Holistic Worldbuilding 101

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Unsurprisingly, worldbuilding is one of my favorite (if not most favorite) parts of the writing process. My natural inclination toward research and logic only encourages that love. But, I know that many writers—new and experienced alike—struggle with worldbuilding. Some even dislike it. I also know that countless writers have talked about how to successfully worldbuild. I’m late to the party and don’t have some new, fancy system to revolutionize your pre-writing experience. However, I have nearly ten years of experience creating settings and worlds that just might be of use to you. My hope is that my advice will spark some creativity and confidence.

Before you begin thinking about creating a story world or developing an existing setting, you need to know one thing: worldbuilding is a long process. There’s no quick way to do it well. It doesn’t matter the size of the setting, the genre of the story, or the length of the story (except, perhaps, if you’re writing children’s literature or short pieces). This is a potentially daunting and annoying fact. But the sooner you accept that a lot of time and work are needed to get results, the sooner you can get to work and create something good.

The second thing you need to know about worldbuilding is that a holistic approach is going to get you the best results. I mean “holistic” in the medical sense, which is the “care of the entire patient in all aspects of well-being, including physical, psychological, and social” (thanks, dictionary.com). This sounds complicated, but what does that mean? We’re not dealing with medicine; we’re dealing with stories. But if you take that principle—that all areas need to be addressed for wholeness—and transfer it over to your story setting, it should make sense. You need to develop all aspects of the world in order to create a whole and robust setting.

In the past, I’ve seen authors give lists of all sorts of areas to develop, from education to waste removal to natural resources, and I think that’s a wonderful idea, especially if you have no clue what to consider. However, I’ve found it hard to go down a list like that and create a cohesive storyworld. Our world is not a list of details—it’s a dynamic, multifaceted web of disciplines and systems. Just think about how impossible it would be to get a bachelor’s degree in every area of study. There are far too many areas to cover in a lifetime! Yet, when you worldbuild, you have to consider all of those elements and how those elements influence each other. Every detail is part of a bigger “ecosystem.”

How do you do that? The same way that historians, scientists, psychologists, artists, and educators go about understanding our world. Literally. All of these disciplines require building up to a multipart and nuanced view of their field. For example, historians learn how morals, religion, poverty or wealth, politics, natural landscape, culture, and technology (among other things) create change and conflict. Just like any other exploration of the world, you must ask the questions and discover with the answers.

Begin with the basics. These are often little details or hunches that are already in your story: the historical time period, the magic system, the strange creatures that lurk in the woods, or the coffee shop that your protagonist visits every Tuesday. Develop these ideas by asking “why,” “what,” and “what if.” What caused the American Civil War that your protagonist’s brother is fighting in? Why are magic users in your world required to wear very specific hats in order to harness the magic? What happens if the creatures in the forest leave the forest? This is where research is going to be your best friend—look into the literal things that are in your story or your sources of inspiration for the things that you’re making up. Learn the history of the time period, create the menu for the café, or sketch the anatomy of the forest creatures. Make the things that you already know into strong, detailed elements.

Then begin to expand, like a spider weaving its web. The elements that you develop should naturally lend to more details and more spheres of discipline. Studying about the Civil War will lead to general U.S. history, fashion of the time, social differences between the states, what food people ate, what music they played and listened to, their forms of entertainment, their architecture, the politics leading up to and after the war, what the rest of the world thought of the U.S. at the time, the history of slavery, etc. etc. Creating forest monsters will lead to learning about similar mythological or real creatures, the ecosystem of the forests where they live, what they eat, where they sleep, what their instincts are, how they relate to other creatures in their habitat, how they came into existence, how they impact the societies that live near them, etc. etc. You want to develop the history, science, education, government, culture, and society of your world in the same way you strengthened the unique starting elements of your story. Make each part of the web as strong as the next and continue expanding.

Eventually, after months of research and planning and revising, you will reach a point when your world is nearly whole. You know important history; you know the clothing they wear; you know what languages they speak; you know the strengths and weaknesses of their culture; you know what sports they play and you know what holidays they celebrate. Search for holes in your web. That’s where the lists of worldbuilding elements does come in handy, because you can make sure you’ve covered obscure details. Also continue to ask those “why” and “what” questions; consider crisis situations, probability and improbability, logic, and natural laws of the world. The more complex the questions, the more it will prompt to you make your world complex.

Continue this process until you’re satisfied. There’s no definite place to stop worldbuilding and, depending on the genre, you may feel as if you’ve mastered your world sooner or later than other writers. You know your story best—just as you know when you’ve developed your character into someone who’s dynamic and realistic, you’ll know when your world is alive enough to jump off the page. It’s better to focus on the method rather than the specifics of how you go about it. If you know how to develop the world, you’ll be able to apply those techniques and principles to each unique piece of fiction that you create. You’ll be able to adapt your specifics to fit the needs of your story, instead of following other authors who may or may not have the same goals or talents as you do. And, you’ll be able to come up with creative ways to circumvent writer’s block or fix plot holes.

Also, remember that you will need to understand your story world in far greater detail than you will ever put into your story in order for the world to feel alive and dynamic to the reader. But all the hard work you put into those details are worth it—it’s the same thing that happens when you develop characters and end up knowing them far more personally than you get to reveal through the course of your story. You have to be sure of what you’re doing because that confidence is what translates onto the page. Taking the time to worldbuild is the surest way to gain that confidence.

 

In case this process still seems too abstract for you, here’s a condensed version of my method:

  1. Begin with what’s already in your story
    1. Identify what you have to work with: history, politics, creatures, specific places, laws, magic systems, etc.
    2. Develop those elements until they’re strong and fleshed-out by asking: what, why, and what if?
  2. Look at the elements you already have and look for connections to other disciplines
    1. When you find connections, branch out and develop these new areas
    2. Connect all of the disciplines together
  3. Once your web is well-developed, look for holes
    1. Consider logical outcomes, probability, and natural laws
    2. Develop weak areas
    3. Go down your worldbuilding list and make sure you covered everything

 

Also, in case you don’t have one of your worldbuilding lists handy, here is a non-comprehensive list of things to consider when you research or develop your world (these are the things I develop during parts #2 and #3 of my method):

  1. History
    • Specific region
    • Country
    • Surrounding countries
    • Continent
    • Global
    • Wars
    • Trading history
    • Historical preservation
    • Museums
    • Monuments
    • Unsolved mysteries
  2. Science
    • Biology
    • Chemistry
    • Physics
    • Ecology
    • Genetics
    • Geology
    • Oceanography
    • Archeology
    • Psychology
    • New research
    • Animals
    • Insects
  3. Language
    • Languages spoken
    • Alphabet(s)
    • Accent(s)
    • Slang
    • Naming trends
    • Naming traditions
    • Standard greetings
    • Polite language
    • Cursing
  4. Art
    • Music genres
    • Singing
    • Musical instruments
    • Theater
    • Dance
    • Color theory
    • Painting
    • Drawing
    • Photography
    • Sculpture
    • Architecture
    • Literature
    • Folk tales
    • Fairy tales
    • Mythology
    • Poetry
    • Entertainment
  5. Industry
    • Jobs available
    • Civil service
    • Factories
    • Businesses
    • Offices
    • Level of industrialization
    • Wages
  6. Government
    • Structure
    • Citizen’s rights
    • Voting
    • Censorship
    • Political parties
    • Immigration
    • Trade deals
    • Taxes
    • Bureaucracy
    • Military
    • Disaster relief
  7. Law
    • Local law
    • Federal law
    • Judicial system
    • Court proceedings
    • Prison/jail
    • Sentencing
    • Law enforcement
    • Crime investigation
    • Criminology
    • Lawyers
    • Crime rates
    • Regulations
    • Passing laws
    • Loopholes
  8. Environment
    • Geography
    • Landscape
    • Native wildlife
    • Native plants
    • Natural resources
    • Fuel
    • Conservation
    • Maps
    • Means of travel
    • Roadways
    • Housing
    • Types of buildings
    • Neighborhoods
    • Cities
    • Urbanization
    • Natural laws
    • Cemeteries
  9. Economy
    • Denominations of money
    • Banks
    • Trade
    • Booming or recessing
  10. Technology
    • Vehicles/Transportation
    • Plumbing
    • Electricity
    • Heating/Cooling
    • Waste removal
    • Computers
    • Aircraft
    • Water purification
    • Communication
    • Medical
    • Weaponry
  11. Religion
    • Types of religion(s)
    • Morality
    • Philosophy
    • Societal norms
    • Popularity of religion(s)
    • Cults
    • Traditions/rituals
    • Worship
    • Afterlife
    • Legal regulation
  12. Family/Relationships
    • Typical family unit
    • Parental roles
    • Number of children
    • Extended family
    • Family hierarchy
    • Care for elders
    • Care for children
    • Dating/Courting
    • Engagement
    • Marriage
    • Divorce
    • Friendships
    • Siblings
    • Adoption
    • Orphan care
    • Single-parents
  13. Holidays/Celebrations
    • Religious holidays
    • National holidays
    • Birthdays
  14. Health/Medicine
    • Medical training
    • Hospitals
    • Treatments
    • Chronic illnesses
    • Crisis intervention
    • Medicine
    • Alternative medicine
    • Epidemiology
    • Most common diseases
    • Prenatal/postnatal care
  15. Food
    • Available crops
    • Agriculture
    • Traditional meals
    • Imports
    • Special treats
    • Desserts
    • Spices/herbs
    • Preservation
    • Daily diets
    • Weight loss methods
    • Restaurants
    • Beverages
  16. News/Media
    • Journalism
    • News coverage
    • Speed of news
    • Censorship
    • Technological impact
    • Weather forecasts
    • Mail systems
  17. Education
    • Schools
    • Grade levels
    • Duration of education
    • Higher education
    • Tutoring
    • Expense of education
    • Apprenticeships
  18. Fashion
    • Standards of modesty
    • Trending fashion
    • Every-day wear
    • Formal wear
    • Hairstyles
    • Makeup
    • Shoes
    • Work clothes
    • Jewelry
  19. Culture/Society
    • Cultural norms
    • Gender roles
    • Age of adulthood
    • Rights of adulthood
    • Rites of passage
    • Age of consent
    • View of wealth/poverty
    • Regional differences
    • Biases/prejudices
    • Sub-cultures
    • View of work
    • View of marriage
    • View of success
    • View of death
    • Vacations
    • Pets
    • Hobbies
    • Leisure activities
    • Organized sports
    • Organized groups
    • Time management
    • Pace of life
    • Societal vices
    • Taboo subjects

 

Next week, I’m going to share my favorite worldbuilding resources (all of which are free), so stay tuned!

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