Novelists of science-fiction or fantasy know worldbuilding is a huge part of the fun of writing, from magical medieval worlds to apocalyptic dystopias. There’s something wonderful about writing brave new worlds.
As George R.R. Martin has written:
We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La. They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to middle Earth.
What’s described here just comes down to worldbuilding.
Whatever genre you’re in love with – historical fantasy, urban fantasy, hard or soft science-fiction, or something else – here are some general guidelines from us and an overview to consider.
Worldbuilding: Two Methods To Choose
M. John Harrison has defined worldbuilding as an ‘attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there’.
There are two established methods for science-fiction and fantasy, defined in The Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding. These are outside-in (otherwise called top-down) or inside-out (bottom-up) – so we’ll work with these definitions to help you sense which broad approach you prefer.
If you’re for outside-in, you’ll go with worldbuilding before just about anything else (i.e. plot, character) in your sci-fi or fantasy writing.
You’ll want that intricately-crafted world there in your mind, detailed in notes, ready for readers to explore as much as you yourself would wish to. Maybe you’ll need it complete with histories, languages and more – because you feel fantastical worlds need a sense and structure first for a story to operate in. Perhaps you’ll want to know every nook and cranny, creating mythologies, histories, etymologies surrounding your characters, like J.K. Rowling, or as J.R.R. Tolkien did when he created Middle Earth.
Tolkien, though, built The Hobbit around Bilbo Baggins – and then there came the history of Middle Earth and more. This makes Tolkien an inside-out world-builder. Bilbo, his character, came first and Middle Earth is built around Bilbo – all he must achieve, how he must grow – before Bilbo’s young cousin, Frodo, is forced to pick up Bilbo’s legacy in The Lord of the Rings and continue the journey. Similarly, the centre of J.K. Rowling’s series was always Harry himself.
With an inside-out approach, you’ll build worlds around characters, exploring as you go. This way is (arguably) most useful to you, helping you not get bogged down in the fun of worldbuilding.
You mustn’t ever neglect your story.
Mapping A New World
It’s not just a lot fun to create a world map. It’s worth doing even as a draft sketch for yourself, because the key rule to never break in worldbuilding is that your world must have an internal, underpinning logic to it. This helps convince us that no matter how fantastical your book material, it is authentic enough to feel plausible – enough for readers to buy into it all.
Think as you map mountains, savannahs, deserts – what do terrains mean for the societies you’ll create?
In fantasy epics, much of plot – including backstories, world histories and more – is tied up in mapping. The Iron Islands of A Song of Ice and Fire, as an example, are known for ironborn ships. Surrounded by seas, Iron Islanders depend upon their Iron Fleet. This doesn’t just sound imposing and impressive as a plot device from George R.R. Martin. It makes a certain logical sense that Iron Islanders would be dedicated to seafaring for their prosperity and survival.
There must be underpinning, internal rules to your world to create a due sense of realism, and this can feed into your plot arc, character journeys and all the rest.
As Jeff Vandermeer has written in Wonderbook:
Approaches to setting and character should be multidirectional: organic and three-dimension, with layers and depths. Throwaway settings are like throwaway characters: a missed opportunity.
These geographical elements are interconnected and worth exploring, researching carefully as a conscientious writer.