Over the past few weeks I’ve been working on creating a master worldbuilding worksheet. It’s taken so long because the list is so extensive – I hope to have it ready for both you and me in the coming weeks, but it occurred to me this morning as I began worldbuilding for a new story that an abbreviated checklist might be useful. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed when you sit down to write and realize you have to build a world from the ground up. Where do you start? How detailed do you need to be? Where should you focus your attention initially? Are you writing a story or an encyclopedia?
There’s no need to go all Tolkien with worldbuilding, at least not at the first stage. So, here are the things that I develop first:
Draw a rough map. I’m really bad at drawing. Like, really bad. But there’s something gratifying and unbelievably helpful about having a map on hand as you write. So take a deep breath, look up some tutorials and sketch out your world. No one except you ever has to see it, and it doesn’t have to have anything except the barest of geographical features and markers for towns and cities. Even if your mountains and forests and cities are all just shapes. You need a map. Trust me on this one.
Outline a system of magic. It doesn’t have to be fine-tuned at this point, you only really need the nuts and bolts to get started. Create a list that includes common features, common abilities, users and any drawbacks or limitations. You can build on this outline as you encounter different situations throughout writing, but do try to keep the story’s direction in mind. You don’t want to have contradictory information that requires re-writing later.
Make note of any structures and organizations. Entities like local government, guilds and businesses that are all going to affect the immediate area where you’re starting. Name one to three people for each of these, write up a one or two sentence mission statement and briefly list out their assets and current challenges.
Outline the local culture. This can be as simple as saying, “It’s medieval Europe with magical plows and cursed thrones,” but you need a base for building up everything from the architecture to the food to social customs. Make note of anything that makes this area unique, or particularly dangerous. And if the culture is going to stray very farm from an established norm, make notes on how you plan to introduce these eccentricities, hopefully avoiding an info dump.
Create abbreviated character sketches. Do this for any important people, like authority figures or regional influences. Name, age, physical description, occupation, likes, dislikes, family, home, and anything that might be useful to the story – that’s really it. As you create tidbits about these characters, you can flesh out their personal histories, experiences and ultimate goals.
Develop local comings and goings. What’s happening in the starting area right now? Is there a festival? Are they dealing with a drought? Has there been a recent string of murders? Create some background tensions you can utilize in character introductions, just be careful to make sure that whatever is happening makes sense to your readers. Random stuff doesn’t happen for random reasons.
Flora and fauna. This one is less important if you’re starting in a heavily populated city, but anything less urban is going to have a decent level of interaction with the natural world. You don’t need to sit down and create brand new species right now though. Just make notes about anything your character might encounter early on, and decide the level of danger s/he risks venturing into the wilderness. Are there plants that are poisonous if you just brush past them? Any animals that might pose a threat, or be curious about people?
These are your starting points. The secondary level of worldbuilding is usually what you do when you’re actually writing, and you come across something that needs to be better established. It’s where you start layering the colors on your watercolor masterpiece. This is made infinity easier if you’ve already established the groundwork, not to mention that having these things already written down will naturally add character to your world as you write. The more you know about this strange new land, the more snippets and in-depth insights you can add.
Two parting words of caution though as you go about your level one worldbuilding. Keep the flaws in mind – flaws in people, in thinking, in society, in physical structures. Everyone and everything has flaws, and those need to be written in, just under the surface. Also consider the chaos factor – people and events are sometimes unpredictable. Not everything is going to fit into a neat little plan.
Now go out there and build some worlds.