Worldbuilding for Creatives - 6 Tips for Getting Started
Approaching the task of building an entire world can feel intimidating. Acknowledging that fact, here are a few tips and tricks to help you get started. These are only guidelines and suggestions. The number one guiding principle should always be: do what works for you and your project.
Identify Your Purpose
As indicated in the previous blog entry, knowing why you are worldbuilding will go a great deal towards helping you narrow and better define the scope of your project.
Can you build your world to serve multiple purposes? Certainly, though this may require more effort. So, keep in mind what your primary goal is. At each step in the process, ask yourself, is this useful? Will this help me run a better role-playing game? Will this impact my story or my characters in any way?
The Iceberg Method
It’s quite easy to look at something like “The Lord of the Rings” and be simultaneously amazed at the worldbuilding and simultaneously overwhelmed. Tolkien invented entire languages!
The good news is, while you certainly can go to the extreme lengths of worldbuilding that Tolkien did, you don’t have to. The iceberg method of worldbuilding is one of the most popular strategies. It comes from the idea that when you see an iceberg floating in the water, only about 20% of the ice is visible. The remaining 80% is underwater, invisible to you, but you know it is there.
In worldbuilding, what this means is that you go into great detail on the “visible” parts of your world – the parts that will be relevant to your story or your game, for example – and provide only a rough outline of what is “hidden beneath the surface.” Your readers or players will never need to see the details hidden beneath the surface, but if they see the detail put into the parts that are visible, they will trust and believe that there is a whole detailed world down there.
And if those roughly outlined parts that are hidden need to become relevant, you can always flesh out the details when you need them.
Another way of thinking about this is “going wide” versus “going deep.” Going wide means broad strokes and rough outlines. Going deep means working out in greater detail. You want to go deep on the topics that are most relevant for your worldbuilding project – this again goes back to your purpose. You want to go wide on those topics that are only tangentially relevant, but which paint a broader picture of your world.
Using the iceberg method or the go wide/go deep method is a great way to manage the scope of your worldbuilding effort to ensure that you’re not doing more work than you need to (and that you actually get to creating the story or game you intend to create).
Find a Starting Point and Work Outward
In an upcoming blog post, I will talk more about Hooks. The purpose of a hook is to provide an entry point into worldbuilding, to give you a stepping off point. Finding a starting point that is meaningful to you is another way to get started.
Sure, you can start by figuring out the history of the cosmos, and maybe that’s relevant to your project. But you could just as easily start by defining one particular mountain town, or perhaps the history of a tribe of people. In each of these cases, start with something relevant to your hook, which ensures it is relevant to the goals of your project.
From this one small topic, what questions did you find yourself asking? If you are writing the history of a tribe of people, who do they trade with? What is their environment like? What languages do they speak? Who are their enemies? Each of these questions provides you another branch on a tree.
Working in this way, you can gradually build out a detailed and sophisticated world, and one which is relevant to your hook and your purpose for worldbuilding.
Build Only What You Need to Get Started
(This recommendation is only relevant to those who are worldbuilding in support of another project – a novel or a game, for example. If you’re worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding itself, disregard this section.)
If you want to write a novel or play a roleplaying game, or indeed, any project for which you are worldbuilding, it’s frighteningly easy to spend months or even years in worldbuilding, only to never star the actual project that is your goal. It’s important for you to remember that this worldbuilding project, while it may be (and should be) fun and enjoyable, is in service to a larger project.
Don’t wait until your worldbuilding is “done” to get started with your project! If you do, you may never actually begin your novel or roleplaying game. Instead, do only enough worldbuilding to provide the foundation for your other project. If you’re running a roleplaying game, maybe you need to develop a town, prominent factions in the region, sources of conflict, and maybe some big villain who can make trouble for the characters. If you’re planning a novel, maybe you need to know how magic works or the family and relationships of your main character.
Do just enough work to get started, and then start on your main project. You can always come back to your worldbuilding project (and you will!) What’s more, working on the main project will itself provide fodder for your worldbuilding. Let the two projects feed one another in a cycle of harmonious creativity!
Challenge Your Cultural Biases
One of the best ways to make your worldbuilding interesting and fresh is to continually challenge your own cultural biases. Ask yourself: how much does my worldbuilding rely on ideas that feel safe and familiar to me because of my cultural background? How can I push outside those boundaries?
For example, if you are creating a fantasy world and you base your world upon Medieval Europe, there’s nothing wrong with that, but ask yourself why. Is it because it’s what you know? What you grew up reading? What you imagine when you think of fantasy? What if your fantasy world was influenced by Mesoamerican culture? Or Himalayan?
Consider the same questions for characters in your world. Do they look like you? Do they share the same cultural values that you do? How could those be different? Would that be more or less interesting to you? Are there dominant cultures? How do those of other cultures perceive the dominant culture?
Creating worlds with diverse cultures and characters will only make your story or game seem more rich, more realistic, and more unique. The point is not to incorporate other cultures to “check a box.” The point is to push the boundaries of your own assumptions in order to create a more imaginative, diverse world.
One note: some may worry about crossing into stereotyping and cultural appropriation. Those are valid concerns we will discuss later. But even recognising the possibility shows you are already considering other cultures in a thoughtful and intentional way, which is the first step towards avoiding pitfalls. Those interested in this topic are encouraged to check out "Writing the Other: A Practical Approach" by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. They also provide an excellent selection of Resources useful to any worldbuilder.
Treat It Like a Project
Building a world is a project. While you can certainly pursue it forever, it can help if you set yourself tasks, milestones, and goals. Using simple techniques like goal-setting can help you ensure you get the important parts done in a timely fashion (especially if you’re using your worldbuilding to feed another creative project).
Set goals or milestones and then work back from those goals to smaller tasks. Once you have those smaller tasks, break them down into smaller chunks until you have a sense for how much work is there and how long it will take you.
For example, suppose you want to create one continent in your world. To do so, you decide you will need to create four kingdoms. For each kingdom, you want to write a brief history, define three political factions, and identify four or five cultural details of note. You decide that each kingdom will take you about a week to create. Now you can determine that you will be able to flesh out that continent in about a month.
What Do You Think?
How do you get started? What are your top tips? Share your suggestions in the comments below.
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Don't miss Part 1 of this series, which you can find here.