Strangers in Strange Lands: On Worldbuilding from Scratch

legosOne of the great joys of speculative fiction is creating totally alien worlds that shed light on the human experience in novel and unexpected ways. At the same time, a totally blank canvas can be overwhelming (perhaps to the point where it’s very tempting to pull out and recycle a cliche instead). But worldbuilding can be both enjoyable in its own right, create a rich, immersive world for your story, and provide details that can serve as plot twists or simply add conflict to your main storyline.

Making a believable, internally consistent world requires the elements to be causally related. Personally, I like to work this out as a mind map, where the center point is some important fact about your world.  There are then three categories of bubbles you can build off that central fact:

  1. What conditions must be true for this central fact to be true? For example, if your story involves life forms on a planet with no sun, there needs to be an alternate source of energy for them.
  2. What are some direct effects of this central fact? For example, if your fictional society draws magical energy from a source which is slow to replenish, this resource will be scarce and coveted as a result, which in turn means that wealth and power is inextricably tied to access to this resource.
  3. Given examples or research, what other facts are likely to be true about this world? For example, many high-latitude cultures around the world eat organ meats to make up for the lack of vitamins D and C, because the lower temperatures mean a shorter growing season and less sunlight. This isn’t a direct causality and isn’t always true, but it’s a likely outcome in this particular environment.

Once you have some bubbles on your mind map, repeat as often as you like in concentric circles until you have figured out what people in your setting eat, what other cultures they trade with, what animals they keep as pets, what their core values are as a society, and so on.

Establishing the specifics of the setting gives you an invaluable scaffolding for developing the specifics of the plot. One aspect is that in developing your setting, you will develop the rules and constraints that govern it. It’s important to your storytelling credibility with the audience that you work out beforehand whether or not these rules can be broken or contain loopholes, even if you do not intend to reveal this information until later in the story. (It’s also good to establish these exceptions to the rules through exposition– or at least hint that they might be possible– well before they save the day). Knowing the rules of your world will generate conflict organically as the characters come face to face with those limitations.

The other aspect is that a fully realized world allows you to immerse your audience in the immediate details of your story and what makes  your world unique, while at the same time hinting at a larger universe waiting to be explored. For example, your character enjoying the smell and color of a rare imported spice gives us both a unique sensory detail, and a tantalizing hint that of the far-away place from which the spice came. This gives your world the sense of scale and completeness that allows your audience to climb deep inside your  world to enjoy your story.

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