Worldbuilding for a novel can be both exhilarating and time-consuming. It's a combination of art and science and a critical tool for writers in every genre.
As a fantasy writer, worldbuilding is a fundamental part of my writing. But every genre can benefit from creating an enticing setting. That's what worldbuilding is, creating a place so memorable it takes up residence in your readers' imaginations.
If you've been successful at it, your reader will fall in love with your world. She will be packing to move in, breathe the air, and tread on the snow. She will feel cheated when returning to Earth.
But how do you create a place like that?
In my experience, it's a two-phase process.
Phase I: THE WORLD YOU CREATE
In many ways, worldbuilding is akin to character development. Your world will need fleshing out in several categories. From geography to economics, to magical rules or social systems. Fauna, flora, smell, foods, languages. The possibilities to enrich your world are almost infinite (Search online for handy checklists on worldbuilding categories-- there are tons). Even if you set your story in the "real world", different geographies have particularities you will want to highlight.
You're the master of your universe. Enjoy it!
During this phase, you're looking to discover what your world is like. To unearth the aspects that make it unique. Whether it's an unequal society with castes, a fairy tale kingdom, an outringe planet in a futuristic society, or a whaling ship on an expedition, this phase is about having fun and being creative. You can choose to go as far and deep as you want, and you're welcome to break any "real world" rules. Just remember that even in an imaginary world, you should abide by internal consistency and logic. Below are some tips to guide you.
Tips for Phase I
1. Impact is king: While the areas to develop are as broad as you want to go, your world doesn't exist in isolation. It is there to support your story. So it won't necessarily pay to explore every detail. You might want to figure out which aspects matter and serve as a mirror or counterpoint to the conflict in your story. Given your main character's challenges, what in this world would best serve to test her or him? Use those to guide your worldbuilding. Internal conflict in the setting is desirable as well. Even in stories, the world isn't perfect, and you'll want to provide a nuanced perspective of it. Use story impact as your test on whether to develop an area further.
2. Human with a twist: The best imaginary worlds are appealing because of their contrast compared to our everyday environment and their underlying similarities. We relate to the human components, the emotional struggles that define and unite us. However foreign a planetary colony two hundred years into the future, or a medieval, dragon-plagued land might be, we care when we can relate. So make sure you build in the fundamental human experience into your world.
3. Surprise is good: Even if you're not creating a fantasy or sci-fi place, build in surprises. Things that don't quite fit in are an example. I was at a diner recently and a couple came in dressed in sixteenth-century costumes. They probably had finished a rehearsal, but the visual of them sitting chewing with their mouths open while in full regalia was the stuff of stories. Anything strange can serve to surprise: an old lady in a walker with purple tennis balls can break up the monotony of everyday life and add color to your setting.
4. Normal has its place: If everything is weird, everything is different and everything is surprising, your reader might become overloaded by trying to process it and lose interest. When all is important, then nothing is. You will also have to constantly stop your narration to explain things about the world, which is not desirable for your pacing. Play with light and shadow. Take care there's a good proportion of normalcy in your world. If not fully ordinary, at least recognizable and easy enough to understand that the reader can glaze over it. It will help bring the details that are amazing and full of wonder to the forefront.
5. On the shoulders of giants: Expert worldbuilders are lazy sometimes-- or very clever. They rely on images solidly present in our minds from our shared cultural experiences. We all know what medieval castles look like. When we hear wizards, we see hats and beards. Rugged moors bring forth women in long dresses with flowing hair-- and a sense of desolation and tragedy. Main street America or a Saharan oasis are equally set in our collective mental reels. Writers leverage those pre-existing visuals, so they don't need to describe things in detail. This shortcut is incredibly useful and potent, and you should take advantage of it.
Phase II: THE WORLD YOU SHOW
While a lot of information is relevant in worldbuilding, not all is important to your reader. Only a sliver ever makes it into the final novel. But how do you decide what to include? How much should be there? Below are a few tips to guide you.
Tips for Phase II
1. Accept the Iceberg Principle: Make friends with the concept that your readers will only ever see the iceberg's top. The rest of the great world you've build will remain invisible. But it is its existence that will keep your writing anchored and ensure you don't make logical mistakes unavoidable if you hadn't thought things through. Don't worry. The richness of your universe will be palpable.
2. Aim for the Lego Model
When choosing what to highlight about your world, think of a lego set. Bricks cannot replicate the full detail of structures, yet what the model represents is unmistakable. Why? Lego designers are masters at identifying the elements that characterize an object. Your goal as a writer is to do just that for your setting. What are the three things that make a Parisian cafe come to life in a readers' mind? What three characteristics give you a visual of a sumptuous renaissance Court? Or a war-torn city? Or a grocery store in a nowhere town? Identify those crucial elements and use them in your descriptions. It will be economical and more impactful than trying to mention details.
3. Try the displacement Test: When choosing what to show, what to mention, try to connect the setting to the characters in it. Either through their past-- as a mirror to a memory-- or their present struggle. The weather can match or oppose their internal moment, a building can serve as counterpoint, the world social structure can put in evidence their main issue, etc. Always remember, place must affect the people and the plot, so let your characters interact with the setting. We don't just observe and pass through life. We touch, we change, we break, we improve. To test if you're accomplishing this, imagine you changed the setting of your scene or your world altogether. Would you have to make a huge amount of adjustments to the point that your plot/novel would break? If not, you might not be weaving enough of your world into your story.
THE SECRET INGREDIENT
Finally, if you want your world to truly come alive. If you desire it to breathe and capture us and not release us, do not forget the secret ingredient: Emotion. Unforgettable worlds stay with us because they force us to feel. Wonder, joy, wistfulness, horror, sadness. They kidnap our attention and settle in our minds because emotion is the strongest memory tag. So build feeling into your world. Yes, let us see and smell and taste. Let us roam and admire. But more than anything, let us feel. Only then will we want to revisit your world over and over.
The secret ingredient is emotion. Tie your setting elements to a feeling, and they will become memorable.
Dare always. Keep writing.