Tips for Worldbuilding in Sci-fi and Fantasy

Here is a write-up of the worldbuilding workshop I attended at virtual Worldcon last month.

Fantasy author Claire Bartlett ran a sci-fi and fantasy  worldbuilding workshop for eight writers at (virtual) ConZealand last month. This was an excellent workshop and included a great group exercise.

Top down or bottom up?

Claire kicked off the session by explaining how to build fictional worlds. There are two approaches:

  • Bottom up, which is the Tolkien-esque approach to worldbuilding. You create your world before beginning your novel. This might include creating its religion, culture, geography, political institutions and so on.
Map of the New Alesund basin on Kokopelli. I love top-down worldbuilding, especially creating geographically ‘accurate’ maps of imaginary places. This is part of a map that took me a fortnight to draw – I have the entire map blown up to A0 size and framed on my wall.

Top down (or, what I’ve called the ‘pantser’ approach to worldbuilding). With this approach, you fill in necessary worldbuilding as you write the short story or novel.

Getting beneath the surface

Whichever approach you choose, your reader will only see the surface of your worldbuilding. This might be the geography of the area that a character is travelling through, the clothes they are wearing or the food that they eat.

Beneath the surface the reader sees, you should to justify the worldbuilding decisions you make. For example, if your protagonist has a woollen cloak, you might conclude that they’re from somewhere with lots of sheep. That means the environment is good for sheep rearing. If they’re wearing cotton or linen, then perhaps the climate is suitable for growing those materials – or there’s a lot of trade via a ‘silk road’.

Many people use history as an ‘easy cheat’ for worldbuilding. They choose a historical period and a place, and say, ‘this is what enabled spice trade in this time/place’. They ask themselves: ‘is it the same, or different, in my world?’

For Claire’s novel We Rule the Night, for example, she read and cribbed ideas from the biographies of ‘night witches’, Soviet female pilots who bombed the Nazis in WWII. She recommends reading historical sources that are interesting to you.

Using language to worldbuild

Your choice of language, metaphor and description can help immerse the reader in your world. For example, if you have set your story in a cold place, you can use metaphors to do with cold. For example, using cold-related insults or sayings. In The Haunting of Tramcar 15 by P. Djeli Clark (and A Dead Djinn in Cairo), for example, characters refer back to the guy who let supernatural entities into their universe by using “Thank you, al-Jahiz” as a sarcastic curse.

Writing exercise: Making a pot of tea

The eight writers attending the workshop came together for a collaborative worldbuilding exercise – MAKING A POT OF TEA.

This is an excellent exercise for showing writers how to dive deep into worldbuilding and question how things in their world work, and why.

So, when we make a cup of tea:

  • Where do we get the water from? A recycling unit. 

Further questions:

    • Does that mean water is a scarce resource?
    • So, if we have the technology to recycle water – are we in the future?
  • What do we collect the water in? A gourd from the silly bush.

Does that mean this is a Solarpunk novel?

  • How do we heat up our water? Wireless heating.

Further questions:

    • Do we transfer the water using the gourd?
    • Do we use an induction hob? Are we indoors or outdoors?

Perhaps we’re in an outdoor kitchen space. We transfer the water to a kettle, but it’s not an electric kettle. It’s a copper kettle that whistles.

    • Do we have protection from the elements?
    • Is the silly bush human-made?

Trees and big bushes surround us for shade. They’re scrubby bushes, so perhaps we’re in an outback area.

    • In which case, might we be wearing a hat?

Yes, a big, brimmed hat. We’ve improvised a hat by stitching together the wings of giant insects with keratin-like wings.

    • Can you eat the insects?

We can roast the insects on the induction stone to make a lovely bug burger.

    • That sounds quite desperate…

Yes, this is our last tea. We’ve been saving it because we can’t get more traditional tea. 

    • Wherever we are, we can’t get tea now… Is this due to disrupted trade, tea extinction, or something else?
    • And, is there any reason we’re making it today?

It’s Death Tea. We’re convinced we’re about to die… 

Our group went onto speculate that we were brewing our tea in a nice traditional teapot, or a mason jar. We’d dug up the teapot at an archaeological site, but we’d brought the tea with us. Right now, we were alone, but we’d come from somewhere with people. We’d brought the recycling unit with us, but we didn’t know how to fix it. Perhaps we’d eaten the person who could fix it… or we’d eaten all the food.

Now, we were in exile.

We were the last survivor of our community. We were drinking the tea to forget.

Perhaps we felt guilty about eating everyone… perhaps it was culturally normal to eat the dead. 

Maybe the giant insects had eaten all the food. 

Perhaps we’d ONLY eaten the person who fixed the recycling unit.

Either way, now we had reached the end. We’d reached a point where we couldn’t recycle anything anymore, and it was time for a last cup of tea…

[Credit for the exercise: Fran Wilde?]

Summing up the worldbuilding exercise

Claire emphasised that you didn’t need a subversive answer to EVERY question. However, you should ASK every question, even if the answer is not extraordinary.

Moreover, if you answer your questions, your reader will get the impression that you know everything about your world – whether you do, or not.

Pitfalls in worldbuilding
– The long intro

Good worldbuilding is invisible. Your reader shouldn’t be able to pinpoint where they got a piece of information.

One bad trope is the prologue to introduce your world. Likewise, the LOONNNGGGG intro where nothing useful happens for 20,000 to 30,000 worlds. Both of these bring information you don’t need for a while. If the reader has a memory like a goldfish (or skims the prologue), then they won’t remember crucial information when they need it.

– “As you know, Bob”

‘As you know, Bob’ is a classic mistake (Turkey City Lexicon, in fact) in worldbuilding. Two characters know some information, but the reader doesn’t. There’s no reason for the characters to be discussing the information except to clue in the reader.

‘As you know, Bob’ breaks the 4th wall of fiction writing, and challenges reader suspension of disbelief.

You should definitely remove it when you revise your novel…

Or, you can ask your beta readers about it.

– Less worldbuilding is more

A good question to ask your beta readers is: Am I info dumping?

Worldbuilding should be sprinkled through your novel as the reader needs it. The most important thing is to CONVINCE the reader that you know everything NOT to actually know everything about your world.

Multiple-award-winning fantasy author Brandon Sanderson describes worldbuilding as a hollow iceberg.

Photo by Danting Zhu on Unsplash

You should only bring in worldbuilding as and when needed. Allow information to seep into your story naturally. You can convey a lot  in a few sentences of explanation and dialogue, rather than loading everything upfront.

Like an iceberg, worldbuilding is 90% is below the surface.

And, like a hollow iceberg, it’s not solid fact all the way through.

Dealing with ‘too much’ worldbuilding

Some people love creating an entire world like a sandbox, and playing at storytelling within it. Claire recommended for those people a ‘fix-up novel’. This is a novel of short stories, which take place in the same world, and which remove the pressure of including all your worldbuilding in a single novel.

Famous examples of ‘fix-up’ novels include Pavane by Keith Roberts and City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer.

In each short story, you can focus on one aspect of the world, such as religion or geographical features. You can ‘ramp up’ that aspect of the world and, hence, demystify worldbuilding and devote more time to plotting or developing characters.

 Learning more about worldbuilding

Claire recommended Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer.

Brandon Sanderson has a series of lectures on worldbuilding and other aspects of genre fiction writing. You can watch his first worldbuilding lecture below.


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