If you’re unfamiliar with the term “World Building” you might get a mental image of huge machines covering the surface of a dead planet carving rivers, planting forests, and pumping oxygen into the atmosphere. Truth is—that’s not far from reality. World building is the art of bringing to life an imagined world through descriptions, back-story, maps, drawings, and other creative means, and is one of the greatest tools a science fiction writer has for adding depth to a story.
First and foremost, let your world building be an enjoyable process. It should be fun. Much of the writing you do will have several reads and rewrites. The kind of stuff that you review, review, hand it to a friend to look over, and then review again, but your world building document can contain raw ideas. You don’t have to worry about getting everything perfect. If you have some dangling modifiers, misused semicolons, or run-on sentences, It’s OK. This document is yours, and nobody will ever see it, so give your eraser a break and let your ideas flow.
With that said, don’t go crazy. You need to give your world building ideas some organization so you can find the information you need when you need it. I like to keep my ideas in a three ring binder with tabs for subjects like: places, species, and organizations. On some pages I have hand-drawn maps and diagrams, on others I have typed notes, and still on others I have tables full of terms and definitions. This also allows you to shuffle your pages around, and add or remove them if needed. In recent years I’ve also experimented with creating a private Mediawiki site for worldbuilding. It’s like an online binder that is accessible everywhere. I’ll scan in any drawings and create the sections I just mentioned as pages in the wiki.
To be a good science fiction writer, you must keep informed on scientific facts. One thing that ruins sci-fi quicker than anything is incorrect or inconsistent information about the world. For example, it’s probably not the best idea for your story to take place on a planet that orbits a pulsar; it would be difficult for life to exist in such a hazardous place. Your readers will pick up on mistakes like this, and your story will lose credibility.
Make sure your facts are consistent. If your planet orbits a yellow star at the beginning of your story, make sure that you don’t call it a brown dwarf later on. Inconsistency will cause your story to fall apart, and the reader won’t be able to paint a coherent picture of your world. Fantasy is a bit more forgiving with the technologies it employs, but you still must be diligent in keeping your facts straight throughout the story.
Brainstorming often follows writing. Sometimes as I put my ideas to paper, or the binary ones and zeroes of my computer’s storage system, I’ll have an idea for some new aspect of the world I’m writing about. I’ll immediately jot that idea down along with all its associated facts to keep things consistent throughout the entire story. Later on when I write of that idea again, I can review my summary and keep things straight. It would be bad to have a species described with five legs in one place and four in another, or a character with no siblings at the start of a story, and an older brother half-way through.
Finally, be complete…think about things like culture, history, geography, languages, religion, and why the world is the way it is. The more content you put into the brainstorming document, the easier it will be writing the stories that happen there.
When creating your world-building document consider the butterfly effect. If a butterfly flaps its wings on earth, does it cause a hurricane on Mars? Things are deeply connected, and one tiny action may have large repercussions in other systems…so think it through completely.
If you’re interested in creating unique places and things check out serpenshead.com and see worldbuilding in action. Come be a part of a community of creative individuals and build your world.