Nina D’Aleo wrote her first book at age seven (a fantasy adventure about a girl named Tina and her flying horse). Due to most of the book being written with a feather dipped in water, no one else has ever read ‘Tina and White Beauty’. Many more dream worlds and illegible books followed. Nina blames early exposure to Middle-earth and Narnia for her general inability to stick to reality. She also blames her parents. And her brother. Nina has completed degrees in creative writing and psychology. She currently lives in Brisbane, Australia, with her husband, George, their two sons, Josef and Daniel, and two cats, Mr Foofy and Gypsy. She spends most of her days playing with toys, saying things like share, play gentle, and let’s eat our veggies and hearing things like no, no way and NEVER! She is the author of The Demon War Chronicles, comprised of The Last City and The Forgotten City.

Worldbuilding in Sci-Fi & Fantasy

by Nina D’Aleo

An idea has sprouted – a character has breathed their first breath – a place has jumped from monochrome to colour in your mind. A story is born!

Now what?

The answer will always differ between writers, but for me – it’s time to build a world!

Why Worldbuilding?

Worldbulding sets up the entire foundation of your storyline, and the more detailed and vivid the world is for the writer, the easier it will be to write about, and the more consistent and believable it will be for readers. A highly developed world can even, in some circumstances, feel like an actual character.

Imagine Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy without Narnia, Harry Potter without Hogwarts and Bilbo Baggins without Middle Earth to see what I mean.

All in the Details

An exercise for writers to test how well they know their world is to write a paragraph about their own neighbourhood or city and then write a paragraph about their fantasy setting – and if they can’t write as fluidly about the constructed world as they can about their own, it may be time to populate it with more details. Questions such as these can help to develop this detail:-

Worldbuilding Questions
  • Is the world ‘our world’ but changed (is the story set in the past or the future or in alternate history) or is it a completely different world?
  • Who are the people or races who live in the world? What languages do they speak? What do they look like? What do they wear?
  • How is time kept in the world – are there hours? days? years? A calender?
  • What is the geography of the world (are there countries? cities? kingdoms?) – A map here can be useful – even a simple one to help remember where everything is in relation to each other.
  • What is the climate – are there four seasons like our world?
  • What is the significant world history (how it began, important figures, important events)
  • Is there magic – what are the rules for the magic and those who use it?
  • What are the customs and cultures?
  • What do people eat and drink and how does this differ between different groups?
  • Are there rules to how people can interact – what are the social norms, usual greetings, rules of contact and conduct? What behaviour is considered disordered and what is taboo?
  • Is there religion?
  • Is there government and politics?
  • What about the crime and legal system? Are there judges? Are there prisons?
  • What weapons are available to the people of the world?
  • What are the businesses and industries?
  • What kind of transportation and communication is available?
  • What kinds of sciences and technology are available (including medicine)?
  • What sorts of arts and entertainment exist?
  • Is there an education system?
  • If you stood in the location where your story begins – what could you see? What could you taste? What could you touch? What could you smell? What could you feel?

*To see a much more detailed question list refer to Patricia C. Wrede’s excellent Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions.

Further Inspiration

Compiling images (artwork, photos, pictures etc) and physically going to places similar to the imagined setting and taking in the smells, sights and sounds, can both help in the worldbuilding process. Also if the constructed world is similar to a place or time in history, research about this time can be helpful. For example I’m constructing a world similar to that of ancient Rome and Greece and I’m using their history as inspiration.

What Makes the Cut?

At the end of all the research and planning a writer could end up with a document that is potentially longer than the actual book, and are left with the question of what goes into the story and what doesn’t. This question again doesn’t have one right answer as each reader will respond subjectively to your work. But in general the world is best and most believably experienced through the characters’ eyes – Where are they? What are they seeing? What are they feeling? – rather than lengthy general setting descriptions and histories. But as the creator of the world – the choice is yours!

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