A Worldbuilding Checklist
When you’re writing a story and building your world, sometimes you fall short on how to build it. Maybe your story is lacking a little something, your descriptions are vivid yet your characters experiences seem two-dimensional. Here’s a small list of questions to ask yourself when you’re feeling stuck, arranged by (mostly) relevant categories.
This isn’t a definitive list, but a guideline on the types of questions to ask about your world.
How does your magic system work? Is it a soft magic system, or well-defined? Does it draw on some force, energy, life energy, mana, etc? Does it enable manipulation of matter? Is it wave-your-wand style, draw-your-rune style, say-your-words style? Are there limits? Why are those limits in place? Can only certain people use it, and if so, why? Is it natural, holy, or discovered? Was it suddenly dropped into your world or has it always been there? If it was dropped in, why/by whom? If it’s always been there, how did it affect the history and cultures of your world? What consequences does it have, and why?
What’s the tech level? Ancient or far-future? Do you use hammers and anvils, drills and tractors, or compression-blasts and cold-fusion engines? What are the limits to your technology? How did you get it? How is it powered or fueled? Can anyone use it, or do you need special training? How is it better than other choices?
What’s the geography/topography? The atmosphere? The distance from the sun, the solar system? What about the various climates? The bodies of water? Cities, countries, political boundaries, deserts, seas, forests, etc? What is the temporal setting? How did the world — and this universe — originate? Are there man-made structures like skyscrapers and streets? What is architecture like?
Is your life in this world like ours? Do purple slime plants grow out of crystals? What are the various flora and fauna of this world? Are they totally different or similar to our world? Are your leading race humans or another species? Are there extraterrestrial organisms? Diseases? Cure-all plants? How does life struggle to survive here? What are the various defenses of your organisms? What do your creatures consume? Are there mythical creatures? Weird, genetically-engineered monstrosities? Hologram or virtual-reality environments? Is there weird weather, like fiery rain or quicksand tornadoes? How does population growth work here? Evolution?
What languages are spoken here? Real-world ones? Or are you constructing a language? Do your speakers have voices, or do they speak by electromagnetic pulses or bioluminescent flashes, numerical orders or binary code?
What’s the culture of your chosen species? How do they treat their young and their elders? What do they eat? What are their taboos, and why are those things taboo? What, if any, are their religions? What do they worship? What does their religious system/hierarchy look like? How do they dispose of their dead? How does society work? How do friendships work? Are marriages by love or by arrangement? How are guests treated? What are the jobs, desirable and undesirable, and what makes them of such interest or disinterest? What defines the upper and lower classes? Who are the wealthy and the poor? What is the history of this world, and how has that affected current events? What style of government(s) is(are) there? What are the arts here? Are they influenced by the magic/technology of your world? How do you deal with food, water, and shelter needs? How do your beings communicate? How is population growth handled? The structure of cities? How is waste disposed of? How have all of these been managed in the past?
How is the environment treated? What are the laws here? What is or isn’t legal, and why are or aren’t they considered legal? How are criminals punished? How has science, philosophy, mathematics adapted alongside your world? How does commerce/economics/trading work here? What is your currency? What are the weapons here? How do they work? What about transportation? Education? What is considered recreation here? What are important resources and expensive commodities here, and why? What are the holidays? Is there a war ongoing? Against who, and why? How do people greet each other? How do your species access information: through a hive mind, a library, the internet? How is that access impeded? What sports do they play, what are the rules, and who are the teams? How does national pride affect your population? What are the most desirable positions in the hierarchy?
Do they value literacy? How do relationships work? How do people view outsiders (people who do not conform to the society’s view on, e.g, friendships, political views, religious views, or immigrants, much more or less intelligent people, other species/skin colors/ways of talking/genders/etc.)? Is there advertising here? Propaganda, even? Are there types of insurance? Do your people have pets? If so, what do they consider a pet and how are pets treated? How does the society view religious, political, marital, child, animal, and (fill-in-the-blank-here) rights? What biases exist in this world? What are the medicines and cures, vaccines and potions available here? Are there doctors or healers? How do your medications work? How is healing looked upon? What are the lifespans here anyway? What do people usually die of here (if they die)? What are the superstitions of the culture? What is “fashionable” or “trendy” in your society? What are the most important moral values of your society? How will the actions of your characters affect this culture?
Think about these questions and then mix them. For example, how have trends in technology development influenced the currency used? How have the languages spoken influenced cultural norms and reinforced — or destroyed — biases? How does the geography of the planet affect communication? Think about all of the topics and how they react with one another, seeing what new ideas might grow as one thing affects another.
I hope these questions help you generate some ideas as to how to enrich your world. Have fun!