Worldbuilding is the process of constructing an imaginary world. Typically, this involves creating history, geography, ecology, and so on. There are literally dozens and dozens of things to worry about when worldbuilding, and sometimes it’s a little daunting on where to start, but it doesn’t have to be. You see, worldbuilding is broken up into two phases: Big Picture and Small Picture worldbuilding, and today we’re going to focus on the former. Big Picture Worldbuilding are the aspects of your fictional world that reflect a macro scale. For the sake of this post we’re going to go into the following: Geography, Politics, Time, and History.
Now, I don’t want you to think that these are the definitive and only things required in worldbuilding, not at all. Simply, I want to present these as examples as to what constitutes worldbuilding on a macro scale. So with that out of the way, let’s begin:
Since it’s literally the lay of the land, let’s start with the geography. The general layout of your world is typically the first aspect of worldbuilding: determining nations and how they govern themselves, landmarks, worldly wonders, oceans, continents, and so on. These aspects provide a strong foundation for where you can build your world from there.
In this beginning phase, there’s no need to look too deeply into things like tectonic plates, temperate zones, or weather patterns. Instead, you can decide how these things play out later. This is fantasy; you don’t have to be governed by real world laws. If you want there to be a desert somewhere, put a desert there. If you want a great lake, place a great lake. If you want a particular region to have frequent heavy rain and fog, then have it frequently rain (although if that’s the case, there should be at least a large body of water nearby). In the grand scheme, no one is going to look at your world and critically think “that’s not right.” Most readers will fully accept this fantasy world because most people don’t even fully understand our own.
I would, however, heavily recommend using some base elements from our own world as shorthand for your own. For example: In the northern hemisphere, the north is commonly associated with the cold. As such, it’d probably be a little strange for readers to have a kingdom in the far north be a blistering desert. However, in the southern hemisphere, the north is associated with heat and deserts and the like. Sometimes, utilizing aspects from the real world and applying it in fantasy can help make the world more digestible for the reader, and a bit easier to create for the writer.
Next, let’s delve into the oh-so simple world of politics. In my experience, when talking with friends and peers, politics tend to be one aspect of worldbuilding that not only takes up the most time to develop but typically plays the biggest role in stories taking place in your world. Now, the role politics play in your story can determine how big a role politics are going to play in your world. If you’re just writing a high fantasy epic where the good guys fight the bad guy and stop him from taking over the world, maybe politics aren’t a huge deal; but if you’re going to have several nations and kingdoms form alliances to take on the malicious regime of a rival nation, then politics should probably play a bigger part.
Politics can refer to several thing, but for the sake of simplicity, I’m going to primarily use it to describe how nations govern themselves and their interactions with other nations. To begin, there are numerous ways a country can govern itself; a monarchy where the ruler is a singular entity like a king, queen or emperor; a country could be a democracy where the whole population govern themselves through elected officials; a country could be an oligarchy where a small group of people, typically the very wealthy, have control; or a country could be a stratocracy where the government is headed by military chiefs. Mixing these across your world can add a bit of uniqueness to your world that is more reminiscent of a living breathing world. In our world, we have all sorts of forms of government, so your fantasy world shouldn’t just be comprised of monarchies and/or dictatorships.
Next, I want to talk about time. In fantasy, time can play a large role. If the characters are going to be traveling for six months, the reader has an idea of about how long that will be in our world, but that could mean something totally different in your fictional world. In most of the modern world, people use the Gregorian Calendar (12 months, 4 seasons, 7 days a week, 365 days, etc.) and when we hear six months, we think about half a year or about 180 days; but in your world, 6 months could be far shorter or longer. Perhaps your world has 1000 days in a year and each month is broken up into 100 days: That would mean six months is 600 days, over three times longer than that in the real world.
Now, I would heavily go against altering units of times like seconds, minutes, and hours. Typically, if you stay consistent with how many hours are in a day, minutes in an hour, and seconds in a minute, your reader will be able to consistently understand how long a day is. From there, you can modify weeks, months, and years.
For example, let’s say in your world: years are 1000 days long and consists of 10 months. Each month consists of 100 days, and each week consisting of 10 days (I want to keep this simple for this example, but please don’t actually do this. It would come off as very strange and unnatural for your world to follow such a routine pattern). If your characters were going to be traveling for 3 weeks, the reader would initially assume 21 days because that’s how long 3 weeks are in the real world. As such, you’d need to have it clarified that 3 weeks in your world is 30 days to really get the point across. This can be a character simply repeating it back in the proper days, i.e.
“Your trip will be 3 weeks,”
“Really? Only 30 days?”
Relaying the timeframe back in simpler terms can help keep the reader grounded in the reality of the world. From there, after conditioning your reader for a while, you can cease the repetition and have the dialogue move forward as normal.
Lastly, I want to talk about the last big picture worldbuilding aspect: History. History is defined as a chronological record of events, as of the life or development of a people or institution. When we start to create our world, we become fascinated with history: Who are these people? Where did they come from? Why are these nations at war? We get so caught up on all these details that we tend to focus more on the past than the present. We try to start at the beginning and work forward as is natural, but forget that when writing, it is more important to work backwards.
Let me explain: When building your world’s history, it is important that you have a well established base to build from. If you try and start from nothing, you’re forced to start with how the world was created, and while that is good and exciting, it takes away from the mystery of the world. If you know for a fact that the world was created in the aftermath of a war between dragons and giants, then you know that to be the one truth and that any culture that believes that is right and all others are wrong. However, if you start in the present and move backwards, you can develop cultures that would have their own creation myths; perhaps there would be several themes connecting them. As creators, we tend to think that we need to know all the ins and outs of our world as to avoid any contradictions, but that isn’t true. If there’s some information that is even unknown to us, then it allows us to expand and grow our worlds in ways that we’d never even imagined and creates a more authentic feeling world.
Now, I could go on and on about the various topics above, but the point of all of this was to help explain what constitutes as Big Picture Worldbuilding and hopefully get the creative juices flowing; but it is entirely possible that you didn’t think anything I said was helpful, and that’s fair, however I hope it at least got you to think about why and how you could further expand your own creative setting.
Now, way back in the beginning I mentioned that big picture worldbuilding was just one half of journey, so come back next time as we delve into the even more laborious task of Small Picture Worldbuilding.