One of the most important aspects of storytelling is creating a vibrant world. In many ways, the setting is a silent character and a driver of plot. Even if your story is set in modern-day Chicago, not everyone who reads it will be in modern-day Chicago, walking the streets, so you need to be able to make them feel like they are.
This topic has the potential to be LONG (my background is in history, anthropology, archaeology, and sociology), so I’m going to be very broad and basic about it. I’m considering turning this into a full-blown class at some point, if there’s enough interest.
Essentially, there are two things that worldbuilding refers to, and both rely on each other to work: the physical environment and culture.
The environment refers to the actual land on which the story takes place. The dirt, the air, the vegetation, the animals, the mineral deposits, sometimes even the laws of physics–I’m not leaving out sci-fi, even if I am a fantasy and hist fic girl. Where does your character find food and water? Shelter? Is it too hot or cold, too high to breathe? Is there a high plateau where there used to be a watchtower? Is there gold in them thar hills? When the sun hits that ridge just right, do the hills sing?
If your character moves from this location to a different location, what new challenges do they face? How does an aquatic environment differ from a terrestrial one? Or an aerial one? Or an extraterrestrial one? Does your world follow the laws of space?
These are all things you need to consider. It feels like a lot of work–and it super is–but the more you know about your world, the more you can add to the narrative without it feeling shoehorned in, and the more your audience will feel immersed in it.
Example: Magic Beans is set in a fantastical version of 1790s England. There are oak forests rich in deer and squirrels, rivers and oceans, a sandstone island, apple trees, four seasons, and oxygen-rich air. There are also two-headed giants called ettins, one-headed giants who are totally different, dragons, fairies, merfolk, and even some humans with genuine magical ability (to name a few).
The way you react to your environment is determined by your culture. Culture refers to a collection of behaviours, products, and thought processes shared by a group. People from different groups can literally think differently. If there are two people shouting, one onlooker may see two people arguing, while a different onlooker will see two people having a spirited conversation. Obviously, individual experiences will also affect how someone behaves, but they will still behave within the structure of their culture because that is how they were raised. Culture literally defines the way everything about you because in your formative years, that was all you knew.
Some people will be lucky (or unlucky) enough to be exposed to a number of different cultures from a young age, and that will form a unique sort of cultural amalgamation within that person. Immigrant children or children of immigrants are good examples, because they have the culture they started in or their parents’ culture mixed with the new one they’re immersed in as they grow up.
I, myself, know that first-hand. My mother’s family has been in California for ten generations, now. We’re of Spanish heritage and belong to a culture group called Californios, but we’re also American. My father, who is also of Spanish descent, moved to the States from Guatemala in college, and I try to go to Guatemala at least once a year to see my family down there. So I grew up a proud Californio-Guatemalan-American. I understand the culture in both places–what is similar, what is different, and I know where I fit in within the structure wherever I am. My Spanish is abysmal, but both sides of my family are so proud of their heritage that when I finally visited Spain for the first time last year, it was like walking into one of the family homes–I felt so comfortable and at ease, it was almost alarming! I didn’t even have any trouble with the language.
So, enough about me. What does your culture need to feel real?
Well, culture is more or less comprised of a few specific traits:
- Social organisation can refer to government and the family. Who is recognised as authority, and why; who is recognised as kin, and why. How we divide up the people.
- Language and communication is the way we interact with each other. It’s spoken language, written language, emojis, what have you; as well as how that information is transmitted, like tv, radio, letters, email, Facebook Messenger. How do they differ?
- Values and beliefs are the standards of what are considered right and wrong, the blueprint of life. This includes standards of beauty, philosophy, and even religious beliefs. This is how people feel and think.
- Behavioral patterns are the actions that people go through, from morning food production to whatever their work is to hygiene to rituals on the high holy days. Do your characters eat rice for breakfast? Do they work in an office? Do they braid their hair in elaborate patterns and coat it in shea butter and red clay? Do they dance under the full moon? Or not? Or something different. What are the simple and elaborate movements that separate this group of people from that group of people? This is what people do (not always the same thing as what they think and feel).
- Material Culture is anything that is produced and is physical. Art, food, architecture, clothing, tools, modes of transportation, games and entertainment like playing cards or musical instruments. This is what future archaeologists are most likely to encounter, as this is what we leave behind and from where we get information about everything else.
It can also be turned around. Just as culture adapts to the landscape, it can also shape the landscape. People can import non-native species into an area, mine for minerals, reroute rivers, farm, etc. Agriculture itself is an effect of culture on the environment.
That’s a lot to consider, I know. But the more you know, the more there is for your readers to discover, and boy, do they ever love to explore.
So give it some thought.
If you guys would be interested in a CLASS about worldbuilding, leave me a comment below, or on any of my social media pages (links below). I’d love to hear your thoughts.