Wikipedia claims that worldbuilding “is the process of constructing an imaginary world, sometimes associated with a whole fictional universe.” While true at a basic level, this statement assumes that worldbuilding is only necessary for authors writing sci-fi and fantasy, and that is absolutely false.
Worldbuilding is an integral part of any genre, even those set in the present day, real world. Few authors use real places in their stories, but even when cities like London are featured, the buildings aren’t necessarily real. The characters rarely live in real houses. They’ll pop along to fictional pubs, go shopping at imaginary supermarkets, and so on.
If you’re writing a novel, it’s handy to know where everything is. That way you know how long it would take to walk or drive somewhere. Which routes a character might take. Google Maps is a fabulous resource for those basing their stories in or on a real place. You can create your own to pinpoint your sites and measure distances. Popping onto the world view gives you how the terrain looks, which can also be folded into the story.
Another aspect of worldbuilding is the season. A novel set in the depths of winter needs to have a different feel to one set mid-summer. The season affects the characters’ surroundings, and what they are likely to be doing.
Era is another thing to consider. Customs are different today than they were in the Victorian era, for instance. This needs to be reflected in your story and in how your characters behave and speak.
So worldbuilding for non-fantasy or sci-fi novels is largely research but it’s still worldbuilding and still absolutely vital to bear in mind. That said, this is NaNo Prep, so I must remind you that the idea is to write as many words in 30 days as possible. You’re not going to do that if you stop every five minutes to look something up. Guesstimate and either bracket the text or underline it – any way that you can find it on your second draft.
Yes, I said second draft. That, and editing, is for a much later post.
Back to worldbuilding. I’ve covered how important it is for other genres, but let’s get to fantasy and sci-fi; the two genres that use it even more. You can get caught up a little too much in creating your own world. Just look at Tolkien. Still, you do need the basics in place before you start writing.
Earth or not Earth? Most authors copy Earth, because it makes things easier. You don’t have to start figuring out continents, axes, seasons, and how many moons. But be careful: Medieval Europe is severely overdone – try looking at different eras and places to base your novel (this aimed at you fantasy writers out there!)
Society and customs. If you novel is planet-based, then you’re going to have at least one society and its associated customs. This is a great area to introduce constraints that one or more of your characters can rail against – the premise of Doctor Who is that he hated the rules attached to being a Time Lord, stole a TARDIS and ran away. Like Belle is bored of her little town at the start of Beauty & The Beast. Or Star Trek’s Prime Directive, which has been broken more times than I can count, because morality trumped the rules.
Terrain and weather are other potential antagonists. Frodo and Sam would have made it to Mordor quicker and easier had there not been huge mountains, major storms, and the heat of the dead lands to contend with. The lack of terrain in space brings its own problems. Humans aren’t really built for space travel and this can have a psychological effect as well as a physical one; effects that you can use to trip up your characters and add danger to your novel.
In short, worldbuilding gives you a setting that you can use almost as another character. It can be a protagonist and help your characters, or it can be an antagonist getting in the way. How much it effects your story is up to you.
Further reading (as long as it’s not during November!)
Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions – SFWA
Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions – Patricia C. Wrede
Building a SciFi Future That Matters
Diversity in Science Fiction (I wish this article gave more detail!)
Next time I’ll be covering characters, so stay tuned!