Worldbuilding can be one of the most intimidating parts of writing genre fiction. Crafting a whole universe unto itself is no easy feat, and it can be especially intimidating if you don’t know what you should focus on, and what’s never going to make it into your story.
Luckily, you have the internet at your fingertips, and the advice of other writers along with it! Here are three principles that can help you decide what’s important in bringing the world of your story to life…
Principle One: Worldbuilding is not the most important aspect of your story.
Yes, even if you’re writing more worldbuilding-heavy genres, such as high-fantasy or speculative sci-fi.
Worldbuilding is the creation of a stage for your characters to dance upon, and props for them to pick up as they need; the characters are the real life of the story, much in the same way that a play cannot be performed without actors. Though a well-dressed stage can impress and immerse an audience, few people come to a play just to ogle the decor. A story that focuses on worldbuilding over the characters is like a play that was written mainly so that the stagehands can paint pretty backdrops.
Ask yourself; what needs to be explained and what should be left to the imagination? Which props will my protagonist actually interact with, and which should I save for another story? Am I enjoying the worldbuilding that I’m doing, and will my audience like looking at it? Does the worldbuilding serve the story that I want to tell?
Extensive worldbuilding is necessary only if it enrichens the story being told. Many plays get along just fine with with a minimalist stage design, after all.
Principle Two: Whether something is “good worldbuilding” has very little do with whether it aligns to real-world rules.
There’s a lot of advice out there about how to worldbuild things which are in accordance with our understanding of reality. How to make geographically correct landscapes, whether its realistic for an animal to live off of photosynthesis, the ways in which gravity might work on a denser planet, so on and so forth.
If your setting leans on realism, it’s wise (and maybe even inspiring!) to take this advice. But sometimes, you’re writing a story that runs on different narrative principles entirely.
If your story is taking itself seriously, so should the worldbuilding! And inversely, a whackier story can benefit from relaxing on the realism. No matter how weird or stupid your reason for something is, if it’s internally consistent and cohesive with the seriousness of the story that it serves, then it’s good worldbuilding. If your story is prone to whimsy, then lollipop flowers grown by a magic candy wizard might be a perfect thing to include.
What level of accuracy is necessary to the story that you want to tell? At what point does accuracy become boring, limiting, or unhelpful? At what point does inaccuracy spread misinformation — is it dangerous misinformation? Or is it just good fun?
It’s become a common trend to lambast stories for not adhering perfectly to real-world accuracy, but perfect realism isn’t necessary to tell a fictional story. Suspension of disbelief is. Your worldbuilding doesn’t have to be accurate; just make sure that it fits the context of your story.
Which leads us to…
Principle Three: It’s the little details that make or break a world.
Small moments of existence — proof of life outside your characters in the setting of your story — is a cheap and fun way to enhance your worldbuilding.
What does a sunrise look like on a planet with three suns? What kinds of entertaining potions are available in a word where alchemy exists? What does a morning routine look like in zero G, when the water for your toothbrush starts floating as soon as it leaves the faucet? If dragons have the same intelligence as humans, do dragons partake in their own social norms, like beauty standards? Maybe dragons wear powdered metal as makeup, and trim their scales to look more flattering to each other.
Add more description to the unfamiliar, and to the marvelous. Show us the unique hardships and triumphs of living in your fantastically unreal world.
Anything is possible and it’s all up to you.
And that’s it for worldbuilding advice today! If you find this helpful, then you can support me as a creator by buying me a Ko-fi. Thank you, and have a lovely day.