Worldbuilding is a diverse and monumental challenge for any writer. Creating a world from one’s imagination, whether based on reality, history, or made up completely, presents many difficulties that require careful attention to detail. But how does one start? How does someone create a living, breathing and thriving world in which a story takes place? History is often something writers can take advantage of when creating worlds for stories to take place. Even with magic systems or any other creative differences from reality, many facets of life are still the same. The way civilizations develop helps to form the cultures and traditions of those areas and the natural environment of those locations help to mold the world a story takes place in.
Often times creating a map to include at the beginning of a book not only helps the reader but it also helps the writer understand their own world. It gives context to not only how large the world is but it helps to facilitate how far different villages, towns, cities and countries are. It can help to illustrate how alien other cultures can feel because of how physically far they are. The Lord of the Rings takes advantage of it’s map and geographical distances really well. Tolkien weaves that distance and feeling of a massive world into the fabric of the trilogy. The hobbits living in the Shire are so isolated from the outside world that everything they learn about the world is so strange to them as is their own customs like “second breakfast”. Travelling from one location to another to achieve something is very core to the hero’s journey and designing a world with distance from point A to point B allows space for character development with the travelers.
In human history, most civilizations are built for survival and keep resources nearby for easy access. A source of water, food and shelter are the basic needs to be accommodated. It’s something to take into consideration when placing villages, towns and cities. How do they get their food? What kind of other resources do they rely on? Do they have special abilities or talents that allow them to take advantage of where they settled? Trading is also something to consider when designing a world. What is possible or reasonable for trade? Real life history has been immensely influenced by trade throughout human history. It can help to solidify which villages, towns and cities might rely on each other and solidify alliances or, at the very least, be forced to interact with each other. The Reckoners does a phenomenal job in creating a city in the second book, Firefight. Sanderson does such a great job in creating a truly unique city that thrives and functions like a real world city. It’s an amazing example of creating a setting that helps flesh out the world and impact the central story in a meaningful way.
While this level of detail can help to create a more realized and lived-in world, there is a point where it can go way too far into the details. Worldbuilding’s sole focus should be creating a world for the story to take place. It’s a delicate balance to expand on the locations and the world without deterring from the main plot. Often times it’s meant to influence and guide the story rather than to explain the world to the reader as one might in a history class. This is crucial as regardless of whether it’s a book, movie or tv show, there’s only a certain amount of time that is given to tell the story. It can’t be filled with information that doesn’t help tell the story that is being told. The intricacies of how trade works between two countries probably isn’t important to the protagonist’s journey, only that there may be some connection between the two that is either friendly, hostile or neutral. While this information can be interesting, it can distract from the main story which then loses the interest of the audience.
Worldbuilding is hard and often times frustrating as it requires a level of detail and attention that the reader may never even realize or pay attention to. But worldbuilding is still crucial to creating a story that a reader can feel invested in and care about, starting broad and then focusing more on the details if the story needs it. Creating a map and the geography of the world in which a story takes place can help ground and restrict the setting to help focus the writer’s creativity on what matters rather than shooting in every direction.