The Easy-ish Way to Create Believable, Unforgettable Fictional Worlds

From Writer Unboxed:

Worldbuilding gets a bad rap sometimes. If you ask certain people, worldbuilding is either for nerds looking for almanacs, not fiction, or it’s a useless distinction that should be an intrinsic part of writing.

But there are plenty of writers who recognize the essential nature of worldbuilding separate from the act of storytelling—for science fiction and fantasy, sure, but also for all genres. And there are a ton of amazing, detailed guides to creating worlds. But years ago, when I was first looking to build out the world I had created for my first foray into fantasy writing, I looked up resources for worldbuilding and quickly got bogged down in the sheer number of details these guides wanted me to know.

These guides offer hundreds of questions about the world you’re creating, insinuating that answering each one will lead to developing a believable, original world. I found weeks-long online courses dedicated solely to building a world from scratch.

I like to call these types of resources sandboxes. They give you lots of blank space to play around. “Where are the mountain ranges in your world?” they ask. “What military tactics does each nation in your world use?”

These are good questions, depending on the type of story you’re writing. Sandboxes are fun places for free play and for letting the mind run wild.

But once I had determined the election procedures of a specific political party in my book, which was decidedly not about election procedures or political parties, I was left no closer to a better story. I wondered: “…Now what? What does this have to do with my story?”

This is how I came to begin thinking about story-first worldbuilding.

Story-first worldbuilding falls somewhere on the worldbuilding opinion spectrum between “almanac” and “intrinsic” by exploring the details of the world around the story you want to tell. You don’t need to know where every mountain range is in your world unless your characters intend to cross them. What follows are a set of exercises that are geared mainly toward writers of fantasy who are creating secondary worlds, but hopefully applicable to all writers. The goal of these exercises to help you build a believable world that will add depth and color to the story you want to tell—without making you spend hours writing out the dominant flora on a continent your story will never visit.

How to Build a World Around the Story You Want to Tell

To complete the following exercises, I will assume that you have at least a smidgen of a story idea in mind. It’s okay if it’s not a fully fleshed-out plot yet. I will also assume that, since you have a story idea, you also have a vague impression of the world in which it’s set. It’s okay if most of the world is a blurry mess at this point.

This section contains a couple of exercises to get your mind thinking about how your world interacts with your story. The exercises are intended to be done in order, but this isn’t school. Do what’s most helpful to you.

Exercise #1: Write down everything you already know about your story’s world.

Set a timer for five, 10, or 30 minutes—however much time you think you need—and write out everything you already know about the world in which your story takes place, stream-of-consciousness style. Focus on the parts of your story you’ve either written or can picture clearly in your head. For example, if you know a critical scene in the climax involves an escape from a desert prison, write, “There’s a prison in the desert.” Do not consult Wikipedia’s list of desert flora and fauna. Even if you list things that are contradictory or illogical, write them all down anyway. Give yourself permission to let your mind run free. Important: This is not the time to make up new things about your world. If new ideas come to mind as you’re writing, don’t stop to examine them—just write them down and keep going.

When your time is up, read back over what you wrote. What are the things that are intrinsic or critical to your story and/or characters?

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

4 thoughts on “The Easy-ish Way to Create Believable, Unforgettable Fictional Worlds”

  1. Sensible advise for a single story.
    If planning for a series (with the same or varying characters) an effort to go beyond the needs of the moment will payoff in the long run. Piers Anthony’s XANTH franchise was intended as a trilogy, then became a trilogy of trilogies and exploded into an open ended franchise. That it wasn’t meant to run that long shows up in occasional inconsistencies but given the chaotic nature of the realm he gets away with it.

    On other occasions, a setting will take on a life of its own where the endpoint of what was meant to be a solo spawns a sequel or an entire series. Eric Flint’s GRANTVILLE SAGA, aka 163x, will stand as the exemplar for ages and ages. 1632 was meant to be a quickie adventure until David Weber (a historian) pointed out the in-story instability of the ending and the narrative potential for a series. He also wanted to take a crack at the setting. So it became a trilogy. Except even that proved a vast underestimation. The thing is an industry in its own right with at least a half dozen interlocking series set in what has become a shared literary universe, spanning Europe, Asia, the Americas, and more. Plus a couple of spinoff stories (a high security prison in dinosaur times) and another series set in a different time period/universe (a cruise ship zapped to the post-Alexander Mediterranean. (Perry Rhodan, watch out! 😉 )

    Hoever not everybody gets that lucky, though.
    Best to prepare for contingencies.

    It has long been a truism that the full extent of research/world building carried out doesn’t *have* to be squeezed into the story. The converse is also true: what shows up in the manuscript doesn’t have to be *everything* that gets developed. It is generally good for the author to know what’s going on “off-camera”.

Comments are closed.