In my opinion, worldbuilding is one of the most fun aspects of creative writing.
In short, you get to play god. You dive into your own imagination and create an alternate universe that either closely mirrors the one in which we inhabit or it’s a wholly new, diverse creation. You are laying the bedrock on which your story will come to life. If you do it poorly, your reader will lose interest. If you do it well, you will find that readers will invest in your world, your characters, and you. In order to help you with that, here is the worldbuilding checklist that I use myself.
1. You need rules to make your fake world real.
It’s got to have rules, this world, otherwise, you’ll kill both immersion and suspension of disbelief. Follow the rules and you can do all sorts of crazy things where your characters do amazing things. Magic needs rules. Outer space needs physics (even if it’s pseudoscience.) Fail to follow your own rules and nothing good happens. Rules also provide you with a very easy way to introduce conflict into your character’s lives. It’s a built-in plot device that doesn’t take a lot of explanation and that’s always a good thing.
2. Research is fundamental.
It doesn’t matter if your world is based on good ole Mama Earth or a far away planet orbiting another sun, your reader must be able to identify with it, picture it in their head, and agree it’s plausible. This will require research from you in order to make it happen. When writing the actual story itself there is no reason to put in an extensive amount of exposition about it if you know how it would actually work in your mind. If the world, dimension, realm, etc., is completely made up you must follow the rules you made in order to “keep it real.”
Don’t forget, you live on a planet of several billion people from all sorts of backgrounds. Use that information to provide the small details to your own cultures in order to get buy in from your reader.
3. Don’t go down the rabbit hole.
Consistency is key but it can also be utter enslavement that pulls you further down the rabbit hole and keeps you from actually telling the story. Remember that your worldbuilding plan is just that…a plan. Plans change and adapt. Don’t let everything you’ve put into your worldbuilding document stop you from telling a damn good story.
4. There must be a balance (but it doesn’t have to be perfect.)
There are no perfect utopias or dystopias. There will always be darkness and light in whatever world your characters inhabit. You have to show some sort of balance even if it’s not completely equal. In a dystopia, for example, you need to give something for the reader to connect to in order to pull them in the story. They live in a world of shit yet they have hope that drives them forward that a better day will come. In a utopia perhaps not everyone is a fan of how the world is ordered, eliminating individual liberty in favor of the greater good of all.
5. Your characters must be a product of said world.
You must keep in mind that we are all a product of our environment. What we experience on a daily basis and how we interpret that is what defines who we are. Your characters should be no different. If they live in a harsh environment there is a good chance that they will be willing to make harsh choices and vice versa.
6. Don’t forget diversity.
One of the most annoying things I encounter in science fiction stories is this strange desire to make alien species virtually homogenous. They all look the same, have the same government, worships the same god(s). This is an amazingly unrealistic situation. Don’t believe me? Please reference the seven billion plus people on this planet who look very different, live under different governments, and worship thousands of different gods. It’s improbable and implausible.
7. Be different.
Last, but certainly not least, drop the cliches if you want to be unique and original. Evil empires be damned! Have an empire with the best of intentions doing horrible things to add nuance. Also on the list: weird names that nobody but you can pronounce, medieval or Roman based empires, and world’s that only feature one kind of weather or environmental condition. Just stop it. Please.
On a different note…
While it’s been a really good exercise to do this article weekly, I’ve found that the time I’ve actually spent on my own writing has dwindled. In short, I’m not practicing what I preach. So, I will be going to a biweekly publication schedule for the Writer’s Corner articles and popping up randomly with some things I find here and there I think you may find interesting. Have no fear, though. I’m not abandoning you. I’m just hoping to dazzle you with future coolness in the form of a real story. Something about chaos magick, I think. Something epic.
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Until next time, fly safe out there. 07
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Also published on Medium.