Creating Settings That Shine: Four Worldbuilding Tips
Worldbuilding tips from a certified dungeon master…
Worldbuilding isn’t just for writers! Have you ever heard of Dungeons and Dragons? If you haven’t, you should read this post. As a dungeon master, I run the game for my players — which means I build the world. Whether you’re worldbuilding for a novel or a roleplaying game, the process is the same. Here are my top four worldbuilding tips for worldbuilding newbies, or for anyone looking to refresh their knowledge.
What is worldbuilding? An overview.
What is worldbuilding? Simply put, worldbuilding is any endeavor to create a fictional setting or “world.” You might only create a small town in what is otherwise our real earth, or perhaps a research colony on Mars to tell a story about humanity’s future attempts to live on the red planet. Or maybe you’re building an entire fictional species of aliens, or some future spacefaring civilization. Perhaps you’ve created an entire universe to serve as a setting for a fantasy novel, complete with magic, gods, and all.
Regardless, you’re building a setting, following the rules of the setting, and using that setting as a basis to tell a story. That’s worldbuilding.
As in any other creative pursuit, each person will have their own unique, personalized process for worldbuilding.
There are generally recognized styles of worldbuilding (such as Macro and Micro, to name a couple), but each person typically approaches it in their own way. I recommend taking some time to research methods of worldbuilding. That’s a topic far beyond the scope of this post. (Maybe in the future I’ll do another to focus on that.) The project you’re worldbuilding for also plays a role in defining your process.
But despite the individualized nature of worldbuilding, there are some general guidelines and worldbuilding tips that can and will help you through the process. The tips I list below are some things you can keep in mind while worldbuilding. In this post, I use the term “world” to describe what you’re worldbuilding. Think of a “world in this context as the entire setting or universe your story inhabits. It could be as small as a house or as big as a galaxy (or bigger).
1. Keep the scale and needs of your project in mind.
You don’t need to build or elaborate on every single detail of your world. Moreover, you should focus your efforts on supplying only the necessary details for your project.
For example, if you’re writing a book, you don’t need to highly detail areas of your world unless parts of your story take place in those locations. Conversely, if you’re working with a video game or an RPG, you may need to provide more details to allow for more player freedom. This same general rule applies to religions, politics, or any other facet of the world you might build. If the detail in question isn’t going to be seen or explored, then you don’t necessarily need to take the time to elaborate on it.
It’s okay to “over”-worldbuild a little bit, to add depth to your world in your mind. But recognize that many of the details you create when over-worldbuilding won’t make it into the final story. That would be info-dumping, and you certainly don’t want to do that. Info-dumping and over-detailing in books and in worlds can prove problematic down the road. When you provide concrete detail on an element in your world, it’s set in place going forward. Keep in mind that it’s okay to allow for some mystery in the mind of the reader/player/viewer. Some of the most successful worldbuilding relies on the presence of mysterious elements (Lovecraft, anyone?).
2. Decide on your world’s basic rules first.
Is your project set in some alternative earth? Are you working in a fantasy space that involves magic? Perhaps your sci-fi civilization has invented some method of crossing the vastness of space quickly (relatively speaking, of course)?
The answers to questions like these will form the basic rules of your world. You want to have these rules in place as early as possible so that you can design the rest of your world with them in mind. They will shape large portions of your setting, so you want to make sure they remain consistent throughout.
Think of these the same way you’d think of gravity in the real world. Gravity is a constant force in our universe, shaping everything we experience. If you’re introducing magic as an element of your fantasy world, you should take time to account for how that will impact your world’s development and the experiences of its inhabitants.
Set the basic rules in stone and take their effects into account. Do some research if you’re unsure about the effect something might have. Research might include looking to real world examples as well as the fictional work of others. To take the example of faster-than-light travel, many stories confront what this might mean for societies in various sci-fi settings. You could also look to the effect of modern airplanes on the world to see possible outcomes as well.
Whatever you decide, stick to it. Consistency is vital in worldbuilding. You can’t expect someone to suspend their disbelief if the rules aren’t consistent.
3. Look to the real world for inspiration.
The history of human civilization is incredibly diverse. Countless societies with different world views and cultures have come and gone throughout the course of human history.
Geographically, there are sections of the earth that could pass for an alien planet! And beyond Earth, the solar system, galaxy, and universe exhibit incredibly variety. On the Internet, you can find countless images and renderings of the other planets in our solar system, and artists’ renditions of those beyond.
So don’t think that you need to reinvent the wheel every time you create a new element. Use the real world for inspiration. It will help you develop your ideas. For example, if you were looking to create a nomadic society for your world, look at how nomads in the real world functioned. You could research the Mongols, the Scythians, the Romani, or all three.
Some degree of familiarity also helps people connect to your material. Many fictional empires take nods from the Roman Empire, for example. Simply put, it’s easier for people to understand and connect to something they’re already familiar with. It helps them to infer parts of the setting and relate to the story’s events. It helps with suspension of disbelief, too. After all, if it happened in the real world, then why can’t it happen in fantasy?
Real world examples also allow you to see how things were accomplished or developed in the past. Religions, customs, and cultures all have roots in a given society’s environment and geographic location. Learning and taking inspiration from real world examples will help you create a better developed and more believable setting.
4. Stay away from absolutes.
Given that stereotyping and generalization are common in everyday life and in all human cultures, many worldbuilding endeavors make use of the same kinds of stereotypes and generalizations we use in everyday life. Often, these become fantasy tropes — for example, that orcs are evil. But you should be careful about absolutes, especially when applying them to entire societies. It’s exceedingly unlikely that an entire society actually holds the same view or belief. The individuals of a society may have similarities, but there are always outliers. In other words, societies have values, but individuals are still individuals. The “evil” empire is unlikely to be comprised entirely of “evil” people. Not all “barbarians” are savages. You get the idea.
From the standpoint of roleplaying, this becomes applicable when discussing player options. Declaring that all player characters of “X” race are evil, for example, probably isn’t the best idea. It’s poor worldbuilding, and it’s a boring, gridlocked situation. Sentient creatures should have the ability to form their own opinions and beliefs, regardless of their origins.
In this vein, make an effort to leave room for leeway and options, and avoid absolute statements about the individuals and societies in your world. (Granted, if your characters see a certain group as “evil,” it’s okay to say this, but look for ways to subvert your characters’ black-and-white thinking. It will deepen your story and your world.)
I started worldbuilding around the time I started to play Dungeons and Dragons — possibly earlier, depending on how you define worldbuilding. I remember constructing levels for video games as early as seven. Before that, I had constructed an elaborate fantasy world for my many stuffed bunnies as a young child. The bunnies defended the house against a parasitic race of sea-cows who were attempting to invade. Think G.I. Joe crossed with Redwall. If you think back on your life and especially your childhood, you’re likely to find times that you engaged in worldbuilding, even if you didn’t think of it in that way at the time.
To round out these worldbuilding tips, I want to stress once more that worldbuilding requires consistency. You need to be consistent about how something is presented — any drawbacks or flaws it has, and how your setting’s inhabitants understand it.
Features of your world should have logical flow and rationale. Would every person on a spaceship understand the intricacies of how the engine works? Not likely. Would they understand how to move in zero-g or the dangers on exposure to space? Probably. Keep things like this in mind, but be consistent above all else. Maybe everyone who works on a spaceship has to be an engineer in your world. If you keep your rules and outcomes consistent, most people will find your world plausible.
I hope you enjoyed my worldbuilding tips. I try to keep to these as much as possible when I work on a project. If you have questions, or want to know about other resources available for worldbuilding, please feel free to ask in the comments! You can also follow Voyage of the Mind using the buttons in the sidebar at the top of the page. And if you’re loving the content we produce, please consider supporting us on Ko-fi.
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