When it comes to world-building, what immediately pops into your head? I’m willing to bet visions of either fantasy or science fiction worlds started floating around your mind. With masters like JRR Tolkien, JK Rowling, and CS Lewis, we have so many great examples in those genres pulling focus from all the other genres.
However, world-building is important to get right for all genres if we want our readers to totally immerse themselves in our work. Building on what I’ve learned through studying fantasy and science fiction world-building techniques, I’d love to share my world-building roadmap to help you with your novel.
1—Start with Research
If the universe you create is an adaptation of an existing world, you need to start by researching your world. The easiest way to start is through reading books. To use my novel as an example, I explored a wide variety of books to cover the subjects I wanted to explore before I wrote one word of my novel. It’s time consuming, but there is one beautiful thing about this phase: no idea is off-limits. Take as many notes as you can at this point, and because the story you will craft doesn’t exist yet, each inspiration merits attention.
If you are developing a world entirely in your head, the task is a little more difficult. Sit down with yourself and start asking all the questions you can think of. Who are the people? Where do they live? What do they eat? What are their social traditions? Do they have natural predators? Ask as many questions as you can on as many subjects as possible; it will help you design a world that will stand on its own.
2—Build Your World
After accumulating your data, it’s time to organize the notes and make some hard choices. Of all the notes you have and all the questions you asked, choose a select few to become integral to your story. The rest will be consigned to the backdrop. If you have done your research properly, it will be magnificent, memorable, and useful to the story. But if you are vague about the story’s background, it will reflect poorly in the reader’s eyes.
Sit down with your data to decide which elements to use. Start by doing one pass through your notes and create a keep, a maybe, and a discard pile. A story should be emerging, and it’s time to work at transforming your research into fiction. Sometimes, you will have to bend some data for the story to remain relevant. You don’t want to cloud the reader’s mind with an information dump, but stay true to the universe that has materialized from your research. Start with some short stories that occur in your universe to test your knowledge and mastery of it and see how the characters interact with the environment. Doing this will clarify your concept.
3—Bring It All Together to Craft Your Story
Start with a book proposal. This step is essential to help you set an anchor before you launch yourself into the timeline construction and first draft. When there’s a fantasy or science fiction element, it’s essential to establish what is real, what exists in this universe, and why it’s there. Forging a proposal will help you with that. Any created element that floats around with no rhyme or reason will distract the reader and weaken the story. If you cannot clearly define your world, go back and refine your research.
Once you have a proposal, start with the short stories or quick drafts you’ve written and see where, or if, they fit in the timeline of the story. Here, try to look beyond obvious holes in the plot and move ahead with the story arc. I typically leave a note in the margin stating why I want to keep this particular element.
Then it’s time for the first draft. This is where I work to fix the plot holes I found while building the timeline. Remember, you want to have every aspect of the book geared toward your creation to establish a universe the readers will believe. This works to create a world that’s fully alive, a character in itself.
Star Trek and Star Wars are examples of series with worlds that stand on their own. The creators had to delve into fantasy world-building because, beyond the futuristic and scientific base of both universes, entire civilizations had to be forged from thin air with nothing more than imagination and creativity (and a ton of research).
4—Always Remember the Other Important Elements of Storytelling
As you advance into writing your story, keep in mind everything we have looked at only applies to world-building. There are many other elements you’ll need to weave into your story as you start to write your rough draft: characters, plot, theme, tension, and transformation. But once you have created the world, you can work with all these elements to ensure your entire story impacts your readers as you intended.
To become a master at world-building, we must first see how it’s done well. Who are some of your favorite authors who blew you away with their creative world-building?
Michel Longpre is the author of the metaphysical adventure Cosmic Consciousness under the pen name Mike Longmeadow. Come see his blog on his website: michellongpre.com.