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give_seek's avatar

What are the best worldbuilding strategies to use in fiction?

Asked by give_seek (1425points) January 24th, 2021

I’m trying to learn the skill of worldbuilding in fiction. (Potentially fantasy, scifi, or speculative) What are the most important elements of a world that I should know in order to build it correctly? History? Magic? Political Structures?

There may be details that apply cross-genres. I’m especially interested in those.

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7 Answers

gorillapaws's avatar

One of the things that made Game of Thrones so engaging (The Expanse too) is that they begin the story in a world that had a rich history and we learn more about what has happened in the past gradually over time. Person A is rude to Person B but otherwise nice to other people. The story doesn’t immediately tell us why. It’s not that Person A is a total jerk, but that there is history between them that we may learn more about in a conversation between Person A and Person C. It slowly fills in the picture and leaves mysteries by controlling the info the reader has instead of giving it all to the reader upfront.

The other thing that makes those worlds feel real is that villains don’t see themselves as villains. They have goals that sometimes put themselves in conflict with other people/groups of people and often have to make morally gray choices. That keeps things more believable.

Zaku's avatar

Importance depends on what is important to you and to the readers you want to appeal to.

That may be something each author needs to discover for themselves by some combination of:
* enjoying the work of others and seeing what we appreciate, and what we wish was done better or differently
* creating our own worlds and seeing what we like about doing that, what interests us, what we are happy with out own skill level at, and what we’d like to develop in our own worldbuilding skills
* writing and seeing what we like to write about and what aspects of worldbuilding we are interested in, where we are satisfied or dissatisfied with our efforts
* brainstorming and dreaming and seeing what we wish we were working on, ideally

For my own tastes, I like my worlds to make enough sense that they satisfy me that I can believe my imaginary worlds might be the way they are, and that I have at least some idea of how they came to be that way.

I’ve found that it helps me to “just start” and put out ideas and take a shot at some of the details, and then later criticize what I came up with, and then revise or re-do or do something else.

My interests and standards have developed and changed over the years. When I was 11 years old, it was fun and satisfying for me to just have some inspiration from reading and watching fantasy stories, and then to extend the sample campaign map from an RPG book to make new maps adjacent to those, and make up some of what was there, and then run an RPG campaign from it.

After a few years doing that, a friend who had done the same collaborated with me to make a new world and its history, and we went back to modern Earth and extrapolated a timeline that resulted in a new world, and developed several new cultures and their history on that world. That was when I found I wanted to know what the past history was, at least roughly (and more specifically when/where I was interested in the details or had some inspiration for them).

I find that the more context I develop, and the more it makes sense and is self-consistent, the more easily I can create new material that satisfies me because it fits in and makes sense to me.

The aspects that I find most important are the ones that are most interesting to me. Things like geography, history, power structures, cosmology, cultures, and since I’m usually doing it for a game that will involve detailed tactical combat, weaponry, military thinking and related things.

Designing what magic exists (if it exists) and how it works and who knows about it and teaches it to whom and so on is also, like technology, important and necessary (for my requirements for self-consistency) to be woven in to the history and culture and cosmology and spiritual and religious thinking.

With magic and technology, I find it’s important to me to think about the limits of what they can do and what it takes to do those things. In particular, from past mistakes, I have learned to be very careful not to make situations and difficulties disappear from my worlds due to excessively convenient magic and technology. So if I want my maps’ terrain to be relevant, I need to limit how much magic can make travel easy, for example. And I need to think about what divination/scrying/soothsaying can and can’t discover, lest I make spying and information gathering and privacy and schemes obsolete. And if I want combat to be dangerous and consequential even if people don’t die, then I want/need to severely limit how powerful healing magic is. If I want supplies and weather to matter, then I want to avoid spells that make those problems go away. Etc.

JLoon's avatar

No matter what you’re writing about, make everything happen in Miami.

elbanditoroso's avatar

How all-encompassing do you want the world to be?

Toi be complete and rational, you not only need to deal with history as @Zaku wrote, but you need to deal with geography comprehensively. And language – not just formal language, but slang and expressions. And you need to portray the civilization in one way, and its enemies another way but equally rational.

Almost like playing god…

Heinlein, by the way, was pretty good at designing different societies in his science fiction.

give_seek's avatar

Thanks @gorillapaws These are good insights for quality.

give_seek's avatar

@Zaku Thank you for your thorough response. I have a lot to consider.

give_seek's avatar

@elbanditoroso Thanks! I hadn’t considered informal language before. I’ll have fun creating that. I’m such a word nerd.

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