A couple of months ago I was contacted by someone from Reedsy with regards to writing a guest post for my blog. They sounded very interesting and so I agreed. Here is some information about Reedsy and what they do.
Founded in 2014, Reedsy is a platform and marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. Reedsy also provides tools to help authors write and format their books, as well as free courses and webinars to help them learn more about writing and publishing. As of 2019, over 4,000 books have been self-published using Reedsy’s services.
The 4 Fundamentals of Worldbuilding
Maybe it’s a yellow brick road where lions, tigers, and bears roam. Perhaps it’s an ancient pseudo-Medieval European setting under threat from a dark lord. Whatever the case, this is one of the best parts of being an author: the ability to create worlds far different from our own.
But the excitement of “secondary worldbuilding” — in other words, creating a world that’s different from the “real world” — can quickly become overwhelming. This post will try to help authors conquer the wonderful task of worldbuilding by outlining four fundamental concepts to help you get it right.
1. Time Frame and History
When you think of classic fantasy novels, you often think of settings in books like Lord of the Rings or A Game of Thrones — medieval and European. Despite existing for seemingly thousands of years, these worlds don’t seem to have progressed much in the way of technology and almost seem frozen in time. Compare this to popular science fiction novels, which take place in worlds that feel far in the future because of their technologically advanced societies. (Of course, the danger herein is that some older sci-fi novels now feel comically dated for how the way they imagine the 21st century.)
These are important elements to consider. Whether your world has a historical, modern, or futuristic feel, you should still develop a sense of how the world has developed. Has it always been innately advanced? Is it rural because it’s a newer society? Perhaps advancement has been stunted because of ongoing wars or frequent power shifts?
As well as developing a sense of where your world is currently, establish what has led it to the present point.
This is maybe one of the most intimidating parts of worldbuilding. But don’t worry, you don’t need to have majored in topography during university to tackle your story-world’s geography. The geographical aspects of your world will likely continue to evolve through the novel-writing process. Still, it’s good to have a basic sense of the physical world you’re creating. Start by considering…
- Layout: how big is this world? What are the more populous regions? What areas, if any, remain unexplored? Is it divided into countries? Or perhaps there aren’t any established borders?
- Climate: what is the weather like? Are there four seasons? Do those seasons resemble those of the real world? How do the various climates affect the various parts of the world?
- Landscapes: think mountains, plains, valleys, deserts, forests, hills, canyons, and so on.
- Water: think oceans, lakes, rivers, springs, seas, and so on. Naturally this will affect the dispersion of the population, as people need to live near water resources.
You don’t need to create an entirely new culture from scratch — there are so many current and historical cultures for you to pull from. If you do, of course, ensure you do your research and represent aspects of that culture as accurately and sensitively as possible. (If you ever have any doubts, working with sensitivity readers is always an option).
Here are a few aspects of culture to get your imagination going:
- Language: as UK editor of The Martian, Michael Rowley, puts it, “The spoken word is a reflection of the cultures that spawned them, and the evolution of the language will often indicate some societal change.” You certainly don’t need to create an entirely new language as with Tolkien, but you should consider the different dialects that might exist in your world. Considering language will always play a large part in determining the names of characters and places within your world.
- Power Dynamics: what kind of government exists in this world? Who currently has the power? How long have they held power? Is there a monarchy? Who oversees law-making and law enforcement? How do gender, sexuality, or race contribute to power dynamics?
- Religion: does religion exist? Are there many different kinds of religions? What about gods? How does this affect society?
- Arts/Entertainment: how do people in this culture express themselves? Are arts celebrated or restricted? Are there popular sports or other forms of entertainment?
4. Magic and Technology
While magic and technology are both very different concepts, they will both be a major influencer in your world — and chances are if you’re creating a secondary world, it’s so that you can also create your own set of rules regarding magic and technology, free from the constraints of the real world.
If your world contains magic, here are a few factors to consider:
- Is everyone magic?
- Are people born magic or do they learn it?
- Does everyone possess the same kinds of magic?
- What do magical powers look like — how are they manifested?
- Where did magic come from?
- Are there rules on the types of magic people can perform?
- How are magical laws enforced?
- Is there “good” and “bad” magic?
- Is magic accepted everywhere? Is it banned in certain places?
Here are a few questions to ask yourself about the technology in your world:
- Would this world be considered technologically advanced?
- How is technology used for communication? Travel? Health? Entertainment? Education? War?
- How is technology used by the government or controlling powers?
- What role does technology play in people’s everyday lives?
- Is technological access equally dispersed throughout the world, or do some people have more/less access than others?
- What positive and/or negative contributions has technology offered in your world?
- How dependant are people on technology?
Like developing a character, worldbuilding can start to feel like a never-ending process. And in a sense, that’s true: both process will also continue as you write (and rewrite) your story. For that reason, it’s important to consider what aspects of your world are crucial to the story at hand: while you might be able to easily picture every square inch of your world, only include the details that will enhance a reader’s understanding of, and connection to, the characters and story.
Emmanuel Nataf is a founder at Reedsy, a marketplace and set of tools that allows authors and publishers to find top editorial, design and marketing talent. Over 3,000 books have been published using Reedsy’s services.
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