So, you’re an aspiring creator, or writer, or artist. But for whatever reason you wish to create a new setting. Whether it be fantasy, sci-fi, steampunk, or some other thing, you wish to build a world, or worldbuild. The definition of worldbuilding is easy, the act of creating a fictional universe, the specifics are much harder. This article will primarily be about worldbuilding, specifically the fantastical kind like in fantasy or sci-fi where the shiny setting gets all the attention and interest, but to an extent I guess this can apply to fictional writing as well.
To give some background about my credentials, I’m a creative writer on the internet, I develop a worldbuilding thing known as r/childrenofdusk, which is a fictional universe going from the year 2022 to 2100. There are pages upon pages of lore, and I have a small following of 2,000 people specifically subscribed to the subreddit.
Alright, enough intro, let’s get into it.
Lesson 1: You don’t want competitors
The barrier to entry for worldbuilding is very low. Anyone can grab a pen or a pencil, a computer or a tablet and sketch out a rough map for their fantasy worldbuilding universe, or create a few settings or more. Competition in most of these markets are fierce, and if there is already lots of competition in this space, then it is increasingly unlikely you will come out on top; especially if there are more established players who not only have a first mover’s advantage, but also probably have far more experience than you.
You’re never going to be better at doing Star Wars than Star Wars, you’re never going to be better at doing Superman than Superman, the only possible way is if those franchises have an enormous fall, and you’re in the right place at the right time to take a distraught fanbase. But usually that only happens if you’re already a serious contender for the top spots. In general, it’s not worth it.
There are basically two ways you can try to make a new work. One is to fight in an already established niche, and then pour your complete heart and soul into it, trying to make it the best you can, the most realistic you can, fight against titans ten times your size and hope for the smallest hope that you can somehow overpower everyone else in the market. This I do not recommend, as it is grueling, and you will have with the people who got there first…
Or find a completely new idea, something no one, or very few people have successfully tried before, plant your flag, and make yourself the person who got there first.
Lesson 2: Creative Ideas, and Making New Ideas
The frontiers of human thought are enormous. You would genuinely be surprised even with all of the works we’ve published, how many unexplored crevices there are. First, just start out with a wacky idea. I guess I’ll start with a simple one, what if space was actually filled with air, and it was much easier for people to journey the stars in airships? There are a few ways we can develop this idea:
- Basically, think of how this might affect every part of your world, think over the practicalities of it. Now, some parts you can hold off with suspension of disbelief. For example, you wouldn’t have to explain why the air pressure doesn’t crush everything under the sheer weight of a universe full of air, or why the air wouldn’t collect around the planets again due to gravity, but make sure you keep your world internally consistent. But other parts you seriously need to think through. Is the air in space breathable, is the purpose of the air (narratively) to allow people to breathe in space, or simply to allow airships and blimps to fly beyond the stars? Is there still gravity, is gravity facing the planets, or does every airship have artificial gravity generators that keep their crew affixed to the deck at all times? Does gravity even exist in this world? Etc. You can see that extrapolation tends to lead to a massive explosion of other questions, which you can answer, and if you’re lucky, will lead to more questions! This kind of worldbuilding is almost self-perpetuating, but sooner or later you will exhaust all of your questions, and this leads us to part 2.
- You add something to the universe, and then you repeat the extrapolation process again. Try to make sure these ideas you add are somewhat, or preferably very interesting from the get-go. For example, let’s add in the fact that magic is a thing, and that rather than words and spells you need to chant, you instead use music, which you know is somewhat similar to words, they’re equally as complicated, and they have certain harmonies and advantages. Now repeat the process of extrapolation, if music is now our main form of magic, do instruments serve the same roles as wands? Do different instruments have different advantages and disadvantages in magic? Do music sheets replace spell books, are songs and melodies complex spells that have complex effects? What role do musicians play in this universe? Note how much worldbuilding we’ve gotten done solely from the extrapolation of 2 ideas. You think about how each new idea affects each component around it, and it’s almost like exponential growth.
- Balancing and refinement. Somewhere after a few ideas, you really need to figure out how this universe is balanced, you probably have an end goal you want, and there are ways to figure out how to get your universe towards that. For example, you create a spell that can bring back people from the dead… But that seems kind of overpowered, but is needed for certain parts of the story. Okay then, balancing time, is there a cost to this, what are the drawbacks, is it only something really powerful people can do? Do you have to secure a rare resource that is in short supply? Do you have to get into a fiddle contest with the grim reaper? Or alternatively, okay revival is extremely cheap and anyone can do this, how does this change how society views death, how does this change religion, culture, views on the afterlife, society? If people can be brought back from the dead endlessly, how many people still have children? Are there thousand-year-old people out there? If you want to emphasize their age, make them the strongest characters in the setting, give some kind of explanation for that, maybe their experience allows them to write the most powerful songs. Or if you want to nerf them, figure out a way to do that, even with the revival song, eventually a human brain cannot contain that many memories, and they develop a form of Alzheimer’s due to what’s basically full disk storage before eventually passing away.
You should try to choose an inherently interesting idea that isn’t structurally limited, that has lots of “creative opportunity”, and can run on like a soap opera indefinitely, if this is a really long term commitment. Your brain needs to have room to come up with ideas. This leads us nicely into our next point:
Lesson 3: Your brain is surprisingly good at logically justifying/connecting random bullcrap.
You might be thinking, “Oh I have all these ideas I want to fit in, but I probably can’t fit it in because it’ll all contradict.” To this I say, bullcrap! Your brain is surprisingly good at rationalizing and explaining away just about everything. All you have to do is come up with a somewhat logical argument for why everything is why it is, and make sure you avoid any internal inconsistencies. Your brain is made to create connections, and logically explaining what is nonsensical and absurd, because life is nonsensical and absurd, and your poor brain has to logically make sense of that every day!
This is just how I write stuff, but what I actually like to do is just throw everything into a salad bowl, put it on blend, and try and make it work. Just cram in a bunch of random ideas and make your brain do the rest. To make this fully authentic, I actually asked ChatGPT to come up with 10 random ideas, and then just try to cobble them together into a coherent setting.
Prompt: Generate 10 random ideas for a worldbuilding setting.
- A world where technology has advanced to the point where people can merge their bodies with machines, becoming cyborgs.
- A post-apocalyptic world where the survivors live in sprawling underground cities to avoid the harsh surface conditions.
- A fantasy world where magic is powered by the emotions of its users, leading to a society where emotions are heavily regulated.
- A world where the laws of physics are different, allowing for floating islands and strange gravity anomalies.
- A society where clones are commonly used for manual labor and menial tasks, leading to a class divide between clones and “natural” humans.
- A world where the planet is ruled by a giant artificial intelligence, and humans live in a utopia under its benevolent rule.
- A medieval-inspired world where powerful guilds control all trade and commerce, leading to a rigid social hierarchy.
- A world where all forms of communication can be read by a powerful government agency, leading to a society where privacy and freedom of speech are non-existent.
- A world where all forms of transportation are powered by a mysterious, magical substance, leading to a society where travel and trade are commonplace.
- A world where the sun is slowly dying, forcing humanity to band together and build a massive generation ship to find a new home.
… Man, number 6, ChatGPT, biased much? But certainly not much of this is contradictory, you can certainly just merge this into one setting. You can keep adding ideas to the salad bowl, your ability to assimilate and integrate them only depends on your imagination. And note, all of these can be extrapolated to create an amazing setting! How does being a cyborg affect day to day life? What are the details of the post-apocalyptic world, what happened, how does it affect them today? How does the crisis affect their psyche and the way humanity views the world? How does the government regulate people’s emotions?
And all of this is incredibly surface level, and it’s an exponential worldbuilding explosion just waiting to be written.
Lesson 4: You are your most important audience. (Peak, Crash, Recovery, Plateau)
If you’ve written something before, you’ve almost certainly had this happen to you. You have this idea, it’s all you can think about, it’s all you write, and you compile ideas and write and write, your energy is limitless! And then you just hit a brick wall and don’t know where to go next. Your energy crashes into a pit and you get stuck.
In writing, I like to call this the initial peak, the crash, the recovery, then the logarithmic plateau. You just went through the peak and are now in the crash. Now you are in the crash zone, you are in by far the most dangerous part of building any world. This is where most worlds die, it is here when you must remember the most important audience is yourself.
If you have an audience at this point (which if you do, bravo!), the important part is keeping yourself engaged, not the audience. If the audience hates your work, but you love it, the audience leaves, but you can keep going. If the audience loves your work, but you hate it, no amount of audience love will force you to keep going. At best it might get picked up by someone else, which, still a happy ending, assuming they can get through the same peak, crash, recovery, plateau cycle.
At this point, you need to do everything you can to keep yourself motivated to keep writing. Add more ideas you love, just write all the good bits you love, maybe try to restructure the story so you only have to write the parts you want. Indulge in whatever you like the most, with the only things I’d suggest to stay away from being universe breaking power fantasies, and extremely annoying political messaging. (Don’t be overly preachy about it.)
At some point, after a while in the pit, your energy starts rising uphill again, you have enough interesting ideas bouncing around that they tend to bounce around and create new ideas. This is especially true if you allow the dimension of time, where these things can interact and bounce off each other, rather than being locked into being eternally stagnant. Old lore will collide and interact with old lore, and that interesting interaction can create new lore. The world is interesting, and you want to keep it going, because it seems easier to expand than before.
And now you have exited the crash, or the pit of writer’s block. From here it tends to get easier, it’s a lot easier to worldbuild for an already really well established and developed world than building from scratch. For a large universe it’s just about extending what you’ve already built, rather than constructing a very messy foundation. This is the reason it tends to be easier to write Harry Potter fanfiction, an extension of the series into, I dunno, China, than to create an entire new universe similar to Harry Potter from scratch.
Eventually you might hit the natural creative boundaries of your work, maybe your original ideas have finally exhausted themselves, having being fully explored and there being nothing more to give. Maybe you never hit those boundaries, you don’t really know until you try.
Lesson 5: There will ALWAYS be an audience.
We now live in a hyper-connected world, there are 8 billion people on Earth. Look up any subreddit you can think of, any reasonable hobby, Lego collecting, 2000’s aesthetic, horror sci-fi, I guarantee you there’s a community for it. Even if you are targeting the nichest of niches, there will still be at least 10,000 people on Earth who are interested in what you’re writing. Assuming you’re not doing this for money, that’s plenty for a community. You shouldn’t worry too much about general audiences, they don’t really exist anymore, write what you love, and eventually people who also love it will take notice.
Audiences can be grouped into a few groups, let’s rank them from 1 to 5. 1’s are not interested in your project at all, and the 5’s love it. Your optimal strategy is to try and turn the 4’s into 5’s and keep the 5’s happy. 4’s are almost happy with your content and can give valuable advice. If you’ve followed my advice so far, this shouldn’t be hard, since if you put out something that you love, what the 5’s want should line up with what you want. Never alienate your core audience for hopes of broad appeal, trends come and go, but the core audience will stick around. It’s completely fine to let some 3’s and 2’s drift off to find something else, trying to please everyone will please no one. Trying to turn a 3 into a 4 might turn a 5 into a 4. Please as many loyal followers as possible but know you can’t please everyone. The only universal principles for how to attract and keep an audience are don’t be a dick, stay thematically consistent (Changing over time is fine, but try to keep it close to the roots), and visual beauty will always work.
Lesson 6: The Long Part is the Easy Part
If you’ve made it past the initial crash in inspiration, you’ll eventually pick up writing again. At this point you’ve put so many ideas into this universe that ideas begin spawning new ideas. America has a lot of guns, why don’t they make a sport out of it like the Hunger Games? There must be a lot of demand to manufacture the exoskeletons they use to fight the Hunger Games, why not make that into a company? They have a lot of exoskeletons lying around and they only sell them once a year, what do they do to expand their profits? Etc. Your pre-existing ideas will collide and interact with each other making more interesting ideas. This is actually a pretty easy part, you have so much lore that it starts creating itself. The sheer momentum it has will start generating ideas as things kind of naturally evolve.
Of course, you have to be worried about stagnation. After a while you realize you’ve done something quite a few times before, you might need to throw in a few new ideas in order to keep them fresh. But at this point it’s not a huge struggle to make everything from scratch. It’ll actually be easier than starting out, the same way it’s easier to build off of an existing universe than creating a new one. If you’ve made it this far, see how far you can ride off this universe into the sunset. Maybe a year, maybe 10 years, maybe a lifetime, maybe longer. You always run the risk of burning out and finally quitting, but it’s actually less than when you started. You’ve now reached the endgame, and what you do from here is all up to you.