As a child, I liked to lose myself in the process of weaving stories. This habit has never left me; instead, I’ve now extended my love for stories by churning out 50,000 word manuscripts and piecing together anthologies of my favorite flash fiction excerpts. My stories usually involve some combination of spaceships, fairies, talking roses, sarcastic wolves, and vengeful queens.
Unfortunately, it’s often difficult for me to keep track of all my story elements at once, and at the worst of times my fantasy plotlines dissolve into a tangled mess. I can barely manage to extricate myself from the situation. My protagonist? Not so much. I have piles of discarded main characters and antagonists and villains. They all fell victim to the same travesty of literature that is poor “worldbuilding.”
Worldbuilding is the process of creating fantasy or science fiction settings with systems of governance, infrastructure, landscape features, and societal norms, much like we have on Earth. We can also consider worldbuilding to be important on a smaller scale, since it helps writers to synthesize details about characters’ individual lives.
Overall, worldbuilding helps writers to tie plotlines together and improve the coherence of their stories. To improve my own worldbuilding skills, as well as those of other writers, I’ve decided to compile a list of six central elements we should pay attention to in the process of creating believable, engaging fictional universes. Since my first move when writing a story is to find names for my characters, that’s the first part of my list.
- Create meaningful names: Nothing gives me more frustration than reading a fantasy book in which every character’s name sounds like two disparate syllables arbitrarily tossed together. I know you’ve come across these names before, and they look as if they’ve been created using an online “fantasy name” generator. In order to avoid this pitfall, I like to blend names from various geographic locales in my writing. Sometimes this means browsing lists of Scandinavian names and combining them with syllables from South Asia; other times, it means naming characters after forests or stars. In my experience, the best authors enhance their stories by building on a variety of elements from existing worlds, so that the reader is both pulled in by familiarity and captivated by the novelty of fantasy universes: Think “The Lunar Chronicles” or “Enna Burning.” Names are an essential part of setting the mood of a story.
- Find inspiration: My inspiration for worldbuilding usually comes from artwork. Sometimes it’s my own artwork and sometimes I get it from other people’s. Even browsing HD wallpaper websites can serve as an inspiration for stories, since many graphic designers are good at creating awe-inspiring scenery that can help a writer envision a physical setting for their characters. Artwork also serves as a conceptual basis for much of my writing. For example, this is a recent artistic work-in-progress of mine, titled “Constellations.” When I look at it, it raises a variety of questions, leading me to envision a story set in outer space, perhaps incorporating dreams as a central element.
- Establish proper infrastructure: As enticing as it may seem to launch into a story’s fast-paced action scenes without considering anything else, that’s a surefire way to end up with plot holes. Fantasy societies must have a way to perform basic functions. What type of society does your main character belong to? What kind of governing system do they have? Do they go to school? If so, is it like Peninsula High, where they learn multivariable calculus and quantum physics, or do they take invisibility lessons and carry out dragon-fighting training sessions? If you’re writing a fantasy story, these are the types of questions you have to answer.
- Language, clothing, and culture: A fantasy story is intended to encapsulate multiple aspects of the author’s imagined world, and is multifaceted. Consider the intricacies of your characters’ language (if they have one). Think about what kind of clothes they wear. Do cultural superstitions play a part in their lives? (There are entire novels built characters’ belief in fortune-telling, for instance). Do they have cultural festivals every year? (One example of this is cultural festivals in Gaelic fairy mythology, such as Samhain. I’ve seen these incorporated into several novels.) Aspects of the setting, such as the characters’ languages and perceptions of the world, can be established through sensory description and detailed imagery.
- Juxtaposition: At heart, almost every story is about the struggle between good and evil. But writers have to think about other ways they can establish contrasts in their work: poverty vs. greed, creation vs. destruction. Although fantasy literature is supposed to be imaginary, it’s simultaneously familiar to us because it emphasizes themes that we can all understand. Good writing combines well-known issues and juxtaposes them with made-up worlds. Some examples of this are “WondLa” (nature vs. technological progress and Uglies (shallow beauty vs. character).
- Leadership and organization: Many dystopian/fantasy-kingdom novels (think The Hunger Games and Divergent) focus on the protagonist’s quest to overturn the oppressive reign of a central government authority. While this plotline is frequently seen as cliché, common dystopian tropes are attractive to readers for a good reason: They reflect conflicts and tensions common to humanity such as power, authority, and rebellion. It’s simply a matter of pulling them off correctly. To establish a strong basis for this type of plotline, authority figures in a story should have motivations for their behavior. Even fantasy societies should have multifaceted systems of governance whose leaders display believable motivations for their actions.
Worldbuilding is an essential component of crafting an engaging story. As a writer, I’ve made the resolution to improve the quality of my work by creating believable, grounded worlds that draw upon elements common to the human experience.