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  • Writer's pictureShannon Rampe

Worldbuilding for Creatives - Do Your Research

Updated: Feb 7, 2023


One of the most fun and enjoyable parts of worldbuilding can be doing research. Many of the best worldbuilding ideas come from inspiration gathered from real-world sources. And if you’re trying to create a world that has the feel of something “real” or that is scientifically plausible, research will be of paramount importance.

Here are some particularly useful sources and tips for doing research.

The Library: Libraries are still your number one resources for reliable information. Unlike the Internet, most (not all) published books are well-researched and must meet basic standards of credibility. (This does not mean all self-published or Internet-based resources are false or not valuable, but it sometimes can be harder to establish the credibility of these sources.)

In recent years, more and more libraries are going digital, enabling you to borrow digital copies of books whenever you want without having to even go to the library to search for them. (Sometimes scouring the library is part of the fun, but you can't beat the convenience of a quick web search.)

The Internet: Wikipedia may be flawed, filled with unintentional bias, incomplete data, and more problems. All true. It is still the largest one-stop information shop in the world. And it’s free. Seriously, give them $2. I’m tired of getting emails from Jimmy Wales.

TV Tropes is another dangerously addictive Internet resource. Imagine Wikipedia but just for stories and tropes. Check it out if you’re prepared to lose a weekend.

Reddit is another useful internet resource. The abundance of subreddits means that you can almost always find a (self-professed) expert to give you an opinion, and at least forty or fifty equally or less-qualified people to give opinions on those opinions. Taken with a healthy grain or two of salt, you can find some valuable specialized information on Reddit.

The /r/worldbuilding subreddit is particularly useful, both for the enormous catalogue of resources they have collected in their wiki, but also for being able to see ideas from other people and to get feedback on your own ideas.

Your Imagination: Most of us don’t think of using our imaginations as doing “research,” but it is! In fact, your imagination is probably the single most important research source you will use while worldbuilding. So, treat it like a resource. Be intentional about using your imagination like you would use a library. Only instead of “going to your imagination,” like you would go to the library, you can just go for a long walk or a drive and think about one of the topics you’re stuck on or where you need information.

I also recommend bringing a small notebook with you wherever you go and jotting down ideas as they occur to you. Even if you don’t wind up using them or they aren’t relevant for this particular project, there are benefits to do so. First, imagination is a fickle beast, and writing down ideas as you have them is a great way of training your imagination to produce ideas. Second, it’s a great way to train your conscious mind to pay attention to ideas when they occur. Too often, we are busily going about our day and our subconscious is processing all this information beneath the surface, and we can miss really great ideas because we’re too distracted. Keeping a notebook on hand and using it liberally can really benefit you.

Other Books/Games/Movies/Comics/Etc.: There is a popular misconception amongst creatives, particularly those first exploring a creative pursuit, that ideas have to be totally innovative. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Most great ideas come from taking existing ideas and presenting them in a new way – sometimes that means presenting a different perspective. Sometimes that means combining several old ideas together to create something new.

Take, for instance, the excellent, classic SF novel “The Forever War,” by Joe Haldeman. The author took his own very personal experiences of the Vietnam War and combined them with existing tropes and ideas seen in earlier science fiction action/adventure novels to create a story that was intensely personal and felt truly unique.

Ideas, contrary to popular belief, cannot be trademarked or copyrighted. Words are copyrighted, brands and logos are trademarked. But ideas belong to the fertile grounds of our minds. So feel free to borrow those ideas you find most interesting. What is it about them that so fascinates you?

It’s your unique take on an idea that makes it interesting, not simply the idea itself. It’s your expression that makes each iteration of an idea different and unique. If you try to present the idea the exact same way you have seen it in the past, it will feel derivative. But if you can find your own personal take on it, which you can discover from examining what it is that fascinates you about the idea, then you can make it your own.

Repurpose Real-World History: The history of our world is rife with fascinating cultures, languages, and events. Oftentimes you can use these historical events to feed into your worldbuilding. Basing fictional languages off of real-world ones can ensure your constructed languages have the sound of real languages. Looking at examples of historical religions, festivals, politics, and people can help you to flesh out your own world in ways that have depth and complexity. Look at key historical events in our world and think about parallels in your own. Wars, major discoveries, political developments - all of these can be sources of inspiration.

It’s important, however, to be cognizant of the risk of cultural appropriation. In worldbuilding, this most often occurs when the creator presents a certain ethnic, religious, or social group in a way that is exploitative, disrespectful, one-sided, or stereotypical. Even if you think you’re creating a new people, if you leverage historical stereotypes, you very much run the risk of cultural appropriation.

For example, suppose you are writing a western Euro-centric fantasy novel, and you decide to have all "old, wise people" have an elaborate tea-drinking ritual based off of Japanese culture. This would be an example of cultural appropriation, because you have lifted a cultural element out of its proper context and crammed it into something just because it looks cool. Better would be to learn why Japanese culture developed a tea ritual and understand its significance within the culture. Then figure out in the setting you are creating, what cultural forces might drive the establishment of a ritual behavior.

When in doubt, it is recommended that you consult with someone from the culture you are drawing on to advise you. I also recommend reading more about this topic. The Writing With Color blog has an excellent section in their FAQ.

Random Tables: When seeking to flesh out your world, random tables can be a great resource. The roleplaying games “Stars Without Number” and “Worlds Without Number” are highly recommended here. There are also many, many resources available online that can be used to generate random details about a world or a culture.

What Do You Think?

What resources do you use for doing research when worldbuilding? What little-known corners of the Internet do you frequent for obscure details? Who do you go to for answers? Share your best tips in the comments below.

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Feb 01, 2023

Just a note on Wikipedia and the family of related Wikis (Wikimedia Foundation websites), look to the list of resources for the articles you peruse. These sources are often goldmines of much deeper, broader information.

Shannon Rampe
Shannon Rampe
Feb 01, 2023
Replying to

Thanks! That's a great suggestion.

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