Worldbuilding Wednesday – My Fundamental Questions

Since I didn’t do my worldbuilding stream Sunday, I don’t have any fun tidbits of progress to share with you today. Instead, I want to talk a little about one of the hardest things about worldbuilding (especially if you’re new): where to start? There are a lot of different advice on this out there, and the advice I’m about to offer is of the most general kind possible: start by asking yourself a few fundamental questions about your world. The sorts of questions that, once answered, will allow you to start exploring the narratives of the world without worrying too much about writing yourself into a corner, contradicting yourself or otherwise ending up in a position where the setting and the story don’t cooperate. What these questions are will be different for everyone, depending on what sorts of worlds you like to make and what sorts of themes you tend to deal with in your stories. Below are my fundamental questions, and a bit of my reasoning behind why those particular questions are important to me and my creative process.

What is possible?

When you work with speculate fiction, one of the basic concerns of worldbuilding is determining what differentiates this setting from the real world. A way to do that can be to ask yourself what is possible in it, and what isn’t? For a fantasy setting, this might include figuring out what sort of magic exists. What can it do? Is eternal life possible? Shape-shifting? Teleportation? Is magic common or rare, secret or known? For sci-fi-esque settings, it might instead include deciding if faster-than-light travel exists and whether there are aliens. “What is possible” is of course a very wide question, but I’m talking about the broad strokes here rather than the detail, of getting the vibe of the setting rather than nailing down hard and fast lore. 

When I have a new idea (an interesting side character, a magical item, an invention, a cool turn of events) I don’t need to know all the ins and outs of it right away, but I need to be able to hold it up next to the setting and say to myself “does this fit?”. Asking myself, in the earliest stages of worldbuilding, “what is possible?” will let me determine whether to add the new idea to the setting, to move it to another setting or even to start working on a new setting just for my new idea. 

Who is a person?

Bit of a weird question, I know. I mean, a human is a person, right? Except of course when you write speculative fiction, you often end up working with non-humans that could potentially be persons. Monsters, aliens, fantasy species – to me, it’s important to know whether these kinds of beings are roughly analogous to humans in terms of individuality, intelligence and breadth of potential interests and motives, or whether they’re more analogous to animals, or even concepts. Are ghosts ethereal echoes trapped in memories of long-gone events with no capacity to learn or move on, or are they people who are dead and perhaps weird and dangerous because they’re dead, but still fundamentally people? 

There is of course a lot of grey area between those two and exploring that area is totally valid and often interesting but it’s usually not what I personally like to do. Most of the time, I want to know going in whether the vampires my characters meet will display a range of attitudes toward their own blood-drinking (and, consequently, might be susceptible to negotiating, appeals to their conscience etc) or whether they will just go for the jugular right off the bat (hah!). 

Who can procreate with whom?

I know this question seems really specific compared to the two others, almost to the point of being silly. But I also know that where a story of mine of any considerable length goes, a plot-line or back story involving pregnancy or babies or family formation in general tends to follow. It’s just such a commonly occurring thing in my writing that when I work in a setting that has non-human persons, as discussed above, knowing whether they’re reproductively compatible with humans and each other is just damned helpful. Can humans and aliens have kids together? Are vampires automatically infertile by virtue of being undead? This may be completely relevant to your worldbuilding, but with mine I know there’s a good chance it will eventually become relevant so having a grasp of it upfront will inform how I build my characters, relationships and plot lines as I move forward with the stories in the setting.

Everything else

Once the three questions above are answered, everything else is sort of a bonus for me. Don’t get me wrong – many of my stories, maybe even most of them, contain way more worldbuilding than the above. But that’s because I love worldbuilding. It’s a craft in itself, one that appeals to me in a way that’s different to but parallel with my interest in writing. But once I’ve answered the questions above, I feel like I’m free to start making stories in the setting without worrying that I’ll contradict myself or accidentally break my own magic system or anything like that. With the exception of my bigger worldbuilding projects (like Erziyye or Orklands), most worldbuilding I do for stories tends to be on an as-needed basis. By that I mean that I don’t develop the secret cave city of the mountain trolls until my main character has a reason to go there. Because as much as I love worldbuilding, it can be a really time-consuming process and when you have as many story ideas as I do, you have to be a bit choosy about how much time you invest in each of them.

That’s it for today. I hope you’ve found this post interesting! It’s a bit vaguer than I’d intended, but hopefully you got something out of it anyway. See you next week, when I’ll hopefully be posting about maps!

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