On worldbuilding


Although the first draft of my book is now complete, there is a lot of work still to be done to flesh out the world in which the story takes place. I'm not completely satisfied with many of the names I have used (both for the characters and the locations), and some of the descriptions of places -- especially the major city that is the primary focus of most of the action -- are a little vague.

In Brandon Sanderson's lecture series he tackles worldbuilding by separating the process into two parts: the Physical Setting of your world, and the Cultural Setting. The Physical Setting is all of the things that would still be there even if the people didn't exist: the flora and fauna of your world, geography, weather, cosmology, geology, and the laws of physics that apply (or don't apply) in your fictional universe.

On the Cultural side, he provides an exhaustive list of the sort of topics you might want to consider while fleshing out the world in which your story is set, including:

  • Economy
  • Religion
  • Laws
  • Politics/Government
  • Landmarks
  • Caste or class system
  • Customs and philosophies
  • Food and food lore
  • Languages
  • Cursing
  • Music
  • Fashion
  • Folklore
  • Gender roles
  • Weapons and technology
  • Architecture
  • History
  • Human rights
  • Prejudices
  • Education
  • Courtship

He goes on to note that it's not necessary to explore or fully map out all of the above considerations, but that picking a handful that differ from our own world and incorporating them into the plot is an effective way to build your readers' confidence that you know what you are talking about when it comes to your fictional world. He likens it to an iceberg; show them the 10%, and they will trust that you know all about the other 90%, even though it remains hidden from view.

Matthew Pennell

Designer, developer, writer, runner, gamer, devil's advocate, INTP. Senior designer for Booking.com. Founder, Refresh Cambridge.