They get to create settings, it’s true. But I’m talking about creating worlds…landscapes, starscapes, races, creatures, plants, languages, natural (and unnatural) laws–the whole thing. And then, once we’re through creating the worlds, we get to play in them. Even better!
There are, admittedly, dangers and traps for the unwary in world-building. Sometimes we get too immersed in that side of the process and build far more than we need for the purposes of the story. The worlds we create require a lot of internal consistency if they’re going to stand up to the scrutiny of editors and readers. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when world-building:
1. Find the balance between simplicity and complexity. Your world needs to have enough complexity to feel realistic and believable, but not so much that you get bogged down in details that don’t matter to the story. If you find yourself trying to decide what species of grass might grow on a hillside that your characters never visit, it might be time to pull back.
2. Do your research. We have access to tons of data on the planets in our solar system and some exo-planets, as well as on stars, nebulae, weather systems, geological patterns and all the other things you might have to consider for your world. Do your homework so you don’t make egregious scientific errors–they’ll call your entire story into question even if you do everything else right. If you want or need to do something extraordinary, make sure there’s some reasonable explanation (that is, reasonable within the context of the story) for why things are the way they are.
3. Be consistent. Yes, these worlds are imaginary, but they still require internal consistency if you want your readers to buy into the tale you’re spinning. If your world has magic, it needs rules, and these rules should be the same at the end of the book as they were at the beginning. If your world has science, make sure it works or that you make it at least plausible. Don’t play fast and loose with your readers’ expectations; give them a world that feels solid beneath their feet.
4. Keep records or notes. You’ve heard of the idea of tv and movie series having a “bible” that contains all the relevant data for the world of the series. It’s wise to do something similar with your own worldbuilding, so that you can easily maintain that necessary consistency. A document like this allows you to check details, note changes or exceptions, and use it as a quick reference when writing or editing. It can also evolve into a place for notes on future stories, conflicts, and the past and future history of your world.
5. Have fun. World-building can be a lot of work, but it’s also a lot of fun. It’s creating a playground that you will populate with characters and conflicts, and that you may keep coming back to as stories emerge from the cloth of this background you’ve woven. Take time to enjoy it. The more fun you have creating it, the more fun your readers will have visiting it…and they’ll want to return.
I spent quite a long time developing the Nearspace universe…although it’s grounded in our own solar system and star systems we know about, there was lots of room for creating and envisioning new planets, races, science, and language. And I do have a Nearspace “bible,” so with a little diligence, it’s easy to keep it consistent as well. I’m sure there are more stories to tell…