Inventing fictional worlds! It’s so much fun! Until you get halfway through your novel and realize you’ve forgotten to take into account something vital to society like an education system. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a list to consult before you start writing?
This Worldbuilding Checklist is the combined knowledge of about a dozen panelists at Norwescon 39, plus my own notes for my Mermaids of Eriana Kwai trilogy. I’m endeavouring to make this list as complete as possible. Let’s collaborate on it! If you have suggestions, please add them in the comments.
Don’t just geek out. Keep the character arc in mind
As you fill it out, be sure to write down why. Every element in your world must be there for a reason. If the characters pray to multiple gods, why? Do your characters need a goddess of courage to turn to for strength, and a god of hunger to blame for their problems? What about the ecology? Have you set your story in a temperate rainforest and therefore need to build a society that depends on their logging industry to survive?
Take your time. Worldbuilding should be done slowly, and will evolve as you flesh out your story and decide what fits best with your character’s journey.
Don’t endeavour to explain your entire world in your book. If you do manage to fit all of the details in this checklist into your story… you’ve done something wrong and have probably infodumped all over the place. Remember: You should know far more about the world than readers ever will.
So what should you include?
- Only share precisely what readers need to know in that moment.
- When creating descriptions, trust the readers’ intelligence and focus on what’s different or unexpected. Depending on the genre (western? contemporary?) the reader will probably open your book with a generous baseline knowledge about the setting.
Essential reading for worldbuilders
The Great Courses has two exceptional audiobooks that I cannot stress enough. They’ve helped me tremendously in my writing.
- Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are – A gold mine! Learn about 10 cultural dimensions, including how a society can be “collectivist or individualist”, “masculine or feminine”, etc. I had multiple epiphanies about how these dimensions vary across the world, how my fictional cultures fit on the spectrum, and how these differences might become sources of conflict.
- Cultural Literacy for Religion: Everything the Well-Educated Person Should Know – An excellent overview of the world’s religions that will inform your quest to invent a realistic fictional one. (And IMHO should be required reading for all North Americans. But I digress.)
Checklist: Building a Culture
(Click here for a downloadable version you can fill out.)
|Location||Pick the place that best suits the conflict. E.g. a horror story is most effective if it takes place somewhere that’s supposed to be comfortable.|
|Climate||How the air feels. Weather patterns. If it rains a lot there, many scenes will need to take place in the rain or mist.|
|Terrain||How it affects movement and structures. Types of vegetation. Rocks, dust storms. Natural landmarks. Swamps, rivers, lakes.|
|Sustaining the city||Water, sewage, electricity, roads, trading / currency, agriculture.|
|Food||Needs to be consistent with the times and location. Food culture.|
|Appearances||Races and the relationships between races. Distinguishing features.|
|Animals||Domesticated, wild, working, raised for food, natural predators / prey.|
|Politics||Structure, elections, parties, monarchs, etc. How it divides or unites people. How just or corrupt the leadership is.|
|Recreation||Hobbies, sports, games.|
|Standards of beauty||Inside and out. Status.|
|Building materials||What’s available and how it might indicate your status.|
|Art and architecture||Popular styles.|
|Transportation||Getting from one place to another. How long it takes. (Books that use horses can be notorious for failing to take into account that horses cannot gallop at full speed for 8 hours straight.)|
|Clothing||Based on temperature. How/when they do laundry. Fashion.|
|Magic and supernatural elements||Define what these can and cannot do. Research this—entire books have been written about defining laws of magic.
If you have supernatural creatures, consider their biology.
|Weapons||Research these. Get them right.|
|Dates / timeframe||If you’re writing in the past, make sure the characters use words and objects that have been invented at this point in time!|
|Names||Naming conventions. Multicultural? E.g. in my series, merpeople have names based on actual Greek sea nymphs, while most natives of Eriana Kwai have names that follow a similar convention to the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest.|
|Language||Any multilingualism. Slang terms. Insults. Potentially replacing swear words with something YA-friendly like “shuck-face”.|
|Influences from other societies||E.g. the island is located in the North Pacific Ocean so probably has influences from Haida Gwaii / Canada, Japan, and Alaska.|
|Core values||E.g. “Blood must have blood” defines much of the Grounders’ actions in The 100.|
|Units of measurement||Be careful using expressions like “inched along” if your culture does not actually use this unit of measurement!|
|Education system||How many years, what they learn, what the grading system is like.|
|Gender roles||Distinguishing between masculine and feminine tasks or not.|
|Pop culture||Songs, celebrities, etc.|
|Occupations||Shop owners, police officers, news anchors, blue and white collar jobs, teachers… Any dominant industries that create a lot of jobs.|
|Calendars, time||Watches and wall calendars, or sun, moon, tides.|
|Means of communication||Phones, internet, carrier pigeons.|
|History||Recent or ancient events / wars / leaders that are pertinent to the story.|
|Sex||Taboo or celebrated. Marriage, rituals, family structure. Feelings about birth control, abortion, LGBTQ+, arranged marriages, polyamory.|
|Social classes||Wealthy and poor, and how they interact.|
|Technology||Do people have TVs, cars, cell phones, internet. How accessible is technology. How connected are they with the world.|
|Healthcare||The state of medicine, treatments, hospitals.|
|Legal system||Crime rates. Punishments. Police officers. Courts, judges, and juries.|
Checklist: Mythos and Religion
Since Norwescon had several worldbuilding panels dedicated to religion, I’m dedicating an entire section of this checklist to this important component.
Can I create a world without religion?
Don’t do it. While this is arguable, I agree with the panelists who said a world without religion isn’t plausible. Humans, highly evolved as we are, are always going to seek out something greater than ourselves. Religion gives us moral identity and explains what we do not understand. It’s a sense of community.
Note that science can be regarded as a religion, one with a belief in evidence and a commitment to discovering truth. In modern society, a betrayal of the core principles of science is regarded with the same outrage as blasphemy.
Tip: It’s unrealistic to assume a large group of people would intentionally worship evil—rather, they would be led into it by believing they are doing the right thing, and/or through circumstances that drive them to that behaviour. If you want to create a culture that worships evil, research notorious cults.
|Creation myths||Explain the creation and destruction of the world.|
|Morals||Define what is good and bad.|
|Afterlife||What happens when you die.|
|Meaning||Why we’re alive.|
|Supernatural beliefs||Witchcraft, ghosts, etc. Superstitions.|
|Rituals||Daily, weekly commitments. Rites and ceremonies.|
|Sacred places||Churches, landmarks, places of worship. People will build an altar to whatever the source of power is, whether it’s God, the universe, the sun, or an AI.|
|God(s)||How many, gender, form, sentience, ground or sky, amount of power, our relationship to them.
The form gods take depend on what these people see every day. E.g. South Asian cultures have monkey gods; indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast have raven gods.
|Evil||Why evil exists.|
|Myths and legends||Themes, morals to be taught, emotions to incite. How they are passed along. Bibles or scriptures.|
|Realness||How real the belief system is. Whether it has been correctly interpreted. Whether the gods are ever seen or met. E.g. in Avatar, we get a few indications that Eywa actually exists, like when Dr. Grace Augustine is dying and sees her.|
|Adoption of beliefs||In every culture, some are religious and some are not. Some are agnostic. Who are these in your story, and how does it affect their relationships with each other?|
|Clergy and other roles||Formal leaders. Monks and nuns.|
|Age||How old the religion is and how it has evolved. Maybe it was introduced by a monarch or government, or maybe it has always existed.|
|Holidays||When and why. Traditions.|
As you build your fictional universe, you’ll find that all these elements are linked. Religion, economy, ecology… They’re all based on and inform one another. And, of course, they all help drive the character’s journey.
Have more to add? Have you stumbled across interesting observations in your own worldbuilding? Add your thoughts in the comments!
Image credit: Realm of the Mermaid Goddess