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What is World-Building and Why Do I Need It?

In the worlds of speculative fiction (fantasy, sci-fi, etc) we hear this term a lot, but what exactly is World-building? To put it simply, world-building it building a  structure or framework for society, culture, and environment that feels real.

Even if your genre is dealing with magic or futuristic space travel your readers still want to feel like your world is something they can believe or relate with or at least understand within the mechanics of how that world functions.

Good world-building will help your story feel more real to the reader by giving them ample sensory input and cultural/environmental detail from which they can easily make sense of and imagine your world.

The Two Main Bases for World-Building

Before you can start writing about any of kind alternate reality, you need to understand what is different about the world in which your story lives. Ask yourself how different you want your world to be from the one you currently live in? Some stories won’t require a whole new world built from scratch.

For example many werewolf and vampire stories take place in our world, making changes to historical events and adding an extra layer of complexity on top of already existing cultures.

In contrast writers of high fantasy often find themselves creating entirely new worlds. Both methods have their own unique challenges (which I will cover in a later post) and can produce equally fascinating stories. The advice in this post is meant to help you create more comprehensive and believable worlds, regardless of which base you’re coming from.

Ok, So Where Do I Start?

Before you can even start to write any kind of complex world-building you first have to develop the skills to learn about and recognize that kind of diversity. The first and most important advice I can give you in order to create and build complex and interesting worlds is this: Learn more about the world you already live in.

It seems simple, maybe even obvious, but the more you know about the complexity in the real world, the more content you will have to generate ideas from. Think of it this way, if the only experience you have to write from is the culture, location, family, etc you grew up in you’ll only ever be able to write from that perspective.

Sure, every place has aspects about it that are interesting. There are a million stories that can be told about the culture you grew up in or the people you knew, and though everyone always thinks that the town they grew up in surely isn’t interesting, there are always aspects about it that will fascinate readers who haven’t had that experience.

There is value in being able to write about where you’ve been and what you know, and every writer has to have a base to stand on, but if your goal is to write complex and diverse worlds it can’t just end there.

Study Anthropology!

If you are a student, fill up some of those electives with a class or two on cultural anthropology. No matter what you’re actually majoring in, taking an anthropology class will help you write better. Most universities will have at least a few classes on cultural anthropology and even an introductory class or two will do wonders for your ability to build complex worlds. I can not express enough how much these classes helped to broaden my perspective of various cultures. Learning about cultural anthropology helped me in three main ways.

First by learning to recognize my own cultural lens through which I’m prone to interpret (and even judge, yes we all do it, even if we don’t mean to) other cultures it allows me to to put my personal (and cultural) bias aside in order to fairly evaluate and understand other cultures. Recognizing (and putting aside) your personal and cultural bias is the most important thing you can do in order to learn about (and from) other cultures.

Second, these classes exposed me to so many various cultures, as well as their unique world views, practices, and ways of life, that it gave me so much more information from which I can build fictional worlds (both ones built upon our existing world as well as made from scratch fantasy worlds).

And third, it helped me learn how to view cultures from an anthropological stand point, enabling me to ask all the questions that are necessary to fully understand (and construct) a complex and believable culture in my writing. With this skill I was able to continue my studies long after the classes were over, so that I could continue to broaden my knowledge of different cultures from which I can build writing content.

What if I’m not a student?

If you’re not a student, don’t worry. There are tons of resources available which you can pick up for independent study. An easy place to start is contacting a university book store and asking what textbooks are being used for the introductory cultural anthropology classes.

While there certainly is always a benefit from content that is discussed in class, these books will give you a decent place to start in understanding what cultural anthropology is all about. Many universities also host open to the public (and often free) lectures, visitors, and other such presentations that can expose you to all kinds of different people and ways of thinking. (You can also look at my page of recommended readings for research materials).

There are also many free, online classes you can take (and some which will even give you college credit if you want to pay a fee at the end to actualize them, though this isn’t necessary). The internet is ever expanding the options we have for furthering our education and knowledge. You just have to be able to find the right resources.

Documentaries can also provide a decent source for learning about other cultures. However be wary of documentaries where the researchers seem more interested in sharing their own culture with the people they meet than actually learning about and understanding the cultures they encounter. Also be wary of any resources that make comparative connections between their personal beliefs and the culture they are observing. If you see references about “Adam and Eve dynamics” or comparisons of certain deities or spirits to “the devil” chances are you are not going to get an accurate (and certainly not unbiased) recording of the culture in question.

This is especially common with older documentaries (and books) that explore the “discovery of primitive cultures.” This mindset is problematic for 2 main reasons. One, they often treat these other cultures as lesser, and therefore not actually worth learning from or preserving in their minds. Second, they often will misrepresent the beliefs and lifestyle of the culture by reporting it through their own cultural (and often religious) bias.

What Else Can I Do to Learn About The World?

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Another option to learn about various cultures is probably the most fun as well, Travel! Yup, that’s right. Go take a vacation (you might even be able to write it off on your taxes as a business expense in some cases). Traveling can be one of the best ways to learn about new places, peoples, and cultures. Even within your own country, state, or local region there will be places and ways of life different from your own.

If you live in the United States, you will have a plethora of this at your disposal. Many of our individual states are the same size as (or bigger) than entire countries in other parts of the world. That means a hell of a lot of land, which means tons of room for diverse environments, millions of different people, and ample opportunity for different ways of life to arise from these unique locations.

If you can’t travel, make friends with people who have. Talk to that person at work who went to Hawaii for their honey moon. Visit a religious center that isn’t your own. Go to events, conventions, gatherings in your area for different hobbies, interests, and lifestyles. You will meet all kinds of interesting people if you just open yourself up to the possibilities. You just have to get out there and find them.

Things to Think About.

We’ve laid the foundation of skills and experiences that will help you generate diverse content when building fictional worlds, but where do we go from here? What all do we actually need to build a world?

There’s really no one true answer to that, after all there is no one way a culture is built in real life, so why should there be in our fantasy worlds? The best thing you can do to begin creating a comprehensive world is to make a list of all the questions that need answered. Look at the world around you and the cultures you’ve learned about and evaluate the basic aspects that make up daily life.

The list below will give you some basic places to start, but is in no ways complete or comprehensive, nor is it probably even possible to ask all of the questions in a single blog post that are necessary to evaluate all the various complexities of even a single culture (let alone a whole world of unique peoples and places). But this will at least provide you with a base from which you can begin to build a complex world.

Some of these questions will be critical for your world to answer, some won’t apply at all, and still others you’ll have to discover for yourself. Perhaps the most important part of world-building is being able to generate the inquiries that spark the creation of new ideas.

Environment

This can include both the natural world as well as the developed one.

  • What natural environments exist in the world?
  • What kinds of plants and wildlife live in those environments?
  • How does the ecosystem work?
  • What is the weather like?
  • If major structural changes are made to the environment (such as development of towns and cities) what kind of environments have developed within these?

Helpful research: biology, natural resources and management, ecology, environmental studies, etc.

Culture and Religion

  • What do they believe in?
  • What is their origin story?
  • What kinds of celebrations do they have
    • What practices do they observe with the following: Birth, death, marriage, divorce, coming of age, accession to power, retirement/becoming and elder, etc
    • Are there monthly/yearly events or gatherings?
  • What is a typical family structure?
    • Who lives together?
    • Who has power or influence?
  • How do they pass on cultural, religious, or historical knowledge
  • What is their food, clothing, tools, housing, etc like?
  • What are daily behavioral customs?
  • How have their beliefs and daily practices influenced their language?

A lot can be conveyed about a culture and the people’s world view by how they treat their men, women, children, elders, sickly/disabled, allies, enemies, criminals, animals, and environment.

Helpful research: anthropology, sociology, psychology, religious studies, foreign language & cultural studies, etc

Infrastructure

  • How is their civilization structured?
  • What impact does their presence have on the environment?
  • What is the scale of typical groups? (family, clan, tribe, village, town, city, etc. An average civilization will include many of these within one another.)
  • How do they dispose of waste? (this can have a huge impact on environment, disease transmitting, and much more and likely will impact religious and cultural practices)
  • Monetary and/or trade systems
    • Does the culture produce anything valuable they can trade?
    • What do they need from other groups of people to survive or make their lives easier/more pleasant?
  • Jobs and professions
  • What is the health care and medicine like?

Possible research: architecture, anything about infrastructure, economics, natural resources and environmental management (often deals with concepts of waste management, energy, and other aspects that affect infrastructure), city planning, etc

Leadership, Law Enforcement, and Diplomatic Relations

  • What is the power / leadership structure like?
    • Influence or absolute power?
    • Community or structured leadership?
    • Elected, inherited, earned through trial, etc?
    • Political, social, religious?
    • Many civilizations will fall somewhere in-between these extremes
  • Laws and Expectations (cultural, social, religious/moral, political)
    • What laws are in place and why?
    • Who enforces these laws?
    • What happens if a law is broken?
      • How serious is deviant behavior culturally?
    • Is there any resistance to one or more of these laws?
    • Are there specific roles for gender, age, social class, etc?
  • Military
    • Is there a standing military? (Basically is there a military profession?)
    • How is it structured?
    • What are their practices?
    • How do they fight?
    • What are their weapons?
  • How do they interact with other cultures/ groups of people?
    • What do the people expect from their leaders?
    • What does a meeting between different leaders look like?
    • What would they discuss?
    • How do they negotiate?

Helpful research: Political science, military strategy, legal studies, how different cultures treat/respond to criminal activity, how they respond to foreign threats, and studies on different kinds of leadership systems and styles, trade, economics, etc.

And as always, make use of the senses

  • What does the place, people, food, etc smell like?
  • What visual details can you describe?
  • What are the sounds you hear on the street?
    • In the home?
    • In the natural environments?
    • What does the language sound like?
  • What would it feel like to touch the clothing, the building material, the tools?
  • What does the food or medicine taste like?

How do these senses interact with one another? The more sensory detail you can provide, the more real your world will feel. Hopefully this will provide you with a good place to start, but don’t just stop here. Add your own questions to the list. Record your thoughts, concepts, questions, and bits of history so you can keep building upon the world you create over time.

Putting It All Together

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The key to successful world-building is to study and learn about various cultures, environments, and ways of life. Record what you learn, what interests you, and your ideas. Keep working at it, and learn to create diversity amidst your world(s).

Remember that a realist world isn’t just one you would want to live in, but one that includes all manner of people, ones you love, ones you hate, ones you have trouble understanding, and ones you can relate with perfectly, and then there is the majority of people who will fall everywhere in between but never actually hit those extremes. Reality is diversity. If you can accomplish diversity, you can make even the most fantastical of worlds feel real.

Is there anything critically important you think should be added to the list? Leave a comment below with your contribution!

Have any world-building topics you would like to see covered on our blog? Let us know and we will do our best to answer any questions or inquiries you may have!