Worldbuilding is an essential part of every story. The extent necessary, of course, depends on the kind of story you want to tell.
On one end of the spectrum, we find biographies, memoirs, and most non-fiction. Here, the world is the one you know and often have personal experience with.
As we move along to literary fiction (a term I strngly dislike, but that’s another story), we stay within the world as we know it. Mostly. But then, we cross into magical realism, urban fantasy, alternative history, and near-future science fiction. Here, we’ll have to start ‘building’ parts of our world with new components we have no actual real-life experience with. Eventually, we end up at hard science fiction and high fantasy, the place where we’ll have to start constructing our story’s world from the ground up.
There are a lot of things you have to keep in mind when building a world. That implies that the four types of worldbuilding we’ll discuss briefly below never occur solo. They are always linked and any good story incorporates all of them. Still, most stories emphasize one or two over the others.
Here we go.
Four types of worldbuilding
This list of four worldbuilding types is not official canon, but I think it encapsulates most aspects of a story’s setting. It’s also interesting to consider how the average emphasis has shifted over time when we think about most of the books hitting the shelf. Finally, these types overlap in several ways and many aspects of your world will need the lens of more than one type of worldbuilding to become believable.
I’ll also add three yes/no questions for each type of worldbuilding. This will help you figure out where your emphasis lies (which, of course, will differ from story to story).
Let’s start with physical worldbuilding. This includes the non-living physical stuff, the laws of your story’s physics. From planetary orbits to your world’s seasons, from faster-than-light travel to geology. But the rules of magic also fall within this type of worldbuilding. In short, the ticking and tocking of your universe’s clockwork.
Examples are a lot of ‘golden age’ SF, such as Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and Poul Anderson. But recent work such as Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy, and N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy include a substantial chunk of physical worldbuilding as well.
- Do you research how orbits affect the composition of planetary bodies/how the rules of magic can be consistent?
- Do you spend time figuring out distances and travel times given your story’s available means of transportation?
- Do physical limits (time, distance, energy availability) play a non-trivial role in the plot and the characters’ development?
Technological worldbuilding centers on specific instances of technology as a main plot driver (this doesn’t have to be futuristic technology). This, of course, involves a bit of physical worldbuilding as well. However, technological worldbuilding zooms in more on applications. For example, while the rules of magic are part of physical worldbuilding, the application of that magic is part of technological worldbuilding.
Examples of stories where strong technological worldbuilding is prevalent can often be found in the (sub)genre of cyberpunk. Think William Gibson, Philip K. Dick, and Bruce Sterling, but also — in other subgenres — Neal Stephenson, Madeline Ashby, and Ann Leckie.
- Does your story collapse when you take away a key technology?
- Does the success/failure of your protagonist rely on the (proper) use of a specific technology?
- Does technology function as an extension of the characters more than once in the story? Or is the use of technology a defining characteristic of certain characters?
Time to talk about people. Cultural worldbuilding focuses on interpersonal relationships, from small-scale individual interactions to societal design. Politics, religion, tradition, even culinary customs, are all part of cultural worldbuilding. Often, social inequality and injustice are key aspects of plot and character development.
Examples are especially rich in ‘soft’ science fiction, from George Orwell to Ursula Leguin and Octavia Butler. One might argue that Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series also incorporates a lot of cultural worldbuilding, as does the work of Nnedi Okorafor. In fact, I would argue that cultural worldbuilding — on average — has become increasingly important in recent decades.
- Do you spend time developing the political system (or its alternative) of your world?
- Is inequality and tension between a minority and a majority group (or between minority groups themselves) a crucial aspect of character development/background?
- Does the plot hinge on changing interpersonal relationships between (some of) your main characters?
Let’s move beyond people to the rest of the living world. Your new world will have to have flora and fauna, whether it’s a small algae garden on a spaceship or a combination of ecosystems in your alien/fantasy world. This also includes other ‘intelligent’ species, for example, alien species making up an interstellar confederation, or elves, dwarves, and giants populating your alternative earth. These species must share a planet or habitat, eat, procreate, and interact, which can often provide very interesting plot developments.
Some old examples are H.G.Wells and Olaf Stapledon. Think also of Jurassic Park and Peter Watts’s masterful Blindsight. More recent — and excellent — work in biological worldbuilding is Adrian Tchaikovksy’s Children of Time and Children or Ruin, Sue Burke’s Semiosis and Interference, and Mira Grant’s Parasite.
- Do you do seek inspiration in weird earth fauna/flora to develop new mindboggling animals/plants/microbes/other lifeforms for your story?
- Do you pay scrupulous attention to how the different organisms/species in your world interact, what they eat, whether they’re poisonous, etc.?
- Do you include a point of view that isn’t (entirely) human? Possibly with certain linguistic oddities to emphasize the otherness?
All the world’s a stage
The more you creep toward the speculative side (join us! join us!), the more explicit worldbuilding you’ll have to do. This worldbuilding will ideally involve all four of the above types, but for most stories the emphasis will be on one (maybe two) specific type(s).
Worldbuilding takes time and effort. But it’s very much worth it. It breathes life into your world and your story. In fact, it can even elevate your setting to a hidden character. If your world is both complex and internally consistent, it can be an important plot driver, just like an extra character.
If you’ve answered the questions above (thanks for engaging, by the way), you’ll very likely see that the yesses are more prevalent in one type of worldbuilding than in others. At the same time, you’ll probably notice that your yesses are not limited to one type of worldbuilding.
Finally, for several of the examples I’ve used (let me know other great ones that exemplify a specific type of worldbuilding) the argument can be made that they might fit in other types of worldbuilding as well. True. And that’s the hallmark of great stories.
Worlds are complicated.
Now go build one.