In relationships, people often compliment each other. My husband and I definitely do. I think with my heart; he thinks with his head. I have the patience to write; he has ideas to keep me going. I can conceive an imaginary world; he knows how to give that world substance and depth. It makes us a pretty good writing team. So, since it has been a frequent subject of conversation, it seems appropriate to share some of the things I have learned from him about world building.
In every genre, especially fantasy and sci-fi, the story has its own world. It may resemble ours–like Middle-earth in The Lord of the Rings–or it may be completely alien–like Mars in CS Lewis’ book, Out of the Silent Planet. Either way, to create depth, it’s important to invest some time in creating the world.
This goes beyond a map and a basic understanding of the inhabitants. Where did the people come from? What is the religion and how does it affect the societies? How old is the culture? What are some important events in its history? What is the political system (monarchy, republic, anarchy)? Who are the enemies? Why are they the enemies?
The number of questions that need to be answered is ridiculous. However, the more I write, the more I realize that I need these questions answered. Otherwise, my dear little world has gaping holes that could potentially turn into plot holes or inconsistencies.
While this may seem like an awful lot of work, especially if you don’t really know if you have future intentions for a particular world, I would argue that it is worth it. Take, for example, The Lord of the Rings.
While it is an extreme example, Tolkien gave an immense amount of time to plan Middle-earth. (If you doubt it, just try reading the Silmarillion. And just think, he thought that would be the big seller.) There are more legends, lineages, and battles than you can shake a stick at. However, having that information to draw from adds depth to Middle-earth, even if you never read all of the other information. If you pay attention, there are almost constant references to other points in the time line, cultural influences, etc. throughout the books. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Aragorn sings of Luthien and Beren. It is just a brief reference there, but in the Silmarillion, you can read their plight and gain a new appreciation for Aragorn and Arwen–who are likened to them. Elendil is mentioned briefly, but he shapes Middle-earth just as much as Isildor with his decision to keep the Ring instead of destroying it.
Though you may not create as much detail as Tolkien did–or you may opt for a much shorter history, like I did–it is still important to consider such things. It will teach you more about your world, create more possible layers of conflict, give more depth, and maybe even spawn the next tale in your world’s epic.