“Readers will believe in almost anything—except people acting simplistically or implausibly.
"The vital ingredient in a fictional world is culture.” - Fonda Lee, author of the phenomenal Jade City
Can we separate worldbuilding from politics?
Storytelling is about the impressions, feelings, and ideas we evoke. The power of a book comes from how an author empowers readers to make a story into their own. But how do we convince readers to take that first step?
When it comes to compelling worldbuilding in sci-fi/fantasy fiction, the devil isn’t in the details—it’s in the culture. Here, an author can get all the details perfect and still not convince the reader for a second that the fictional world is real.
Here are 11 questions to make your worldbuilding persuasive, immersive, and memorable.
QUESTION 1: Is this a good-hearted, mean-spirited, or apathetic world?
Or more to the point, does your character perceive this to be a good-hearted, mean-spirited, or apathetic world?
In the real world, people are infinitely complex. But a story is not the real world. In a story, we need to determine the primary mode through which your characters engage with existence.
Let’s look at further questions to help you flesh this out.
QUESTION 2: Are people inherently bad or inherently good?
In his outstanding book Don't Think of an Elephant, George Lakoff distinguishes human psychology based on the frames through which we perceive the world: Strict Father vs Nurturant Parent.
Essentially, Strict Fathers believe people are inherently flawed and must be punished to repress their worst impulses. Nurturant parents believe most people are good and will thrive if given adequate support.
Lakoff was speaking more about modern-era political ideologies—which we are not going to get into—but for the purposes of sci-fi/fantasy worldbuilding, let’s talk about how this approach will transform and elevate your storytelling.
QUESTION 3: Is your character a STRICT FATHER?
Strict Father is a gendered system—only male and female. Why is that important?
Because in the Strict Father system, if we don’t respect the established hierarchy of power, society falls apart. What is that order?
That’s the order. Patriarchy rules. God—a male figure—will always sit at the top. The father will always have more authority than the mother, the mother than the children, and on down the line.
You can quickly see how gender diversity and inclusivity would devastate the Strict Father worldview. The view attracts those who prefer easy distinctions between who deserves power and who deserves to serve. Be a man and you have power. Be anything less—or anything less than clearly a man—and your lower place in the power hierarchy is assured.
Listed as one of President Obama’s favorite books of 2017, Naomi Alderman’s sci-fi novel The Power challenges what happens when the Strict Father paradigm is overturned by women coming into unstoppable power.
QUESTION 4: Is your character a NURTURANT PARENT?
In the Nurturant Parent frame, no one’s gender (or lack of gender) privileges them with power. The whole approach is gender-neutral. Man? Woman? Non-binary? Transgender? Gender-fluid? Agender? We are all worthy.
This doesn’t mean your imagined society doesn’t contain other barriers to equality. Good people, after all, negotiate conflicting needs and limits all the time. That negotiation can make up the emotional core for your story—unless one of the characters isn’t a good person after all.
That brings us to the next question.
QUESTION 5: Are your characters inherently flawed or inherently good?
In the Strict Father frame, people are inherently flawed. We must be saved from ourselves.
God and the Father are required to use discipline and punishment to rear children. Or, if you’re royalty or the President or King or something, your duty is to use discipline and punishment—you may be familiar with the modern phrase “cruelty is the point”—to push people to do the right thing.
The idea is to make giving in to your sinful nature more painful than if you had just obeyed. Hurting people is justified—think of modern societies that use the threat of physical harm to control the behavior of anyone deemed deviant.
- The Giver by Lois Lowry
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
- Blade Runner based on the short story by Philip K. Dick
The Nurturant Parent frame assumes we all have good intentions but are pushed to horrifying behaviors due to a lack of resources.
Nurturant Parents provide a healthy, supportive environment for people to manifest their best selves. Children are born good and can be encouraged to be better. We will all stumble and grow in fits and starts, but that’s not evidence we’re inherently flawed. Nurturant Parents pursue progress, not perfection.
Nurturant Parents are not necessarily pacifists, though. They’ll fight to protect what they love. Being pushed to violate their most sacred principles can, indeed, form the basis for an irresistible sci-fi/fantasy story.
- The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
- The Coldfire Trilogy by C.S. Friedman
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
QUESTION 6: Do your characters compete for resources?
Even Nurturant Parents face limits on resources. The conflict your characters face—whether they are Strict Father or Nurturant Parent—comes in part from how your sci-fi/fantasy world’s economy empowers characters to overcome economic obstacles.
Are there regulations in place to provoke innovation? To enhance competition? To prevent monopolies? Does your economy depend on the spice? Are all stores in this dystopian city owned by the same person or organization? Does this lead to good or bad outcomes? Are characters rewarded for selfish vs altruistic behavior?
Don’t mistake a character pursuing wealth as immoral by default. Even thieves in sci-fi/fantasy worlds often follow a kind of Strict Father prosperity theory. As long as they follow the Code, they deserve good outcomes.
These questions are helpful even in contemporary fiction—an alpha asshole billionaire, for example, required to marry or lose their company is usually in conflict with a Strict Father paradigm—but these questions are especially helpful to stretch the limits of what stories would be compelling in your sci-fi/fantasy worldbuilding.
QUESTION 7: What about when the bad guys win?
There is one exception to the Strict Father prosperity theory: sometimes, in fact, bad guys prosper. But for a Strict Father, that is because they have an illegitimate claim to authority. They could at best be deputized into the service of legitimate authority—but the first mistake is all it takes to prove they were never worthy.
The real good guys now have one job: stop the proven bad guy. They may even temporarily join forces with the people in power to stop this common foe.
- Dune by Frank Herbert
- The Coldfire Trilogy by C.S. Friedman
- Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
QUESTION 8: Do your characters expect a fair shake from the justice system?
What happens when that conflict puts your character in opposition to the people in power? To answer this, we need to explore your sci-fi/fantasy world’s justice system.
Think about what it means for your character to feel the world is fair. To feel that if they are accused of a crime, they will get a fair shake. That can be part of your worldbuilding even if the protagonist is an anti-hero or a villain. You can write a heist story where the characters think yeah, we’re breaking the law, and if we get caught, we’ll get a fair punishment.
On the other hand, if your characters don’t expect a fair shake, think about what that says about the world around them. Sit with the anxiety and anger a character would live with simply from existing. Their only hope is to find fulfillment in conforming to the world around them—but what if that’s not possible?
- Sting by Cindy Wilson
- Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
- A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
QUESTION 9: Does your character feel at home in the world?
It’s tempting to make the character believe they don’t belong because they contain an inherent flaw, but I’d challenge you to explore the opposite. What would need to be true about your sci-fi/fantasy world for your character not to expect a fair shake despite them believing there’s nothing wrong with them?
What must your character face if they want to thrive? If the stakes are even higher, what obstacles must your character face to stay alive? The character's challenges will require them to face as much about themselves as the world around them.
Indeed, fighting an unjust status quo can form the backbone for the next epic ten-book sci-fi series. The fight against interstellar bigotry requires interstellar weapons.
QUESTION 10: What if you want readers to applaud an oppressive government?
This is a tough one that forces me to reach for an unusual example: The Hunger Games. Only the ruling class supports this insanity, and we feel that conflict from the first page. But why does the ruling class support putting children in a fight to the death?
Think back to the Strict Father ideology we discussed at the beginning. In this kind of world, people believe that without discipline and punishment, people will revert to their worst selves and society will collapse. The Hunger Games remind each District what awful fate awaits them if they step out of line. President Snow sees the annual exercise in cruelty as an essential element to effective government.
For a more inspiring version, let’s look at characters who fight for equality.
QUESTION 11: Is your character a rebel?
The strongest stories tend to be something that upsets what’s familiar. The establishment must be reformed or abolished. But to know what dynamic or paradigm you’re going to upset—you need to identify the status quo.
Is your character confronting the Strict Father or Nurturant Parent paradigm?
AGAINST STRICT FATHER
If the nature of the world is Strict Father, the rebel now needs to be someone in opposition to privileged power. This is a free thinker. This is someone who resists authority—not necessarily against any kind, but certainly against the wrong kind. This is Katniss, who rebelled against Snow and then rebelled against the rebellion, too, when she found out they were just as fascistic as the people they were fighting.
AGAINST NURTURANT PARENT
This is Killmonger from Black Panther. The audience confronts not just the consequences of systemic racism across the world, but the ambition of a man so desperate to give his people the tools to lift themselves up that he will unseat the King of Wakanda.
And just as was done in Black Panther, your goal as an author is to present an irresistible story to resolve this seemingly impossible conflict—even if you believe the status quo is ultimately legitimate, heroic, and worthy of noble reform.
If you already find yourself fantasizing about arguments over these questions, you may have discovered your next great story. Indeed, many epic sci-fi/fantasy novels are high-concept stories that are secretly just one long thematic debate between conflicting ideologies.