There isn’t a certified qualification or course on world-building (well, not in my neighborhood), but every story requires it. Whether your tale is set in a real place or an imagined one, you need to establish your characters’ world so that the reader can suspend disbelief and fully engage with their story.
Of course, the more differences to our own world you introduce, the more you need to focus on getting those details absolutely right—but you need to do it in such a way that they almost fade into the background so the reader is instead focusing on the characters and the story. You don't need to explicitly create and explain all aspects of your world in the first couple of chapters. Without some story developing in these chapters, your reader may not persevere further into the book.
How to Make Your Imaginary World Real
Personally, as a fantasy writer, I’m primarily interested in worlds where there are different rules to our own, changes that require the reader to go on a journey: to take on board a bunch of unlikely and/or impossible things. That could be an urban fantasy or horror story, where we’re dealing with our world plus, for example, adding some magic or supernatural elements) or it could be fantasy set in a completely imagined world (where everything from physical appearance to personal values, from languages to landscapes, are different).
So these are the things I think about:
1. What's important in this place?
At its heart, a story is about conflict. Without that, there's really little to tell. This could be two people or two nations, or even one person or group of people against society or the environment or nature. It might even be one person in conflict with themselves: that's up to you: but once you've worked out what it is, you need a world for that conflict to inhabit:
- What sort of place best showcases this conflict?
- Who are the protagonists in the conflict and where do they reside in respect of each other?
- How do they differ from the everyday people we all know, or do they differ at all?
- What role can the environment play in that conflict, both directly and symbolically?
For example, in the Moontide Quartet, I wanted to tell a story of intercontinental conflict in a fantasy world. The idea of a bridge linking the two continents sprang to mind, and thereafter the world-building for the Moontide world became about creating and justifying that bridge. Of course, the bridge has nice symbolic connotations about uniting and joining. To justify the intermittent nature of that bridge required tidal factors, and that had impacts upon the nature of the landscapes, and from there, the world began to take shape.
Once you've done this, you're ready to think about the protagonists in the conflict, and how the landscape might impact on them. Drawing a picture showing these groups, and even a proto-map, is often useful now, as we populate our story (I love maps!).
2. Put the pieces on the board
If you think about what you've just done as setting up the game board, the next step is to lay out the pieces. Societies are not amorphous blobs: they are made up of people who are all trying to do their best to survive and perpetuate themselves and those they care about. Start with the basics:
- How do people live here? Where does the food come from? What about cloth, timber, metal? What flora and fauna are present and integrated into society? How technologically advanced are the people here?
- What is their history and how might this have shaped them as a people, their beliefs, attitudes, and identity?
- What races are present? How much migration is there from other places? How integrated are the migrants? How do the locals regard the migrants and vice versa? What languages are spoken, and by whom?
- What social classes are present, and how do they interact? What creates and sustains their division (e.g. if there are a few very wealthy and many poor, how do the wealthy preserve that wealth and prevent insurrection)? How do the leaders gain, preserve and relinquish power? How do other potential leaders view the current leaders?
This is where you have the opportunity to impart your own worldview: the things you hold to be true in the nature of the society you are creating. How is the society organized, what do they emphasize, what is their relationship with the environment and each other. Yours might be completely different, but the principles I apply to this are:
- Wealth is never distributed equally: there are always a few rich and lots of poor;
- Men are usually advantaged over women;
- Power corrupts, so the people in charge are more likely to be unscrupulous;
- Majorities are silent, minorities aren’t: much conflict revolves around the treatment of minorities by elites (with the majority either complicit or unaware);
- Superstition is powerful and pervasively influential;
- How minorities are treated is a measure of the collective tolerance of the society;
- Ideals are constantly being compromised;
- Good people can do bad things and (vice versa);
- Complex solutions are hard to sell, but simple solutions rarely work
- Even absolute rulers require some form of consent from those who control the tools by which they hold power. So they must constantly seek to influence the military, the politicians, the economy, and the intellectual debate;
- Advancement is related to drive, skill, connections, wealth, and philosophy. People are always completing for advancement;
- Human needs MUST be met and will find a way. Food and shelter. Security. Procreation. Happiness. A society that fails to deliver on these to all people will become unstable until the will to restore delivery of these needs across the society (though seldom equally) is regained;
- There are tipping points to human tolerance of what they are prepared to put up with before acting. These vary between individuals and groups within society. So an injustice can persist for a long time, then be washed away in moments;
You have to think about how the society you are creating actually functions. What are the lines of disagreement between groups? I like to think of society as being divided up into groups whose primary (but not exclusive) concerns are:
- Economic: production of the means to live
- Security: protection of society and its members
- Political: the organization of the society, its governance and laws
- Philosophical: the ideas and concepts that influence behaviors. (Note that these groups will each have their own economic, security, political, and philosophical "wings", and their own factions.)
3. The past
You don't want to give the impression that your story world winked into existence just before Chapter One. How long has it been here? How did it get here? What are the big events that shape people's behavior today? What are people's beliefs about their creation, their purpose, their past, and their futures? What divergent interpretations of these real or imagined events are present in society?
The more credible these things are, the more real your world will feel. But you have to build rationally, even in a fantasy setting. ‘Fantasy’ is not a synonym for illogical behavior!
4. Do the detail
Having created the big stuff, now you’ve got to think about the small stuff. It’s often the little details that make the world you've created real: tiny customs of dress or behavior that make a group of people come alive. I found inspiration in my observations of our world, partly because I wanted Urte to resemble Earth, but also because we have so much variety, so many fascinating people and places that I think are worth celebrating.
So do some research into other cultures and think about how you might use variants of what you learn in your creation—always taking care to fit it all together seamlessly so that it feels right. Create cultures with their own speech patterns, dress codes, and belief systems. How do the people relax? How do they express themselves creatively? To what do they aspire?
The thing to remember is that all of this needs to serve the story, not the other way round. Don't lose sight of your central premise. If something looks like it is taking over, you need to pare back its importance, but still have it make sense.
5. The people factor
Now, having set up the board and laid out the pieces, you need to personalize it. Each grouping will have opinion leaders and powerful people with needs and desires. They need to be fully rounded people, with positive points as well as flaws—people are always flawed, even someone who’s apparently perfect. And even if they're almost ideal, you can bet their family or friends won't be. Use them to move the conflicts along. And you need to keep in mind that if they've achieved a degree of success, despite their flaws, they must also have strengths: they must be worthy of the role (or at least capable of gaining it and holding it,) and they must fulfill it to the satisfaction of a powerful portion of those they lead (or have intimidated those they lead into letting them keep the role), or their time at the top will be short-lived. Give them a back-story, and think about their goals, in particular, what they think about the big issues, especially the conflict that is the heart of your story. In the Moontide Quartet, the big conflict is the proposed crusade, and every important figure and group has a view.
As the events of your story unfold, you will find that the reactions of these opinion leaders to the latest events in your story will help to drive it forward, so stay on top of what they are thinking and doing, even if it is off-screen.
Next, having built your house of cards, prepare the wrecking ball ...
6. The chaos factor
So far, our goal has been to create a dynamic but mostly stable society. The important factor in that last sentence is ‘stable’. Society is always changing as it adapts to new things, but most of the time it does so in an incremental way.
But conflicts are inherently destabilizing, and that new factor could throw everything into chaos. This ‘chaos factor’ might be ultimately beneficial for most (like a revolt against a tyrant), or not (like a plague virus), but that's up to you. The important thing for the story is that your world and the people in it react in a credible way to the disruption. Work toward a resolution:
- either the change leaves the world altered, or
- the change is averted and your society continues (relatively) unchanged.
As you can see, you can slice and dice your imaginary society in lots of ways, and what you get is COMPLEXITY. This is good: a complex world is believable, while a simplistic one isn’t. As a storyteller, you need to think about how much complexity you want to show; never forget that all of this is to support the story, not be the story. You need to know all this stuff, but you don't need to show it all. Often just making reference to your world-building (local jargon and customs, oblique references to past events, etc.) can be enough in the early chapters to let the action hook the reader; you can let the back-story seep out bit by bit as the plot develops.
Never forget the world-building is the backdrop and the props; the story close-ups should always be on your characters.
Finally, a couple of books I've found useful:
• Jared Diamond: Gun, Germs and Steel, for its brilliant explanation of how and why our world has evolved anthropologically the way it has; and
• Robert Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography, for its clear explanation of how the shape and nature of land shape politics in our world.