The Hierarchy of Successful World Building
When you create a new place, whether a fictional world set in an earth-like environment like Middle Earth or Hogwarts or an entirely new planet for science-fiction, that place needs a consistent structure and set of natural laws to be accepted as a real place. The practice of creating an alternate reality is called “world building.” World building is a staple of science-fiction, fantasy, and comic book writing. New worlds can be great places to tell stories, but they require a lot of pre-work.
Most authors can see and understand their new world in their head. The goal of good writing is to help the reader see and understand it with the same clarity. Unanswered questions or things that aren’t clear can distract from the best plot or most interesting character. The writer needs to know all the rules of their world so they can build them into their story. One of the best ways to get a clear foundation underneath your world is start with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and ask yourself how they will be fulfilled by your new world.
Maslow’s Triangle has long been the standard by which we measure and assure what we need to live and thrive in a society. Although your world might have different structures or even a different gravitational pull, these survival needs will still need to be understood.
Remember: you may be writing about aliens, but you are not writing for aliens. Humans expect these needs to exist.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:
When world building, ask yourself the answers to these questions and you’ll have a full, rich world where your stories develop.
1st Level: Physiological Needs:
A. Breathing — Is the world an oxygenated planet (like earth) where people breathe through lungs or does that happen some other way? If it is an underwater world, how do they process water (like gills on a fish)? If the world gets visitors from another world — can those people “breathe” or do they need a special apparatus?
B. Food — All beings need to take something into their bodies to get energy and sustenance. How do the beings in your world eat? Through the mouth or some other way (absorbing nutrients like plants? Through an appendage similar to a nose?). What is food in that world? What does it taste like? Are there regional distinctions of does everyone on the planet just eat the same stuff? What does the food taste like, feel like, and sound like when you “eat it”? How is the food processed in the body? How is the food grown or gotten? Is it plentiful or in scarce supply? Are there beings allergic to it?
C. Water — on an earth-like planet water is critical to survival. If your planet doesn’t have/need water — what do they need? How do you clean things? What do you drink?
D. Sleep — All beings need a regenerative cycle of some kind. What is “sleep” like in the culture? How do the beings “shut down” or “turn off” when they need a rest? Is sleep revered in the culture or is it just seen as a necessity? When do people sleep? Is it light or dark? How much is required?
E. Sex — how do you reproduce on your planet? Do the beings have babies who grow up or just “create adults?” What is sex there? What does it look like, feel like, or mean between beings? Is it important to the culture or ignored by the culture? What’s acceptable? What’s taboo?
F. Environment — What is the landscape/waterscape like? What atmospheric things happen? Are there things like earthquakes? Wind? Rain? How does the planet replenish itself? What on the planet doe the beings consider beautiful? What is ugly? Are there bugs? Flowers? Animals? Life?
2nd Level– Safety Needs
Besides being able to survive — the world needs to have a system of how things run. It must have some kind of government or structure that has rules, punishments, rewards and ways of doing things. Every world needs some sort of economy. Do people work and exchange, like earth or do they hold roles in the community where everyone gets food and comfort? Ask some of the following questions:
1. Who ensures the safety of your world? (Police, government, courts)
2. What is the religion, theological systems or moral code (planets that don’t have a “god concept” must have some kind of standard of right/wrong) of the planet? Does everyone agree? What happens if you don’t?
3. What is the family structure of the culture like? Are there parents and children or family groups or tribal groups? What is the aging process like? How are groups treated? What groups are respected? What groups are oppressed? How do they understand “friendship” and show it? What is honorable? What is dishonorable?
Follow this line of questioning for each level of Maslow’s hierarchy. Keep a journal and answer these questions in it. When you know so much about your world that you can answer these questions easily and fully — then and only then — are you ready to write a story set inside it.