When worldbuilding, writers tend to focus on topics such as magic systems, fantasy races, kingdoms, politics, and religions. These elements form the settings, the backdrops against which our stories take place.
But consider your world. Not the world you’ve created, but the one you live in.
What is important to you? What aspects of your life do you take for granted?
Your world consists of things like your job, your family, your education, and your friends. It also includes the places you buy food from, or visit for entertainment.
It should be the same for your characters. They’ve got to eat and have fun too, so they’ll have places where they do those things or ways to do them.
But unless your character is a politician or religious leader, the intricacies of politics and religion are unlikely to factor in to your character’s day-to-day life. In reality, the world of your character is much smaller than the borders of a country or the tenets of a religion.
Consider food. We all need it to survive, we eat it every day, and we talk about it. Food is a pretty big deal.
Now, in a story you might not talk about food much or even at all, but if you do, how do you do it?
Fancy banquets of beautifully presented whole cooked animals, travel meals of stale bread and smoked meat, stews and broths?
These types of meals pop up in fantasy regularly, and you know what? They all feel the same – but they don’t have to.
I am British. I recently ate a lasagne which my fiancé and I cooked together at home. It is a dish Italian in origin, using tomatoes, a fruit which originated in Mexico, as well as beef, pasta, onions and cheese sauce made, on this occasion, with Canadian cheddar. The cheese sauce was made in a microwave; the beef, onions and tomato sauce fried in a pan in olive oil over a gas hob; and the assembled product then baked in an electric oven using a pyrex dish.
This is all enabled by modern technology and a global economy whereby plants have been brought from one continent to be grown in another, and food is transported all over the place too.
Your characters, if they’re in a world which is unlike modern-day Earth, probably won’t be eating lasagne any time soon.
If they are in a pre-industrial world, climate will dictate what they can grow where – root vegetables will be fine for damp, temperate climates but will struggle in dry, warm areas; rice needs a lot of water to grow and olives can be very tricky to cultivate in places with cold winters.
Trading vessels will be able to transport food which won’t go bad across long distances, but these will be expensive as a result. Most people, whether urban or rural, will eat food produced within a few miles of where they live, with only the rich eating more exotic foods. And because the land required to graze animals is greater than that needed to grow the same volume of plant crops, meat will be expensive too. More reliable crops like barley might be preferred over less reliable but higher quality crops like wheat, depending on what kinds of pressures there are on space for farmland or overpopulation. People living near the coast or a river will eat a lot of fish. You get the idea.
These are all factors which might determine what your characters are eating, and they’re all dependant on the world you have created. Putting in something about the kinds of food a character eats and where they come from will give your reader insight into the world and the attitudes it holds. It will give depth to your world.
A good food-related example can be found in the cult sci-fi TV series Firefly. In the first episode, the crew of Serenity steal some boxes of some sort of metallic bar, stamped by the Alliance, the original owners, but it turns out when their buyer checks the product that these are protein bars wrapped in metallic-looking paper. And they’re sufficiently valuable that selling a few boxes of them – enough to last a small colony a few weeks or months – will pay for some important ship repairs and fuel. Also in that episode, one of the passengers pays for his travel with a small box of something not revealed at first, but which is later revealed to be strawberries – fresh fruit is a big deal.
All this illustrates the situation in the universe of Firefly: food is a problem. Overpopulation means colonies were sent out to terraformed planets, but they aren’t fertile enough to produce enough food, so protein bars are produced for general consumption, and fresh fruit is quite the treat.
I wear clothes produced cheaply in factories in Bangladesh or Brazil, or wherever clothes companies can get them made most cheaply. They’re made of synthetic materials or cotton, or some mixture of the two. I have a woollen cardigan and a big coat made of wool, but most of my clothes use materials which require a climate different from that which I live in – like cotton – or modern technology.
For characters in a fantasy world, they’re probably wearing fabrics that can be made locally or imported cheaply from somewhere nearby. Linen from flax, wool from sheep, furs from animals, cotton from the cotton plant, or silk from silkworms.
And then there’s how the clothes are actually made. Today it’s all mechanised looms and electric sewing machines in big factories, but in the past clothes were made by hand, using simpler technologies. In the classical Greek world, cloth was produced in the home from raw materials by the women of the household, who used simple tools to turn the wool or flax into thread and then wove it on a wooden loom. In fact it was such a part of respectable womenhood that the loomweights used to keep the threads taut were passed down, mother to daughter, across generations.
Beliefs and Attitudes Outside of Religion
Food and clothes, building materials, tools and so on are an important part of the material culture of a society and the way it works. But what people believe about the world, beyond what religion or science tells them about it, is also important.
The Black Death in the 14th century, which swept through the Mediterranean and Europe, killed a huge proportion of the population, tens or hundreds of millions of people. In the aftermath, in the decades and generations that followed, the memory and fear of the Plague remained, and images of skeletons appeared in much of the artwork that followed for centuries, including the Danse Macabre motif, in which skeletons danced the living away to hell.
It is thought that the huge amount of death the survivors had to come to terms with as a result of the plague prompted this response, almost as if recognising Death’s power will placate him. In this situation, the experiences of the people led to a reaction which in turn led to a cultural trend to depict Death.
In a fantasy world which has survived a cataclysmic event of the kind often seen in epics, the way people react in the decades which follow can have a profound effect on how future generations view the world around them.
If you are including a cataclysmic event in your world’s history, you can look at the way real people on Earth have reacted to similar events, and how cultures changed as a result of that human reaction. This can come through in small ways, which might not be part of the story or everyday life, but which are visible, perhaps in books and on gravestones, long after the cataclysm has vanished from living memory.
By including these little elements and details, you can add tremendous depth to your world.
Recently I read King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence, a story set in a pseudo-medieval culture a thousand years after nuclear war flattened modern civilisation. Many of the buildings are gone, most of the technology and scientific advancement is forgotten, but the protagonist Jorg does recall at one point a sign deep in the basement of a castle, with the incomprehensible message upon it: “No overnight parking.”
We know what it means, because we live in a world where car parking is a thing, but Jorg doesn’t know what a car is. The inclusion of this small element gave a touch of colour to the world, a reminder that it is a broken world, formed from the ashes of our own.
And that’s the point with worldbuilding for a fantasy story: giving the reader a context, pulling them into the story, and convincing them that this world could be just as real as our own. That’s why you need the details – the food, the clothes, the imagery – to add depth, to aid immersion, to suck a reader in so that they feel, however briefly, that they are part of the world you have painted.
The big things, the frameworks of magic systems, fantasy races, maps and religions, are important. They’re the context of the story, the foundations for the motivations of the characters. If the story took place in a house, they’re the bricks and mortar, the windows and doors and load-bearing walls.
The details, though, are the pictures hanging on the walls, the channel left showing on the TV, the way the corner of the sofa has toothmarks from a puppy that isn’t there any more. They’re the bookmarks in the books on the shelves, and the folded piece of cardboard under one of the kitchen table legs so it doesn’t wobble.
They’re the details that let you know the house is lived in, and not just a showhome or a sitcom set. So don’t forget them.
Where have you seen worldbuilding done well – or badly – in recent entertainment? Which authors have the knack of giving their worlds depth without interrupting the story?
For articles on fantasy, ancient history and writing fiction, visit Alice Leiper’s website, Ally’s Desk.