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, but for writers its a bit different. 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 or fantasy writer has for adding depth to a story.
World building is a huge topic, and there have been many books and classes discussing it, but in this article I plan to give you just a few brief thoughts on the subject.
First and foremost, let your world building be an enjoyable process. It should be fun. Much of the writing you do will have several reviews and rewrites. It’s the type of work that you review, review again, hand it to a friend to look over, and then review it yet again, but your world building document is different. It can and should 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. The 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. Another option I use is set up a personal wiki and create pages for the content.
Good world-builders also keep informed on scientific facts. One thing that ruins a science fiction or fantasy story is incorrect or inconsistent information about the world your story takes place in. For example, it’s probably not the best idea for your sci-fi 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. Science is also important in fantasy writing. It’s your world, so define the rules however you like, but keep it consistent.
Make sure your facts are consistent too. 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.
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, 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. If you’re writing about a species that has three sexes, then describe the family unit. What roles do they have? Do all three work to support the family? If two of the parents are allowed to work, how would that affect their income?
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.