Worldbuilding in Bite-sized Pieces
One of the most daunting tasks writers face is worldbuilding. Creating an interesting, faceted world from scratch can be overwhelming but with a little organization, planning, and research, it doesn’t have to be.
Like any other large scale project, worldbuilding is better handled when broken down into bite-sized pieces. Taking the time to answer a few basic questions yields results.
For me, those bite-sized pieces begin with people and their most basic needs, starting with:
Geography/Where do they live?
Consider the geography of the world they live in. It’s not just a setting, but the entire scope of where your characters live.
Geography can be broken down into several subheadings including climate, temperature, seasons, flora/fauna, agriculture, length of day and night, types of regions — such as jungles, deserts, mountains, tundra, and settlements as well as any bodies of water affecting the area.
What kind of homes or buildings do they occupy? What is their style of architecture? What do the people look like? Is their appearance dictated by their environment?
Keep in mind that every decision is a link in a chain and needs to make sense to the previous links.
Food/What do people do to eat?
After deciding the world’s geography, consider how your choices affect what people eat and drink and how this affects the population. Are they farmers, hunters, gatherers, or do they fish? Maybe they do none of these things and import their food from another place. Consider what they might use as currency. Do they have access to mining? Are they trading metals, gems, minerals, fuel or building materials? Perhaps crafts or items their trading partners are unable to produce themselves.
Culture/How do they express their creativity?
Every civilization has some way of expressing creativity. The items they create often take into consideration what raw materials they have on hand. If you decided they are a desert people they’d have a lot of sand to work with and perhaps have found a way to trap the desert heat to work the sand into glass.
Artwork and crafts are a very tradeable commodity and link together with the idea above — what can they trade for food and other desirable items?
Class hierarchy/How to tell rich and poor apart?
Many civilizations, whether intended or not have a class system. Fashion, for example, is one way of telling rich and poor apart. What sort of clothing does each tier of society wear? Do they limit themselves to an identifying color or do they have another means of setting classes apart like hairstyles or personal ornamentation like jewelry, piercings, or body art? Is slavery permitted?
Government/How are the people ruled?
Choosing a form of government can be complicated and might take research to decide the best form.
There are several forms and they can run into competition or war with each other. Some types of government include:
•Monarchy (rule by an individual like a King or Queen)
•Oligarchy (rule by a few, like a chosen council)
•Plutocracy (rule by a wealthy few)
•Theocracy (rule by the church/religion)
•Autocracy (rule by one with absolute power)
•Dictatorship (similar to autocracy except that it can be one person or a group of people like a party)
•Democracy (most people are eligible to lead and are voted in by the majority of society and can include parties of like-minded people)
•Fascism (rule by one party or a dictator where race and nation are considered before the individual)
•Communism (a rule where everyone, in theory, is considered equal)
•Anarchy (no one rules)
If you have different regions in your world, it’s likely they’ll all have different forms of government.
Another thing to consider is whether or not church and state are separate or intertwined.
Religions/What do they believe in?
People often need to believe in a power greater than themselves in order to maintain personal hope and the word of law. What or who do your people worship or pray to? The answer can be as simple as the worship of a celestial body like the Sun or Moon, or something more complex like a legendary being — such as a warrior, prophet, miracle worker or the mysterious. Where do they worship and how do they honor their chosen deity? Do they sing? Or do they make sacrifices? Religions can be few or numerous and like forms of government can run into conflict with each other.
Law Enforcement/Who maintains order?
A society with a ruling body often requires a means of maintaining order. Is there a police force or does the military do it? What is considered a crime and what are the punishments for various crimes?
Love and Marriage/How are people coupled? Are they limited to being a pair or is polygamy allowed?
Every society has its norms regarding companionship. How do people decide who they want to spend their time with? Do they choose on their own, or does someone arrange their coupling/marriage? Are there rules for or against who you can couple with? Or how many you can marry at one time? What happens if these rules are broken?
Magic or Tech or Both? None?
If a society has people with specialized powers, simple rules need to be set in place as to what types of magic they can do and if there is a cost to using magic. Simple rules tend to work best. Magic can become a convoluted mess if it’s too complicated. Also, decide if everyone can use magic or if there are only a select few who can. If you’ve chosen the latter, why do the few have the ability when others do not. Generally, there are two systems of magic, hard and soft.
Soft magic has no structure or rules as to its use. In stories with soft magic, it can just as easily be the source of the problem as the solution and is difficult or impossible to harness properly.
Hard magic has rules as to how it can and should be used, how it is attained and controlled. Often times, it’s a tool used to solve problems and can exact a cost for its use. The pros and cons of each system are many and it’s best to research which type works better with your story.
Some societies are incapable of magic and use technology instead. With technology, it’s important to decide how advanced it is and again what sort of training might be required to use or create it.
A little planning, research, and the right approach can go a long way to keep worldbuilding from being an overwhelming nightmare.
Don’t try to decide everything at once. Take your time, decide the basics and go from there. Decisions can be made along the way, so you don’t have to worry if you’re a pantser and not a planner.
Taking one ‘bite’ at a time, I’ve found in my experience, is the simplest way to build.
Have fun and happy writing!