Probably the hardest thing for any fiction writer is creating a well-developed, rich setting. When you’re taking on a fictional world, you, as the writer, have to know every nuance of it, from the languages to the first person to domesticate the wild zigglesnorts. And if you’re anything like me, it’s hard to feel comfortable writing your story before you feel you have a strong grasp on the world your characters live in. While epic fantasies have a tendency for incredibly detailed world-building, I’m going to give you tips on how to get your world on its feet so that you can get just get going for now; save the details for later.
There are some basic questions you need to ask yourself before you start writing:
1. Is the setting Earth, Earth-like, or completely different?
This is the first thing you need to identify before you ever touch pen to paper or finger to key. You probably have an idea in mind already, but designating it to one of these labels will help you going forward.
If you’re setting is Earth, don’t think you get off easy. My WIP, Antanama, is set on Earth over 200 years post nuclear war, and I still spent three weeks doing research before I felt comfortable enough to write about the “new” world I had created. Earth-like settings – the bulk of medieval fantasy stories – are a bit easier to work with, as you have mostly the same climate, animals, and plants, maybe even landmasses, with varying ranges of divergent history. If it’s completely different, such as science-fiction, then you’ll have complete free range, but also a lot more work to do.
2. What is the terrain like?
Since this is quick and dirty, think only about the following questions in the context of where the bulk of your story takes place (sorry, epic journeyers).
Do you characters live in a skyrise in an alternate universe, industrialized Congo? A small island off the coast of modern France? An underwater city made of coral? When your characters begin interacting with each other in this landscape, what kind of places will they need to move through? What’s the weather like?
3. What are the main religions (if there are any)?
Religion is something that pops up in every crevice of the world, so what is the main religion of your characters? Do they believe in a god? Multiple gods? None? Is religion a concept in this world at all?
Depending on where you stand personally, this might seem a strange thing to think of right away, but it helps set the context, morals, and societal norms for your setting, which will be integral to how characters interact with each other. You also don’t need to have this detailed right away. Think of it in broad terms and implications.
4. What’s the basic structure of the government?
Communistic democracy? Capitalist dictatorship? Is there a prime minister? Is the setting ruled by a council? Who’s in charge? Who sets the laws of the land?
5. What are the relationships between the different areas/cities/states/continents?
This can be as little as the relationships between two households or two streets and as big as inter-planetary relationships. Whichever is going to affect your characters and world the most. Are tensions rising between state A and state B? Or is the world peaceful? Does something threaten the peace, or is everything peachy keen?
Answering these questions should help you round out your setting a little better than just shouting “there are castles and dragons!” and will definitely set you up for exploring and discovering the smaller details in the midst of your writing. Once you’ve started writing, maybe even after your first draft, you can develop the details of your world and implement them as needed throughout the MS.
What about you guys? Do you have any tips on worldbuilding?