For many science fiction and/or fantasy writers, worldbuilding can be a daunting, almost impossible task. To create an entire world from scratch, complete with history, civilizations, and all the little details in between–it certainly isn’t easy! And we writers are only human. Who are we to play god? To that, I say to you: CS Lewis created Narnia with nothing but a pen and the vast expanse of his imagination. Tools that, coincidentally, we have too.
Like any universe, the one inside my head has been in the making for several years. At its Big Bang, my worldbuilding was nowhere near perfect. But I built, and I built, and I built. My universe continues to grow and expand, little by little, until someday, it will be ready to be explored.
1. You don’t need to be Tolkien.
My characters live in Oregon, but once upon a time, they lived in a very vague idea of a small, quaint town surrounded by trees and more trees. I had a picture in my mind, but it was never clear. Setting is one of the essential elements of writing a story, and without it, my story was incomplete. I had the plot, the conflict, and the characters, but they were running around on a blank page. Oh, and lots of trees!
I had the pleasure of visiting Oregon a few summers ago and was surprised to find that it was almost like walking into my story. (The trees! They were everywhere!) From then on, the setting began to clear up. It was no longer blurry, like a muddy puddle in the middle of the street. It was solid, and it was real.
So, life hack! Write about a real place! Unless you’re writing high fantasy or yeeting your characters into space, there’s no need to pull out all the stops.
Plus, writing about an actual place will give you a premade template of other details, like weather, culture, folklore, and more! You can add these elements to your story, providing substance to your world and even your characters by explaining habits, routines, and even how they dress!
Although convenient, writing about real places might seem restricting, as true facts might contradict the details and events of your story. This doesn’t have to be the case! Another thing you can do is blend those elements with those already existing in your story. Instead of changing things up to match the place or even time period, just adapt! I have a character whose ability is pyrokinesis, and it’s hard to stay under the radar when you live in an area infested with trees. Luckily for me, Oregon is almost as infamous as California when it comes to forest fires!
2. It doesn't have to make sense.
Speaking of pyrokinesis:
I wanted the abilities in my story to make sense, so I started looking into how fire is created. Turns out, it only takes three ingredients: heat, oxygen, and fuel. Oxygen was all around my lovely little arsonist, and heat could be drawn out from his own body temperature. But what about fuel? There was no natural way for him to create fuel, much less the spark needed to ignite a flame. Was he just carrying around a matchstick? A lighter? Was he lugging around a gallon of gasoline, as impractical as that may be? The matter stressed me out for a good couple of days. And then I remembered, oh wait, this isn’t science fiction. It doesn’t have to make sense.
Depending on the genre of your story, these explanations don’t necessarily have to make sense. In fantasy, you can suspend disbelief in magic surrealism, as opposed to science fiction, which requires you to adhere to rules and apply logic.
Magic is called magic because it isn’t bound by logic. There is no reasonable explanation as to why wizards can conjure items out of thin air, or why a sixteen-year-old boy can burn down forests with nothing but pure willpower. Don’t worry too much about if the surreal is too surreal. It’s surreal because we don’t understand how it works. It just does.
However, be careful when deciding to label what should make sense and what shouldn’t. As easy as it sounds, it doesn’t do well to slap on the excuse of “oh, it just works,” on every aspect of your fantasy worldbuilding. You might be able to pull that off in high fantasy, especially since you are rewriting the very laws of the universe, but not so much for low fantasy. My story would be considered the latter, as it takes place in an otherwise normal world governed by the orthodox. As such, there are elements that can’t simply be explained away as magic.
I’m not an expert on such things, so I recommend checking out Brandon Sanderson’s writing advice on writing science fiction and fantasy. (Shout out to Perri for showing this to me!) His Laws of Magic are especially helpful if you’re looking into refining magic systems.
3. Practice by writing short stories.
I mentioned during the introduction of this post that I had received writing advice from an author.
A horror novelist and short story enthusiast, Mercedes M. Yardley was one of many literary creatives who spoke to my Writing for Publication class last semester. She imparted strong writing advice that I found to be very helpful, the more general of which I have shared in a previous post, For the Lost Writer. Among murder mysteries and grimly-twisted fairy tales, she also explained to us the hidden joys of writing short stories. When she was done speaking, I purchased one of her collections, titled Beautiful Sorrows. The first chapter?
“The dried twigs cracking under her feet broke exactly like the small bones of children. She wished she didn’t know that.”
Two sentences, yet enough questions to fill a library.
Short stories are cool if you’re a victim of poor attention span. They’re also smaller and take less time, which is very cool if you’re the type of writer who only seeks to meet the word count minimum. But therein lies the hidden joys. Because they are short, they’re a great way to break into the world living inside your head.
With a limited amount of space, an artist can only draw so much of a scene, so it’s crucial that whatever they draw will be constructive. A forest, for example, is defined by lush greenery and a bounty of trees. Without these bare bones, a viewer might not be able to tell the subject of the painting. As such, the luxury of details is forfeit, and only the key components are left behind.
Much like a movie, information presented in short-form media must be productive towards the progression of plot. After all, you only have an hour (or three) to tell it. In the case of short stories, a writer only has around five to ten thousand words of free real estate. Everything you need to know about the world, the characters, and the plot— all condensed into the key components of storytelling: beginning, middle, and end.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you have to change all of your novels into short stories. But consider this: you can write short stories about your novels. It’s a good way to get to know your characters, and it gives readers a taste of your world.
And as always, practice makes perfect! Short stories are a great way to practice storytelling and worldbuilding, and it’s also a great way to practice writing as a craft. The more you practice, the more you develop your voice. If you work out a muscle long enough, it can’t help but strengthen.
About the Author
Charlize Colle Fernandez is a co-blog executive, content editor, and blog writer with the Love Yourself Foundation. A student at UNLV, she is currently studying English with a concentration in creative writing. She hopes to become a book editor after graduation. Charlize has always enjoyed the arts, and she continues to find solace in stories, music, and photography.