So you want to build a world…or ‘How to be a god’

If you are looking to start creating a world, I humbly suggest you begin here. This article was written just for you…and you, no not you, that guy behind you (go say hi, maybe you’ll meet someone interesting).

Like any craft from creative writing to astrophysics, there is a process to building a world. Many authors have done it many ways and there is no proverbial monolithic path that adventurous souls must walk to free the…ok I sort of got sidetracked there, suffice it to say no two people will build a world in exactly the same way. This does not mean that certain processes are not common, and that is what we will cover today.

World building is, to say the very least, a major undertaking. Think about it, the world is a BIG place and there is a lot going on every day [Citation Needed]. From the whole of the universe down to the smallest creatures; everything falls under the purview of the world builder. If your first response to this is, “Awesome let’s get going! I have a hunch you have no idea what you are about to get yourself into. If your response was, “Oh man that seems like it’s going to be complicated,” well…frankly, you still don’t have any idea what your journey has in store. This guide covers just the very basics and is written to help you along the first steps of creating your own world…be careful; you never know how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Creator’s Block

What kind of World?

The first question to ask is what kind of world do I want to create? The style the world takes on can be a function of the story you want to tell, or perhaps you are creating a sandbox in which countless stories can be told. The options are virtually limitless. Use earth as a baseline or comparison for creating your world. To get started, answer the following questions:

  • Is the world Earth-like or totally different, basically ask yourself, what beyond how Earth works do readers/users need to know? Keep in mind sentient races, flora, fauna, geography, there is a lot of ground to be covered here.
  • Will your story take place in the past, present or future when compared to the real world?
  • What technology exists in the world? Do you have sticks and rocks; do you have faster-than-light travel and communication? A past, present or future timeline does not necessarily dictate what technology you have available in your world.
  • Is magic part of your world? If yes, how does it function?
  • Are humans the only sentient species, or will you include fantasy races, how about aliens, how about fantasy alien races? Elves are from mars! (It could work, maybe…)
  • What level of scientific plausibility you want. Scientific plausibility is not a requirement for a good world/universe but some prefer their world to be scientifically accurate.
  • How was the world created and by whom (if applicable)?

These questions are the basics of world building and provide the flavor of your world, from this information you can dive into the details and start creating content.

Here are a few examples of what the above process can give you, which is a sort of thesis statement for your world.

  • The Heroic-Fantasy World: Many fantasy races (humans, elves, dwarves, etc.) live on an earth like world with medieval technology, filled with epic adventure, and never-ending wars. Monsters, magic and dragons exist and sew chaos against which heroes must battle.
  • The Futuristic World: With various spaceships and perhaps time-travel set any time from near-future to a time in the distant future.
  • The Alternate World: Similar to Earth in most ways with historical differences. Perhaps Hitler was assassinated in 1939, antibiotics were never created or maybe magic exists in secret.

Approaches to World Building

In world building there are typically two logical methods:

The top-down method: This method focuses on creating a logically consistent world in which stories can take place. You can start by building a solar system, or a creator deity (or pantheon of deities). From there you define the continents, then the nations, and on to cities and neighborhoods all the way down to particular locations and people. All the while you are defining how the world works. Meta ideas/concepts like technology, religion, history and magic are all flushed out up front.

Pros:

  • Setting is established prior to the story being told
  • The world is guaranteed to be consistent
  • Helps define settings that can be used
  • No need to “create as you go” allowing the author to focus on the story

Cons:

  • The top down method is a major undertaking as you are creating everything up front
  • You must consider most things that could impact your story as changing the setting can create complications down the road
  • The “Rabbit Hole” phenomenon. You could spend an entire lifetime world building and never get around to telling your story.

The bottom-up method: This method focuses on what you need at the time. For some stories the only setting you need is a single residence or town. Think of this method as the fog of war path. As you create your story the known world expands to fit the narrative.

Pros:

  • This method makes the setting available much sooner
  • Save time by creating only what you need
  • Allows you to tailor the world to your narrative rather than having it locked in place

Cons:

  • You may write yourself into a corner where concepts or locations are not consistent with something else in your story.
  • You must stop to define concepts and create locations as you go distracting from telling the story

Where do I go from here? Jump in head first…damn the torpedoes!

Unless you are starting from scratch for the sole purpose of creating a world odds are you have a story in mind. Your story is the best place to start because it helps define the world you want in some basic ways.

INTERJECTION! Document Document Document

I probably should have just mentioned this from the very beginning but now works as well.

Documenting is important…if you do it right.

World-Building is a potentially massive undertaking and if you want to make the world logical and consistent you need to keep up on reference material. Being able to jump back to a system you set up, maybe magic, months ago and double check the rules will keep you from running into situations where things don’t make sense together.

There are many ways to do this, the most common of which today is software. If you are looking for software I recommend starting here.

As an alternative you can do it in a more traditional manner with written notes, storyboards and the like. No one method is inherently better than the other. Use what works for you…though keep in mind that if you are not progressing maybe you should try another method, what you like isn’t always what is best.

So anyway…where were we…oh right, moving along then.

So start with your story, work through this guide and you should have the framework for a world just waiting to be filled with…whatever you want, no pressure.

Odds are you haven’t found answers to all your specific questions. Myself and the other authors on this blog all came together on a site for World Builders. If you have questions about the process, maybe you’ve hit a snag that you can’t see a way around, a logical flaw…maybe you just know absolutely nothing about the interactions of heavenly bodies drifting through the solar system (I fall into this category myself). Fear not! We can answer all those questions and more.

My thanks to the other authors here on the Universe Factory as well as all the contributors on Worldbuilding Stack Exchange.

For more information on the site come visit us at: http://worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/