• Phil Parker

Worldbuilding: 5 foundations


Writers of speculative fiction face an enormous problem which doesn't apply in any other genre: we have to define the world in which the story is set.

When the world differs greatly from the one the readers will understand, the demands on the writer increase further. Here are five 'foundations' on which to build your world.


1. Make the world feature elements that mean something to you.

Angela Carter's work is distinctive because her worlds integrate feminist ideals. Tamas Dobozy includes experiences from his childhood as a Hungarian immigrant in World War Two. Our stories invariable feature factors that stem from our background, our life experiences, our values and beliefs. They are what make us individuals. And a good writer is an individual - so are their stories. Therefore the world must reflect that individuality so it's not a generic, banal and commonplace version of what it could be. You don't need to include your life history - identify one or two features that mean something significant to you and build your world around them.

It might mean that growing up in poverty provokes you to write about a world inhabited by the very wealthy and the very poor. If you have a religious belief there may be one aspect of it (how 'gods' are to be treated, what values are seen as crucial etc) that will colour your world. Don't overlook specific knowledge you have (perhaps from your career?). For instance, I'm fascinated by history and mythology, many of my stories reflect this and so blend the two together. What is you know about geology? How could minerals and types of rock affect the world you're creating?


2. Leave some mystery in the world

It's tempting to define every aspect of your world but parts of it is best left to the reader to imagine. If your story centres on a city, for instance, the lands beyond the mountains in the distance can offer your urban population some unanswered questions. Who lives there and are they responsible for what happens (or has already happened) in your story? This allows you to define the city's population - their prejudices about the mountain's inhabitants (whether real or not) can illustrate their bigotry which manifests itself in other ways in your story.

We have such a detailed picture of the world we want to share it with our readers but we need to let them generate their own pictures too. This means providing details about some places/features but leaving others for the reader to fill in - like painting with numbers, let them decide the colours.

There's another benefit - you might want to revisit this world in subsequent stories. What are those people in the mountains really like? How can they control the weather as they do? Your next book might provide the answer!


3. Define how the world impacts on people and their lives

I've just finished reading the first book in Levi Jacob's Resonant series. It captures perfectly this point. In it, some people possess powers (known as resonances) which affect their social standing and ability fight against (or for!) a repressive regime. The resonances, in their early stages of the story are affected by diet. It's an interesting and original premise - when someone's ability to fly can be impeded by starving them!

Likewise, in Steven McKinnon's Raincatcher's Ballad series relies heavily on the geology of his world to produce some of the materials the society needs to wage war on others and also to survive. It affects wealth, the landscape, society's conflicts, relationships with other nations and the central premise of the hardships of life after a war.

These worlds, it should be remembered, will have a past as well as a present. How have these features manifested themselves before the story starts? In Steve McKinnon's case, he's written a prequel to his award-winning novel which addresses such issues. How has society developed (deteriorated?)? How and why do people live their lives differently compared to the past?


4. Objects as metaphors

It's easy to allow simple description to overwhelm the narrative. One way to avoid this is to include objects in your world which act as metaphors to define the place, its people, its beliefs, its way of life. To cite an example, Scott Lynch's 'The Lies of Locke Lamora' uses religion in this way. Different gods are worshipped according to what they provide the worshipper. Religion is a means to an end, it is neither good or bad, it serves a purpose. The story's protagonist is raised within one such belief, which allows him to steal from those who can afford it, a Robin Hood style of thievery. The metaphor permeates the story as it examines the nature of poverty and the actions of those who strive to gain wealth. It's worth giving some serious thought to what these objects might be - they may be small and insigificant things or huge buildings.


5. A range of beliefs and operational systems

If our world had only one belief system how much simpler life would be! Think of all the wars that might have been avoided. By 'operational systems' I mean the features that permeate society - transport systems for instance. You need a world which has a range of these things because this is the source of conflict. The building of railway lines across the USA in the eighteen/nineteenth centuries triggered conflict, often because native races suffered as a consequence. However, these features don't need to be that big. Beliefs may be centralised but differ only in spelling to bring about conflict, or the manner in which those beliefs are turned into actions. Think of Christianity and the different forms it takes - and conflicts generated. The grander the design the bigger the story - you might not want such a thing. Your world may appear to be completely normal except for one minute detail, lots of fantasy stories use this premise and apply it to magic. The vital element here is to define what differences exist and the consequences they provoke.


A few final thoughts about worldbuilding:

  1. A realistic and detailed location enhances its emotional resonance

  2. Landscape not invested with emotion is lifeless

  3. Your experiences enhance the world you create

  4. Worldbuilding needs to be three dimensional

  5. Small details can enhance just as vividly as the large ones

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