Worldbuilding Ideas: Starting from the Ground Up
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
Yes, I know - I'm the guy who's been telling you that worldbuilding doesn't matter, that you shouldn't sweat out all these insignificant details until you've finished up the important things, like characters and plot. Well, we've worked on characters and we've worked on plot, so let's go out into the reeds just a little bit and talk about the gritty little details that make settings interesting.
In the spirit of positivity and avoiding yet another list of don'ts, this post is going to focus on what you can do. Note that I said can and not should - what I'm going to describe is a time-intensive approach not suitable for most. Think for yourself if it's worth your effort before taking the leap.
This approach is most suitable if you don't have a specific setting in mind, or are at least flexible. The problem with most approaches to worldbuilding (and, in turn, one reason I don't care for it) is that they start with the end and work backwards. The writer decides what kind of setting he wants, and then tries to dream up whatever historical events and cultural markets would be required to reach that end. The result can be artificial, cliche, bland, simplistic, or any combination of the above. Real world history is far messier and more interesting than most settings created with this approach.
So we're going to approach this like it's the real world and start from the beginning. What do I mean by beginning? It's as far back as you care to go - to early settlements, a creation myth, or even the rise of the dominant species. From there, we work forward, watching how disparate elements combine, disintegrate, and recombine until we reach the timeframe of the story.
To illustrate this, we'll use my latest setting - the Teyach Empire, last seen in this map:
Broad Worldbuilding Ideas
We'll address three broad groups, but not all of them may be necessary for you. The advice is meant primarily for fantasy, alternate history, and other stories set on Earth or an Earth-analog world. They can be adapted for stories set in our universe but on fictional planets (as with All the Stars Within Our Grasp), though such stories will put a heavier focus on technology which I don't really cover here.
States and Governments
The earliest collections of people were tribes with very simple governance. This lasted for a long time, but the development of agriculture, animal domestication and religion quickly spurred the development of the earliest states. These simple states expanded, encountered each other, conquered each other, eventually becoming empires. These empires then fought each other, absorbed each other, collapsed, splintered, centralized and then fell apart again. Such was the nature of the world prior to the era of nationalism - volatile, ever-changing.
Kingdoms and empires in fantasy (the ones most likely to emphasize worldbuilding) and most alternate histories tend to be simple and generic, with little in the way of history beyond "There were nothing, then there was a kingdom." These kingdoms look an awful lot like nation-states - fixed borders, unified cultures, no feudal estates. This fairy tale stuff is fine for adventure tales in the vein of monomyths, but stories that focus on war and intrigue need more detail.
Things to remember:
What tribes/kingdoms/empires used to occupy this land? Are those peoples assimilated, or do they still think of themselves as belonging to another state?
How does power pass from generation to generation? Is it hereditary, elective, or competitive in some way?
If it's a large state, how is it structured? Is it more feudal or bureaucratic?
What does the royal/imperial family look like? So many fantasy stories feature what's essentially a nuclear family - a monarch, spouse, and one child. But why just one child? And what about the brothers, uncles, nephews?
My setting: The Teyach Empire traces its foundations back to a kingdom established by a figure known as the Keystone Monarch, who overthrew a series of local despots through a combination of wile and divine election (according to legend, anyway). Over the following centuries, Teyach absorbed its neighbors, leaving their own governments partially intact and incorporating their own royalty as noble houses. Important members of these houses, along with members of the imperial family, occupy high-ranking positions within the Chinese-style bureaucracy that governs the realm. The empire is relatively decentralized; imperial power and splendor are at their greatest within the borders of the old kingdom (known as the Imperial Heartland), while the fringes receive little benefit but are still under imperial law. Many people in those distant lands are less than loyal to the Emperor.
As with states, religions were not established all at once, but formed over large periods of time. We start with simple myths, organize those myths as people become sedentary, develop priestly class, and from there different beliefs go on to influence each other in different ways as they compete for followers and land. The combination of different beliefs is known as syncretism, and while some religions and regions are particularly known for this trait, there really aren't any "pure" religions. And that's even before we get into all the schisms, heresies, sects and cults that dice up real world faiths into ever finer groups.
Religions in fantasy tend to fall into a few flavors - D&D inspired pseudoclassical pantheons, Manichean not-quite-Catholic monotheism, and some kind of druidic nature worship. There's nothing wrong with these (though the pantheons can be on the dull side), but real world religions are often far more interesting than these stock faiths. When building a new faith, it's best to start at the beginning with what was important to the ancient peoples, and then work forward as that simple faith merged with neighboring beliefs.
There's also the issue of settings with interventionist gods, where these religions are definitely, obviously true. These really tend towards D&D polytheism, but again, these can be very boring because they're too clean. This ties more into cosmology which I won't touch upon here (maybe another time), but if you take this approach, try to make your deities something other than very powerful wizards with narrow spell lists. Have a sun god who is literally the sun, or who lifts it into the sky (or has his sons do it, etc). Have a water deity who makes the rivers run based on her own rules, or an earth deity who raises the mountains at her sacred sites, and mention them frequently whenever some joyless pedant gets on your case about plate tectonics.
Things to remember:
What basic traits do your faiths have? Do they focus more on life or afterlife? Are they oriented towards ascetics, or towards the common man? Do they proselytize? What life events do they commemorate, and how?
To what extent are folk beliefs still practiced in your world? Do they influence organized religions at all?
Do your kingdoms/empires have state religions? If yes, then to what extent are the monarchs involved in state rituals? Note that this is NOT just a trait of theocracies!
How much tolerance is there for minority faiths or divergent beliefs? Are believers pushed to convert?
My setting: The dominant faith in Teyach is a syncretic religion built around an animating force referred to as the "Ultimate." There is no scripture, only interpretations of various ascetic gurus, and beliefs vary from place to place - for example, the Ultimate is anthropomorphized to various degrees. Common beliefs include an understanding of a proper way to live - the "Straight Path" - a court of immortals (mostly patron deities of the kingdoms absorbed by Teyach) that may or may not intervene in human affairs, and an underworld figure known as the Baleful Judge who assigns every soul its fate. For most people, belief in the Ultimate is more cultural, and well-educated Imperial citizens don't believe that it literally exists. Nevertheless, the Emperor and the Imperial family participate in state rituals to various degrees.
This is the most difficult aspect of setting design, and it's hard to pare it down to a checklist. It ties into both of the above - culture is a big part of what defines regions and states, and it emerges naturally from faith. Culture is tied into everything - climate, geography, flora and fauna, natural resources, neighboring groups, and other factors not so easily defined. And as with everything else, pure cultures are nearly nonexistent - everyone borrows from everyone else.
This is one area where you might be better off stealing. Look into some real-world cultures, find one that fits the setting you've designed, then modify as necessary to make it your own. The biggest pitfall here - one that many authors gleefully leap into - is the tendency to create "good" and "bad" cultures based on the mores of the author's age and/or his personal beliefs. Nothing will turn off a reader faster than a maniacally wicked culture that's just a bad parody of a real world group the author doesn't like.
Things to remember:
What is the staple food of the region? Keep it simple, there's no reason to spend more than a minute pondering this.
On a practical level, what objects and practices are useful to people in this environment?
Generally speaking, is this culture open to outside influence or is it closed off?
What are some cultural values and taboos?
Big picture question at the end: Do all of the aspects of this culture make sense as a coherent whole? Are there any traits that only exists to make this culture appear more benevolent or hateful, or to comport with some archetype?
My setting: Teyach can be said to have two cultures: The imperial culture and the folk culture. Imperial culture is highly formalized, even rigid. It places high value on education, tradition, personal and family achievement, rule of law and obedience to authority. This is the culture of the Heartland and most big cities. The folk culture of the rural and frontier areas is a more informal, honor-driven culture, placing more value on land and wealth than status or convention. Both cultures tend to be closed-off and xenophobic, save the people of the far western coast where the culture is far more cosmopolitan.
Again, for most people, there's no need to do this. Worldbuilding is simply not the critical feature that so many professional nitpickers claim it is - but if you are going to dedicate time to worldbuilding, then do it right. If you miss something, if you have an idea later or want to develop an existing idea more, you have plenty of options to do that later.