people navigate your world. Do the people live in houses that rise above a swamp? How do they get around without sinking in? People can settle any region, but each one comes with its own unique challenges. Once you decide where your characters live, you know a bit about what they had to overcome in order to do so.
As with flora, fauna is a defining characteristic of any terrain. Each region will have predators at the top of the food chain, with herbivores, insects, and other critters at the lower rungs. Some of those animals may pose a threat to any people living there. Others may be domesticated, or make up a portion of the food supply.
Whatever the case, the people of your world will have found a way to co-exist with nature, so what does that look like? Is it a harmonious relationship? Do poachers hunt one animal for a valuable treasure (such as a dragon’s scale)? Do the animals have seasonal migration patterns, or otherwise interact with other aspects of the landscape you’ve created? Answering those questions will bring your world to life, both when people are around and when no one is present.
Food is the most fundamental component of any society. After all, people need to eat every single day. What they eat, and how they go about doing it, tells you virtually everything you need to know about the day to day lives of the people in your story. Are your characters peasants dipping stale bread into bowls of gruel? Or are they lords and ladies tucking into lemon tarts after feasting on a suckling pig?
The things people eat can also tell you something about how a society is organized. If the people subsist on one staple crop, much of your world’s labor force will likely be dedicated to the cultivation of that crop (or perhaps to the manufacture of a synthetic food in a sci-fi setting). Planting and harvest may be times for celebration, while an unexpected drought carries a dire risk of famine. By the same token, a society of hunters may have many customs and rituals that they follow in the hopes of coming back with more.
There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to someone’s fictional diet. ‘What do they eat?’ is still an important question because it cuts right to the core of civilization. Knowing what people eat helps fill in worldbuilding gaps, and makes it feel more like a place where real people live.
If finding a food supply is the primary objective for any civilization, seeking out useful materials is a close second. Houses, clothes, and tools all have to be made out of something, and there’s a good chance that your society will use something shiny or rare as a form of currency. Some of those resources may come from plants and animals. Others may need to be extracted from the earth, filtered from the atmosphere, or pulled down from outer space.
Knowing what resources are valuable in your world is important because it will tell you much of what you need to know about your economy. You’ll know what people will fight to obtain (and die to protect). You’ll also know how wealth is distributed, which in turn may provide some insight into the political mechanisms that govern your characters’ lives.
Clothing is at once practical and deeply cultural. Most people need to put on some kind of garment to withstand the elements, but the clothes that serve that purpose will vary from location to location. People living on a tropical coast will have very different needs than someone living in the tundra. In both cases, there is also the matter of materials. Clothes need to be made, and what they are made out of speaks to what is available.
However, clothing often takes on a cultural significance that goes well beyond what is necessary for survival. People may adorn themselves with ceremonial jewelry, or wear clothes that conform to (or reject) specific gender expectations. Some fashions may be unattainable for people lower on the economic ladder. Others may be associated with certain kinds of labor.
The point is that the clothing people wear says a lot about who they are – and about what other people expect them to be. Both are critical in fiction. Clothing can give you a better sense of where your characters fit in the world, and the challenges they may need to overcome as they move through society.
There is obviously a lot of overlap between all of these different areas of worldbuilding. It can still be helpful to think of them as discrete categories because each can provide you with a different list of questions that you can ask when you get stuck. Our planet is a complex collection of ecosystems with many human and non-human parts. The more details you can provide, the better you will be able to mimic that complexity in a fictional setting.
Eric Weiss is a Toronto-based writer, performer, and media critic. He is currently a Narrative Designer for EMBERWIND (from Nomnivore Games), and formerly served as the Games Editor for ThatShelf.com. He is also the writer, co-creator, and co-star of the stage play #NotAllFedoras.