World building: a structured approach with 10 steps

We build worlds for lots of reasons: to tell stories, to build brands, to explore future scenarios, to invent games, to change cultures or just to take a journey away from our current lives.  Everyone has many worlds inside them and I’m excited to start to bring some more of mine to life.

Imagining the complexities of a world quickly becomes overwhelming if we are not careful.  I need a template or structure to help me construct my worlds and in this post I want to share and ask for feedback on my current thinking.

1. Start with a location or setting

A world differs from a narrative in that it is a place where multiple connected or unconnected stories can unfold. Setting the scene is key.

As I describe this template you will see that world building itself is not linear and you will constantly move back and forth between ideas making adjustments and thinking through the implications of a change in one aspect of the template on all the others. 

Many world builders start by drawing a map but you can use whatever you like to imagine and construct your location.  Find pictures. Write a description. Write down decisions that you make.

Is it somewhere you know or another planet (as in science fiction or fantasy) where things happen in completely different ways? Is it in the past, the present or the future? Stories may take place across a grand arc of time but it is useful to start with a point in time and then work forward or backwards explaining how things might have changed or how they might change in the future.

Our setting also needs a scale and just like time, this can and will evolve, as stories start to emerge.  Choose an initial focus such as a country, a neighbourhood, a single room or a whole planet. Establishing a starting place will let you start to answer questions such as where is my location near and how do I get to somewhere else?

2. Who is in your world?

I know my worlds and most of those I enjoy exploring (created by writers and filmmakers)  revolve around people (or creatures) and how they interact. I think this should be the next step.  At this stage we are not trying to choose specific characters (with their own stories) but consider the types of people that call our setting home.

Perhaps there are different groups (or species) and the interactions between these groups will surely set the foundations for our narratives.  Think about how each group defines itself and how others define them.  Is there are hierarchy or web of relationships between groups?

Describe them in some detail and in particular consider their needs, hopes and desires in your world.  Remember you can come back and add detail later as ideas emerge from other parts of the template.

3. Think about shortages and abundance

As you think about who lives in your world, check that the setting you have described in 1. supports (or fails to support) the things they need.  Adjust your setting if necessary. 

By defining what is abundant in your world, you will begin to explore the things people care about.  How do they use resources, objects, foods and water? Perhaps consider what affects supply and demand for particular goods. It is easy here to see how climate, weather, earthquakes, disease, supply chain issues, corruption and magical powers might be woven into your world.

It is ok if the setting has shortages, as disappointment, innovation, conflict and satisfaction all stem from how people interact to try to solve their needs.

4. What do people value in the world and for themselves?

A richly built world will let the audience understand and identify with the characters and their stories.  Our eventual characters are likely to represent the goals of specific groups and exploring what matters to these groups will be our next challenge.

In a simple subsistence world food, shelter, safety and community will be your starting point but as in our own lives (as Maslow has described) our basic needs are accompanied by complex social and emotional needs such as intimacy, status needs and opportunities to be creative.

Think about why what is valued by different groups differ? Is this because groups want to be separate and have chosen different ways to signal their separateness or is it forced on some groups by lack of resources or power hierarchies?

5. How do people organise themselves and interact?

Our next consideration is about organisation between and within the groups we have described. This is highly connected to group motivations which in turn is linked to what resources they have which is linked to the geography of our location.  Revisit early sections to make sure that your assumptions and decisions still hold true.

Think about what is traded and how and where trade takes place. You may want to consider how people travel around your world and how they use technologies to travel and communicate. 

Are they organised into big communities or small groups? Try to explain to yourself why. Think about how they behave towards each other and with other groups (or species).

6. What are the important (different) rules in your world?

As we move through the template the issues get harder to untangle.  Take your time to decide what matters and what can be ignored. 

What are the laws or rules that define what happens in your world? You might start by assuming that your new world is exactly like our existing world and that both physical laws and social regulations and norms (governing behaviours) operate the same way. Make a note of what is different rather than writing out all the things that are the same.  Remember that even in our own world different cultures and groups observe and obey different rules.

Think about what or whom regulates and monitors the social rules and whether this is agreed by all the parties in your world. This is a rich possible source of conflict in your world.

7. What are the myths and legends in your world? 

7. What are the myths and legends in your world? What people believe affects how they behave and this is particularly powerful when combined with the rules.  Indeed, these stories define a second set of rules around which people behave.

This is an opportunity to begin to weave the creation stories for your groups; strong histories that may bind people into tribes and explain why they behave the way they do.

Your world does not have to have magic or religion in it but it is likely that all groups carry with them ideas and stories that affect what they do and how they react with others.

8. What are the big issues in the world right now?

We’ve looked at setting (location), people, resources, motivations, organisation and hard and soft rules so far.  I suspect you have already identified some big issues that will or have emerged in your world.  

What would be the headlines in the papers today? (if your world has newspapers).  What are people talking about?

9. What technologies are driving change?

In our own world we are constantly innovating new ways to solve human needs.  The needs stay the same but through technology we find new solutions to old problems.  This is likely to be true in your world too and provides a rich source of stories.

Much of science fiction takes technology as a starting point and asks us to consider worlds in which an innovation has altered the rules. Often this will be based on what we can already see and projects it into the future (intelligent machines) while other world builders will take imaginative leaps and ask us to consider how we might have made the journey from here to there (Mars colonies). You can do either and both will enrich your stories.

10. What are the other big forces that might change your world?

By now you should have a richly imagined world and we are almost read to start telling stories in it, to bring it to life or to prototype parts of it.

My final suggestion (for now) is to ask “what if?” around a set of big changes that could happen in your world and these will probably have already occurred to your as you worked through the earlier ideas.

How might your setting be transformed?  How might the relationships between groups become unstable and burst into conflict? What would happen if a technological change made resources more or less available? What happens if rules get broken or myths and legends are found to be a lie?

Let me know what you think

I’d love comments and feedback on whether this is rich enough or how it could be improved. In the next few weeks I’ll add some examples as to how I am using this to explore new worlds.

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