Whether you’re already working on a novel or have decided to give fiction a try during this period of staying at home, you’ll probably be familiar with the concept of worldbuilding. From Westeros to Wuthering Heights, our best fiction paints us a picture so vivid that we’re transported to a world we can almost walk around in. A world with a fully realised geography, its own specific sights, sounds and smells; an infrastructure we can see and understand and characters who are shaped by that world and in turn engage with it.
If you’re taking your imagination for a stretch this weekend, whether your novel is fantasy epic, children’s adventure, historical romp or dystopian thriller, here are some essential questions to ask yourself about your world:
How does it look?
- What can I see from my main character’s window? What are the predominant colours? What does the skyline look like?
- And from the end of their street? Is there a street?
- And from a plane/drone/broomstick/dragon flying overhead?
- What can I hear? Smell?
- What’s the weather like? How much does it change during the year (are there years?)?
- Might I see any wildlife if I took a walk around?
- If I went to the nearest city, what would I see on the streets? What might be advertised to me? What might I be sold?
- What about people – how many people will I see? What will they be wearing? Will I hear more than one language being spoken? Will people greet me? How?
How do people live?
- Let’s step back inside our character’s home – how many rooms are there? What are they for? How are they furnished/decorated?
- How does that compare to the homes of the people around them?
- How big is the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in this world? What percentage of society sit at either end of that scale?
- What do people do for work? What’s the most common industry in the nearest town/city?
- And what do they do for fun?
- Are holidays a thing for some/all of the people who live here? And if so, where do they go? Do people know much about the wider world beyond this place – are they interested? Afraid? Hostile?
- Do they have pets? What kinds?
- Is there religion? More than one? Where do people go to worship?
- What about history – do people know much about how their civilisation formed? Are they interested? Are there statues, history books, public holidays?
- Turning to technology – what’s the most advanced item your character owns? What about the richest person they know? What level of technology do people use in their daily life?
- How do they stay in touch with friends?
- If I had dinner with strangers here, what might we talk about? What topics would we avoid?
How do things work?
- Who is in charge here? How are they chosen/elected? What powers do they have?
- How long has that been the case? Do people like the system or do they hope for change?
- How do people get around? What’s the most common mode of transport – does it change depending on who you are?
- What natural resources are nearby, and how are they used?
- Is there crime? How is it punished? By whom?
- Are people educated? Where does that happen, and who is responsible? Is education something that’s respected? Is it available to all or a few? What might I learn if I went and sat in the nearest school for a day?
- What’s the currency? Are there banks?
- Where does food come from? Where is it sold? What would I eat if I wanted a real treat? Can I buy alcohol? Where?
- What other trade happens in this society? Are things sold and bought from far away, or is this place self-sufficient?
- Is there a sense of culture – a value placed in art? Who makes it? What kind of stories do people want and how do they consume them?