Welcome to Worldbuilding!
This was a series that was never intending to be a series. A note on our editorial calendar to create an article on worldbuilding and continuity turned into an article on worldbuilding, which then in turn turned into a “I’ve written how many pages?”
So, you get a series. Three parts, moving from getting started and managing scope (you’re here!), integrating the world throughout your book, and then merging world and plot together.
When we think of worldbuilding as an essential step when drafting a novel, we often tend to reduce it only to science fiction and fantasy—where the worlds crafted are so vastly different from our own. But if you don’t do a bit of worldbuilding for any novel that you write, you are doing yourself a major disservice. You would be skipping an essential step that will drain your novel of some of those things that give color and realism to a piece, helping a reader fully emerge into your story rather than skim along its surface.
There is a reason that so many people can exactly picture Hogwarts and JK Rowling’s wizarding world with such clarity. She did tremendous work—much of which we will be discussing below—to add extra details and components to her world that give it more life than just what you see in each individual book.
Before you start any novel, of any genre, you need to do worldbuilding. And, you’ll find, you need to do a lot more of it than you think you do.
Understand the Why
When we worldbuild, we often want to just take the time and energy to build up the world as our characters see it. We give them their immediate family members, local town, and all the places and people they need to get from once upon a time to the end. But we typically do not go any further than that.
The problem with this is that it drains your novel of so much of its color. Next time you are reading a novel that feels particularly immersive and well-written, do an audit of where they take the scope of their world. Oftentimes, you find references to people, places, or things that you never actually see, yet you do know they are there because they are mentioned in passing or to give context to something you do see.
You can also use worldbuilding to enhance and develop your plot. If you come up with a really crazy place in your characters’ town, one that they weren’t going to encounter in the original novel, find a way to weave it into the story to give it an extra element you didn’t consider before. Instances of this are especially prevalent in a series, as you hear of something in the world that doesn’t become relevant until a book or two or five later.
Rowling is a master at this. There are so many characters, places, and other aspects of the wizarding world that are introduced in passing in the early books that come back to influence the plots of later books. Mrs. Figg, for instance, is referenced as a kooky neighbor that babysits Harry when the Dursleys go out, but we never actually meet her. When she returns in the fifth book, we actually meet her this time, and she reveals that she was a squib watching Harry all along. Now some of her idiosyncrasies make sense, or as much sense as any of the idiosyncrasies of the wizarding world make sense, and her return also influences the plot with Harry realizing how disconnected from Dumbledore he is.
See now what I mean by life and richness in a plot? Mrs. Figg isn’t just crafted to serve her single visible function in the plot of the fifth book—she serves a function as an extension of the Dursleys in several books as an invisible (easily edited out) entity, then becomes a more forceful character later with an added surprise for readers because she defies expectations.
Life! Richness! Your character’s lives and worlds don’t end at the edge of your setting!
Take it there!
If you want to see how far some people go when it comes to worldbuilding, head to r/worldbuilding, a subreddit with 530k subscribers. The sub provides a ton of resources for writers, including inspirational images and references to legends, as well as some of the work people are putting into invented worlds.
If your worldbuilding doesn’t look like some of their worldbuilding, ask yourself if you have done enough.
If you are writing a novel that takes place in “our world,” then you shouldn’t feel the need to go as far as someone writing a fantasy in a world unknown to us. However, you need to do more than you probably think you do to make sure your world has lore, dynamic richness, and material you can easily insert to give your piece more life (and series material!).
So, my recommendation is to take at least an hour before you start writing your novel to just make some notes about people, places, or things tangentially related to the plot of your novel. You might find yourself going someplace wild and inspiring!
Time Doesn’t Always Equal Results
Now don’t be mad, but all of that time (or just an hour) that you spent building up some of the invisible parts of your world might not actually make their way into the pages. Sometimes the best part of worldbuilding, though, is knowing that there is more there under the surface. Even if your readers don’t see it, they feel it. They understand by the very way you describe the things they do see that there is probably more to it.
Case in point: JK Rowling’s original forty.
The original forty is a list of forty names for Hogwarts students in Harry’s year. In addition to Harry, Ron, and Hermione, you’ll see Neville, Lavender Brown, Seamus Finnigan, and other Harry Potter side characters. But what you’ll also see are some names that never made it to the book such as Sue Li and Gary Thomas. She also included their parentage and houses.
On Pottermore (link above), Rowling said that she wanted names she could just reach for them when she needed them. And we find that she reaches for these names all the time. Many of these characters are name dropped early on, some later on, and some have whole plot lines of their own that are woven throughout an individual book or the series as a whole.
If you create your own version of the original forty—or a group of characters unseen but accessible—you’ll find that your writing changes. It gives you a certain confidence that comes through to the reader. It certainly worked for Rowling, and it will work for you too!
The world of worldbuilding is vast and dynamic, and it is a MUST.
A book without a good, well-developed world that includes both things seen and unseen isn’t complete. There is value in the time you spend creating a world, providing you with easy things to reach for to create a next-level experience for your reader.
If your book is feeling a little flat, take a look at your world and see if that work is shallow. Without that essential foundation, you just can’t expect your book to go from complete to publishable.