Last July, I wrote two blog posts about my approach to worldbuilding and my favorite worldbuilding methods, but lately I’ve realized there’s a lot more to successful worldbuilding than the foundations laid out in the two posts—not to mention that there are a lot of little details that are important but hard to determine. So today’s post is a preliminary attempt to cover some of those technical, baffling, or often-ignored aspects of worldbuilding, including answering some worldbuilding questions I received via Instagram!
Naming anything in a story, whether characters or foods or animals or the protagonist’s favorite coffee shop, seems so simple but is often one of the hardest details to satisfactorily pin down. For me, naming towns, cities, countries, and continents has always been a little harder than the rest—one, it has to match the culture or general vibe of the storyworld, and two, it has to strike a balance between being catchy and cool and not being too pretentious. I recently figure out a technique (or, perspective) that helped me a lot:
These are, indeed, maps from Google Maps (both are of areas of West Virginia). Take a look at the different town names shown here, and you’ll see a couple of trends emerge. Most of the towns are named after:
- A person, whether literally their name or name-ville [Artie, Bradley, Beckley, Sophia, Rupert, Peterstown, Talcott, Hinton, Williamsburg, Lewisburg, Maxwelton, Maggie, Chloe, Normantown, Walkersville, Jacksonville]
- A geographical feature [Oak Hill, Hilltop, Shady Spring, Sandstone, Jumping Branch, Flat Top, Camp Creek, Wolfcreek, Sinks Grove, Rock Camp Blue Bend, Blue Ridge, Eagle Rock, Low Moor, Falling Spring, Healing Springs, Wild Meadow, Mudfork, Cedarville, Rock Cave]
- A place or thing of some importance [Prosperity, Athens, Union, New Castle, Clifton Forge, Iron Gate, Mt. Zion, Ireland, Cleveland, Guardian, Fishers Crossing, Replete, Wildcat, Little Otter, Frenchton]
- Something abnormal [Bozoo, Organ Cave, Shock, Nebo, Exchange, Centralia, Hacker Valley, Heaters]
Realizing these patterns helped me immensely. Even the strangest place names didn’t strike me as unnatural or “trying too hard,” which means that following the same patterns for my stories will likely yield similar results. My new technique for naming towns/cities goes something like this:
- Determine which of the four categories I’m going to use
- Within that category, research options (using baby naming sites, web pages about eco-systems, etc.) and compile a list of names that I like
- Narrow down the list until I figure out the name I want to use for the city/town
Lastly, I always make sure that the name of the city/town meshes with the greater culture of the world or has an unusual enough reason to justify the disunity. For example, if I based a fantasy world off of Scandinavian cultures, I would expect my cities and towns to reflect the languages, names, or geographical features of those real-life places; if I really wanted to name a town “Saint-Etienne” or “Salisbury,” I would need to give a reason why French or British-inspired people settled the area or else run the risk of the setting feeling disjointed and messy.
Breakfast, Lunch, & Dinner
I love cooking and baking—enough that I never noticed just how many food descriptions were in A Gentleman in Moscow—so for me it’s natural to think about the agricultural and culinary aspects of my storyworlds. However, I don’t see it mentioned often when it comes to worldbuilding, so that’s why I’m including it here.
The food in any story is directly connected to the broader ecosystem, which means that it’s more of a secondary worldbuilding layer instead of a foundational one. This also means that more research and development of the broader story world will have to happen before you figure out your character’s favorite birthday dessert. But, I consider secondary worldbuilding layers to be so much easier because they already have half of the work done.
My suggestion is to first determine the climate of your world: is it tropical? Moderate? Lots of rain? Lots of droughts? How much farm land is available? How much water is available? What sort of animals can be raised, caught, or hunted? How many seasons does the world experience? The best way to start that process is to a) set your story in a place in our world (so all you have to do is research it) or b) base your world off of a place or places in our world (so you can also rely a lot on research).
Next, determine what sort of foods are available in your world—be sure to include not just the products that are bountiful, but products that are rare, products that are imported, etc. Again, researching places in our world that are similar can help immensely—I’ve found whole lists of common foods for areas that are similar to my created storyworlds that cuts down a lot of the work for me.
Lastly, with that knowledge, begin coming up with a rough “cookbook” of sorts of common foods eaten for meals (do they eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, or do they have a different number of meals?) and foods eaten for special occasions. Don’t forget about beverages! Even water has multiple variations of how it can be imbibed. And, finally, I’ve found that it’s a good idea to make a distinction between what people of different economic classes eat—poorer folks will not have access to or the funds to purchase rarer or imported foods, for example.
You may be thinking that the food in your world isn’t important, and truthfully, it’s unlikely to be central to your story unless you’re writing about characters who cook/bake often. However, think of it like this: food is not only central to our survival, but it’s central to every culture around the world. It’s often a way to show love and its absence or degradation can cause stress on multiple fronts. Knowing about the diets and agriculture of the people in your world is a subtle way to make your story feel more robust and may uncover unique and unexpected ways to add interest and conflict into your characterization and plot.
A Quick Geography Lesson
If you’re writing a story that’s set in a real-world location, a little research online is usually enough to give you a good sense of place (at least for your preliminary brainstorming and drafting). However, if you aren’t writing a story set in a real-world location, determining the ecosystems or geographical features of your world is rather daunting, especially because the geography of a world is so interconnected to other important worldbuilding aspects. I’ve created new worlds twice now: my WIP’s world spans two futuristic continents and my backburner WIP’s world is a small island country. I’m not an expert, but I have figured out some techniques that help me get a sense of my storyworld’s ecology and geography.
First, if at all possible, find a reference for your world within our world. Our world is full of so many interesting ecosystems and landscapes that there’s ample room for unique features—just think of the Dongchuan Red Land in China, the Spotted Lake in Canada, the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, the Tianzi Mountains in China, the Chocolate Hills in the Philippines, Fly Geyser in Nevada, USA, Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, the Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain in Peru, the Crooked Forest in Poland, or the baobab trees in Madagascar. Take some time to research the areas you want to use and collect photographs of specific places that capture what you’d like to include in your story.
Use that information to determine specific spots in your world—maybe you place your city in the middle of a mountain range, near a jagged coastline, in an island in the middle of a bay, or stretched out across a flat open plain. Then, using those real-world references, figure out what ecological or geographical elements would impact the people who live in that area.
Some important things to consider are: access to water; ways to grow, harvest, or hunt food; natural resources and how plentiful they are; ease and types of transportation; animals, insects, or diseases that thrive in a given area; seasons and their lengths; and natural disasters that are likely to happen.
The depth of research you do will depend upon your story, of course—if your story relies heavily on setting, you’ll have to do a lot of building, but if your setting is rather small, you may not need to determine all the details. Regardless, your knowledge of the geographical and ecological setting of your story will transfer to the page, even if you don’t spend a lot of time describing it, and knowledge of the world around your characters creates many new possibilities for story conflict.
The Daily Forecast
One comment I received about worldbuilding via Instagram asked about weather—or, more specifically, said that weather isn’t talked about nearly enough when it comes to worldbuilding. I fully agree! Much like geography and ecology, the weather of a setting (real or created) can impact so much in a story: illnesses, clothing, agriculture and food, natural resources, placement of houses/cities/towns, transportation and travel, recreational activities, even small talk! If weather patterns are relatively static in your world, then it’s unlikely for people to remark about the weather very much, but a climate that’s constantly changing or has definite seasons means that people are bound to talk (and complain) about it.
Much like food, weather is a secondary worldbuilding element—you can decide it rains a lot in your story just because you want to, but usually weather is determined after the general setting is settled, which includes things like geography and ecology of the area. That also means it’s another easy element to determine. For example, my backburner WIP’s world is loosely based off of countries like Iceland, so a quick online search about weather in that area of the world gave me all the knowledge I needed to determine what seasons would be like in the country, the average temperatures for each season, and what sorts of meteorological phenomenon would be common. Once you figure out general season/weather patterns, you can determine how that impacts the other story elements I mentioned above. And the more interconnected your worldbuilding elements are, the stronger your story will be.
Determining the weather of your storyworld, beyond simply giving you a clear idea of what you need to describe during various scenes, can also yield other interesting ideas even beyond conflict and setbacks. For example, say your world has a cold, often cloudy and rainy/snowy climate: if your characters are human, they’ll probably be vitamin D deficient, which can cause various health and mental health problems if not properly treated. This is why I love researching worldbuilding elements—if you’re careful not to go too far overboard, you can uncover details that not only make your setting stronger but affect your characters in important ways.
Another worldbuilding comment via Instagram mentioned holidays and celebrations, which is, I think, one of the most fun and potentially useful parts about worldbuilding (especially if you’re creating a world very different from our own). Holidays and celebrations give us a glimpse into the values of a culture or characters, provide meaningful opportunities to showcase characters, and also set up plenty of opportunities for culture clashing, internal and external conflict for characters, and natural ways to showcase themes or foreshadow.
I follow a very basic method for developing holidays and celebrations. First, determine what the people of your world would value enough to celebrate: birthdays? Anniversaries of important historic events? National events? Agricultural or meteorological events? Religious observances? Rites of passage? If you’re having a hard time brainstorming these ideas, think about what people from your community, state, country, etc. celebrate and think about why you celebrate. The “why” of celebration is the most important part.
Second, once you determine what will be celebrated, determine what elements would best showcase, celebrate, praise, or exemplify that core element. Holidays and celebrations are often very symbolic (either subtly or overtly). Consider all fronts for this, such as food, beverages, clothing, decorations, colors, music, art, recreation, gifts, religious or holy items, ceremonies, or storytelling. Reference celebrations that strike you as similar to what you want to accomplish and don’t be afraid to borrow some elements from them (though avoid copying directly unless you want there to be a direct tie to our world).
For me, the process is very intuitive and natural. The more I consider what a group celebrates and why they celebrate it, the more ideas I have for how they could weave that core meaning into events or traditions. And the more I develop the rest of the storyworld, the more ideas I have for specific elements to include. The celebration or holiday will naturally develop the more you tie in other worldbuilding elements. Also, have fun! Let people do frivolous, illogical, and silly things as celebrations. Come up with ridiculous reasons for long-standing traditions. Not everything has to be serious, especially if the celebration or holiday isn’t one with deep religious, political, historical, or social significance. Allow the celebrations or holidays of your world reflect all aspects of its people.
Bringing It All Together
I’ll end the post with the final question I received via Instagram: how do you tie in all the various worldbuilding elements into something cohesive?
Worldbuilding, by nature, is vast and never-ending, like weaving a beautiful tapestry—you eventually have to stop yourself from continue to develop tiny details, or else you’ll get lost in the process and end up with a scarf as long as Rapunzel’s hair. A scarf that long is highly impractical beyond the fashion runway. Worldbuilding is also highly intuitive, takes a long time, and never looks the same for two people. All of this makes worldbuilding daunting. I also think the success of worldbuilding lies in its nature.
People often view worldbuilding as if it’s a list of questions you check off, which is why I think so many people struggle with it—they don’t see that it’s a web that you build, not a list, and that every element is connected. This is the method I described in my first post about worldbuilding and it’s the best way to start worldbuilding, in my opinion. But what do you do when you have strong elements and you know they connect, but you can’t figure out how the pieces fit together in a way that’s meaningful and useful? How do you create better connections and strengthen your web?
There are a few methods or perspectives I use to strengthen my worldbuilding beyond the basics. First, sometimes it’s helpful to focus on one area of your world and build connections from there. Think of it like taking a college course. You know that the whole world doesn’t operate purely based on economics, but taking an intro course of economics is going to help you see how much of day-to-day living, politics, society, and international relations is impacted by economics. That knowledge equips you to see more threads in the tapestry. Then, if you take a course about literature, you’d see how writing is important in so many areas—the process continues until your vision expands and expands and can take in so much more. You don’t just see red and blue and purple in the pattern—you learn to see crimson, scarlet, and burgundy threads showing up in the undertones of the purple or in the accents around the blue; you see individual threads that combine all three colors along with colors you never noticed before. Trying to tackle the entire world is impossible; you have to build your understanding slowly and methodically.
Second, it’s always a good idea to question your story. Ask yourself “why?” and “how?” until you find the core meaning of what you’re looking at. Ask yourself “what if?” and “why not?” until you’ve explored enough possibilities to see new ways to connect elements, plot points, and characters. Worldbuilding is a dance between minimalizing and maximizing—your explore your options and narrow them, and then expand into something new until you narrow that aspect down, and continue until you’re pleased with what you’ve created. There’s lots of trial and error, but there’s no way around it.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to condense and cut. Yes, worldbuilding is about creating a larger “web” of ideas and systems, but sometimes those systems get so spread out that the meaning of them is watered down or too cumbersome to handle. You don’t want everything to be so interconnected and understandable that your world appears rigid—as much as we can learn about our world, there are still things that are vastly beyond our current knowledge, and your world needs an element of that wonder and mystery too. But, compounding historical events to make the backstory or a holiday more meaningful might be a good idea. Making a country smaller so that you have fewer ecosystems and cities to deal with might make it easier for you to write your story and make good connections while not compromising the intrigue of the setting. Those are calls that nobody but you can make, but there’s nothing wrong with trimming down your grand ideas into something more manageable. Think of it like editing your paragraph so that only the best, most interesting information is there. Sometimes you need to cut things out in order to see them more clearly.
If you leave this post with nothing else, here are my shortened worldbuilding tips:
- Think of worldbuilding as a web of systems, not a list of facts.
- Always find a real-world reference for your story if you can! It makes research so much easier.