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Worldbuilding: Where to begin?

When you first starting thinking about worldbuilding for your story, it can be almost impossible to figure out where to begin. There is so much you need to figure out, a simple google search will tell you that much after all, but where do you begin?

I’m one of those strange people who wrote the first book without ever knowing much about my world, other than what is sorta looked like. That’s it. No names for the countries, very little geographical information at all really, and the desert placed weirdly where technically no desert should realistically be. In fact, my main character didn’t even have a name until halfway through the book, and only by the time I wrote the second one did any of them get last names.

I guess what I’m getting at here is; You probably don’t wanna be like me. Cause trust me, it’s not fun thinking about the editing from hell that lies ahead of me when I fix the story to work in my world as it stands now.

So how do I do it?

If you do a quick google search, you get quite a lot of very good suggestions. One of the things I noticed was that none of the ones I looked at were very descriptive. They list the things you should do, but don’t explain how to go about doing it in detail. Which would work for someone who’s been at it a while, but might just end up being more confusing that helpful for those just starting.

That is where I come in. I may not have published any of my books yet, but I’ve been doing this for a while, and hopefully the knowledge I’ve gathered can help someone else just starting.

So let me tell you where I would begin with worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding – Where to begin?

1. Know Your Story

It might sound obvious, might sound strange, might even sound a little crazy. But in order to benefit properly from your worldbuilding, you should first have a firm grasp of your story. What is it you want to tell? Where are your characters going, and what happens to them along the way?

I could probably do a series of blog posts on this topic alone, and one day I probably will. But for now, I’m going to suggest a few different ways you can quickly get your story under control.

  • Outline your story
    • The quickest way I’ve found to do this, is to use notecards. You can buy actual cards, use post-its, or do it online. I use actual notecards and Scrivener to outline my stories. Physical cards allow me to lay it all out in front of me, or pin to my cork-board, giving me a great overview of the different story arcs and characters. Using Scrivener, which is also what I use for writing and editing, gives me the opportunity to have everything gathered in one place when I write or edit.
  • Write out what’s going to happen
    • Sometimes you may need to write short summaries of each chapter, in order to fully figure out what’s going to happen, and where it is happening. If you have to do this, consider using one page for each chapter, so you can lay it all out in front of you if you need to get a different perspective on the story.

Once you know where your story will take you, it is time to start thinking about the world itself.

READ: Four Ways to Outline Your Novel

2. Explore Your World

At this point, you’ve probably already started to explore your world. After all, it is hard to plot out an entire story without getting some idea of what your world will look like. At this point, you should let yourself explore it. Look at where you characters are going, and then where they came from. Does your plot require a specific type of environment? Are they crossing a vast ocean, or stumbling their way though thick forests?

Start sketching out your world based on where the story takes you. If you can’t draw, don’t worry. You’re the only one who needs to see this anyway right now anyway. But getting a visual of your world is something I’ve found immensely helpful. My own first sketches were horrible, and it took me years to get it looking like I wanted. But in the beginning, having a visual aide also helped me move the story along.

This part of worldbuilding is the one I’ve found to be the most daunting. As you go along, you realise there is so much you need to figure out, and it is almost impossible to know where to start. Don’t worry about that right now. You’re still just learning about your new world, and all that other stuff will come along later. For now, just familiarize yourself with your world, as it looks from your characters point of view.

3. Start Building

Now it is time to start building your entire world. You already know what parts of it should look like, based on your characters experience. Now it’s time to look at all of it. And maybe change a few of the things you thought you knew, because they won’t work in your world as a whole. This is the big one. The confusing one. The one that will threaten to crush you like a bug if you’re not careful. Or absolutely thrive on details and find this to be much more fun that the story itself. I know those people exist, I know one of them, but I am not one of them.

There is a lot to cover on this step, so I’m only going to summarize it for now. Because I realise this needs to be more than a part of a single blog post. Here are some of the things you will need to figure out, though the order in which you figure them out doesn’t really matter. I’ll be doing a series or blog posts on these things in the coming months, and probably a few workshops as well.

  • Geography
    • Nations, factions, cities, villages.
    • Mountains, rivers, plains, forests etc.
    • Climate and weather patterns in the various parts of your world.
    • Eco-system, and how this works for your animals, as well as your people.
  • History
    • Origin of your world – how was it created?
    • The history of your world. Go as far back as you feel you need to, and then some. In order to understand your world today, it is helpful to know where it came from.
    • Major historical events. These may play a part in your plot, and they may not have anything to do with it. Yet. Either way, there have almost always been major events that changed the course of history in one way or another. What are yours?
    • Historical figures. You must have some of them. A legendary king, sorcerer, thief. Who figures in the stories told around campfires if your world? It can be anyone, and their story may not be anything like what it told about them.
    • Timelines
      • How does time work? How do they tell time?
      • Do you have your own calendar?
      • Do everyone follow the same calendar?
      • Do historic events figure into this?
  • Nationality
    • Who are your people? Do they look the same? Why? Like our own world, each of your different countries will probably have variations in how they dress, act, or look at each other. People who live in vastly different climate for example, will probably look a lot different from each other. If you are unsure how to do this, just take a look at our own world.
    • How are they different? How are they alike?
    • Trade routes, business, armies. How do the different nations interact with each other?
    • Empires? Monarchies? Republics? Self-governed city states? Who rules, and how?
  • Religion
    • The BIG one. Do you have them? How do they work? What are they based on?
    • If you have magic in your world, is that connected to a religion, or set aside from it?
    • How does religious life factor into your story as a whole? How about your individual characters?
  • Languages
    • Do everyone speak the same language? If not, how do they understand each other? Or perhaps they don’t, but then how to they communicate?
    • Will you be needing your own language? Do you want one?
      • If the answer is yes, do you go the Tolkien route, or just create the words and phrases you need for the story to work?

This is just some of the things you need to figure out along the way. I’m sure you can think of more, and so could I if I sit down and try. There is a lot to do, which brings us to the final step.

4. Keep Worldbuilding

It that it? Only four items in a list of how to worldbuild? Surely there is more to this? The answer to that is yes of course. Which is why the fourth on the list is to simply keep worldbuilding. Because even when you have your countries, your rivers and your oceans, your magical system down to a T, and the history of your world going back five hundred thousand years, you’re still not done. Something new will always come along, and that’s ok. In fact, that is the fun part (stay with me here). Because your world, like the real world, is never fully explored. There is always something new and exciting to be found.

A list over where to start worldbuilding could in truth be half as long as this one. Number one, know your story. I highly recommend not skipping that part. Number two, worldbuild. End of list. That’s it. It’s how to actually worldbuild without loosing your mind that’s the real trick.

That I’ll be covering next. Like I said before, I’ll be doing a series of blog posts on the various aspects of worldbuilding. Where needed, I’ll try to include some exercises along the way, to help spawn creativity, and perhaps focus your attention.

Until then, how about your start on tip number one, and just see what happens from there.


2 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Where to begin?

  1. Great post! Just realised we have the complete opposite approach to worldbuilding, but then I guess you’re more sane than I am 😛 I think this can help a lot of people who don’t know where to start.

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