Look, we know we're not Ego the Living Planet. We aren't out here manipulating matter and energy while striving for the worst-celestial-parent-of-the-year award. At least, I'm not. You do you. When you think about what you're trying to do as a worldbuilder, you're creating a scale model of a world – a closed system that feels real and lived in.
This model you're making is a simplified representation that you can use to help understand, predict, or explain the characteristics and behaviours of your story world.
A world (even a scale model of a world) is a messy thing. So, naturally, worldbuilding can be a messy thing too. We're here to unpack some worldbuilding approaches to help you create order from the chaos!
Decisions to make before you begin worldbuilding
What's the scale of your story?
The scale of your story should determine the scale of your world. You don't need to build an entire aquarium if your story is set in a fish bowl. Build what you need, then hint that the world is more expansive than you've created.
Is your worldbuilding model spatially explicit or spatially implicit?
- A spatially explicit worldbuilding model requires a clear map of your world's physical space. You will need to create a map of landmasses central to your story, star system maps, towns, or buildings to help you understand precisely how your characters will interact with physical space.
- A spatially implicit worldbuilding model requires knowledge of the physical space and how the world functions and describes this in the text without the visual aid of a map. You may only need to record high-level descriptions or defining facts about the physical spaces in which your story will play out.
Are you married to accuracy or going for results?
- A top-down approach is best if you're obsessive about building a deeply realistic model. You'll need to start by understanding tectonic plates, temperature, climate, wind and ocean currents, and then world-build on top of this foundation to achieve as realistic an end result as possible. This means you're starting with macro-level world building elements and then moving on to micro-level elements. As an approach, it favours a spatially explicit model.
- A bottom-up approach is much less time intensive and doesn't require as much specialised knowledge upfront. Instead, you focus on the worldbuilding elements you care about and don't get too concerned about the technical details. This usually means starting with an event or character action, examining the micro-level worldbuilding elements through that lens, and finally, defining macro-level elements that support your micro-level elements.
Defining an approach
N.K. Jemisin recommends a top-down approach, where you start your worldbuilding with the macro elements and then move on to the micro-elements. On the other hand, Jeff VanderMeer recommends a bottom-up approach, where you start with something living rather than trying to engineer a top-down world.
There will always be different opinions about the best process to follow. Choose an approach that suits your story and your personal writing style.
Macro → Micro → Story
Start with a broad view of the world and gradually narrow down to the finer details. Go way back to the great Before. How was the universe made? What sun does it orbit (and how far from the sun is it)? What is the geography of your world? How did it evolve?
Story → Micro → Macro
Start with a specific detail and expand to a wider, macro-level view of the world. If you already have some part of your story, pick a character or event and ask yourself 'why' these elements are the way they are and why those things are the way they are. This helps you go back in time and understand causation. Then ask yourself, "What does that also result in?" This helps you go wide. The wider view is crucial. If you stay too 'narrow', you risk it feeling like everything revolves around your main character and plot (which it should, but you want to have a taste of the world being larger and lived in).
Macro-level elements vs micro-level elements
All worldbuilding will include both macro-level elements and micro-level elements. Your approach will govern which you begin with first.
Macro-level worldbuilding involves the creation of the physical environment, including the planet and its continents, as well as the rules of physics and the laws of nature. How you construct the macro-level elements of your world will depend on whether you've decided to create a spatially explicit or spatially implicit model of your world.
Defining the geography of your world
Using maps in worldbuilding
Micro-level worldbuilding involves the creation of society and culture, including the language, politics, economics, and daily life of the people.
How to develop a history for your fictional world
How to develop a social structure for your fictional world
How to develop cultures in your fictional world
How to develop an economy for your fictional world
How to create a fictional language
How to create a believable technological system
How to create a system of magic
There are different ways to go about worldbuilding, and your approach is likely to be influenced as much by personal preference as it is by what you are trying to achieve. We've outlined some suggested processes above and given you a framework for choosing the best approach. It's up to you to decide which path you want to take.