A World Building Guide
Visitors to this site may have noticed I draw many different kinds of maps to reference the Tefr world. This guide is not about maps. I’ll do maps another time.
Don’t get me wrong, maps are great, they can give many different kinds of information and meaning relative to your world, but maps are not all there is to world building. Sometimes maps can even get in the way of your imagination. Draw a squiggly coastline, stick in some mountains, a river and a few dots for towns and you’ve locked your world down before you’ve even started.
What a map gives you is a overview of a world. The sort a visitor in a spaceship would see from above. It shows lots of geographic features, but tells almost nothing about what someone would experience if they were stood on the ground.
How to Stop Relying on Maps
There are two approaches to take and both are thought exercises. One is the macroscopic approach looking at the large and general features of the world and working down to finer details. The other is the myopic approach starting with a small location and broadening the information about the world from that point. Both approaches are equally valid. Often I like to use both and switch back and forth.
Which approach is best will often depend on why you are building the world.
If you are writing a story begins at a smallholding where terrifying Northmen attack and take the protagonist and family into slavery. Start small and work out. It will help hugely to understand the journey of parochial characters being forced to learn about the wider world
If you are writing an epic fantasy setting in which a creaking ancient empire must struggle with the threat of strange beings invading from another dimension, you are probably going to want to start big and home in on the details.
Most world builders don’t start with a completely open brief, they will be bringing some preconceptions about the world they imagine with them. This is fine, it is good to know what sort of world you want, but always be prepared to revise it if a better concept presents itself in the process. However, especially for fantasy worlds, it is very easy to fall into a standard trope that copies some form of Hollywood mediaeval.
Research is hugely important to the writing process both because it is informative and because it can be inspirational. You can do some before you start and during the process, especially if you need some pertinent detail checked -like what root veg might an iron age farmer be growing, or how high can someone jump in half gravity? As ever Google is a great source of information, but be prepared to be better than that, try asking experts, historians, librarians, re-enactors; you will be surprised what wonderfully inspiring nuggets in info they can provide for your world.
Querying Your World
An important skill to develop for either approach is to train yourself to ask questions about your world. Another skill is to allow your world to remain in a state of flux whilst you run through the creative process. This enables a new and exciting idea thrown up from one of your questions to change something you might have thought you’d answered earlier.
Use your questions to hone your world and find more questions to create finer and finer detail. The answers don’t all have to be written down, simply thinking about things is often enough.
Broadly you will want to think about the following:
The order is unimportant and it can even help to switch back and forth between these subjects. Many answers for one subject will help to inform answers for others and thus the process helps to build itself.
Think about the dominant technologies of your world.
Is there water power, wind, steam or even exotic magic?
What kind of level is the technology and how widely available is it? –does everyone own a horse? Is magic a jealously guarded secret?
How might your technology affect the way people live?
What is commonly used for transport?
How is the technology used in warfare, is it specialist or generally available to the ranks?
Could the technology change the way war is conducted?
How is your technology supported? Where does the metal/stone/saltpetre come from?
Think about the level of civilisation in your world.
Are different parts less civilised?
Are the borders of nations strictly set?
Are the nations peaceful or warlike?
Do the nations contain any large cities?
How are those cities supported in terms of produce and commerce?
How well connected is the civilisation, are there roads and how good are they?
Are there other links: sea, canals?
How good is general communication, are there beacons, messengers, owls that carry the post?
This is closely linked to civilisation but has more to do with the structure of the society.
How is the world ruled?
Is it authoritarian or permissive?
Is the state secular or religious?
How strict is the religion?
Are there several overlapping/competing forms of power like religion and state?
Is it centralised or decentralised to local lords.
What power struggles are there internally or externally?
How is authority enforced: army, police, warband, gangs?
Is a standing military force maintained?
There are a number of angles that can be examined here.
Is the population solely human?
Even so are there different groups, ethnicities and how do they get along?
How do they regard outsiders?
Is the population dense or sparse?
Do people move around much?
Are most people comfortable or living hand to mouth?
What does the general populace think of the authorities?
Are people very religious or less so?
How educated are people?
Can people read and if so are there schools?
What sort of clothing do people wear?
Sometimes this is overlooked in world building, but it can add such a huge amount of depth to your world that it should be considered.
What preceded the current civilisation?
Was there an ancient civilisation that was regarded as a greater lost civilisation?
What was seen as greater about it?
Is it known why the preceding civilisation or social order failed?
Are there ancient ruins or monuments left?
Are there any myths related to the world?
Is there a creation myth?
Were there any historical cataclysms that may have sparked legends?
Were there any famous historical battles and where were they fought and why?
Were there any famous heroes or other historical figures?
This may be linked to the Geography of your world, but it is worth giving some consideration.
Is the climate uniform or does it vary across your world?
What is the climate: desert, cold, tropical?
If there are mountains, are they high enough to be snow-capped?
Do lakes and seas freeze in the depths of winter?
How do people keep cool or warm?
Can the climate swing to extremes, are there periods of drought, flooding, high winds or raining fire?
This can be part of the mapmaking stage but it doesn’t have to be.
Is there a big continental plain?
Does it have a large river?
How easy is that river to cross?
Are there mountains and if so, are they new and tall or old and worn down?
What kind of stone can be quarried in the local areas and is it suitable for building, houses, castles, massive citadels?
You don’t have to ask all these questions to flesh out your world, you will probably have a few of your own that are more relevant to your particular project. In the end building a world is about adding layer upon layer of the answers to any question you can think of to throw at it. And okay, yes, maps can help too, but I hope this gives a few more ideas on how to give your worlds more depth.