here’s nothing more exciting or daunting than crafting a fascinating science fiction or fantasy world from scratch. By its very purpose, there are countless parts to build and get lost in. The prospect can feel too overwhelming to dive too deep beyond the needs of the plot or characters, but it is in those details where the world truly comes alive.
I like to call worldbuilding fictional anthropology. Real life anthropology is the study of us, human beings. From history and biology to culture and language, anthropologists look at what makes us and our societies similar or different to enrich our understanding of ourselves. Writers, fictional anthropologists, do the same to create worlds with rich cultures that influence and explain how the characters act. The little details that fill the best fictional worlds make them come alive and not just exist as set dressing. Now, not every fictional world needs a complete bestiary of animals, à la Harry Potter, but exploring how the different parts of the cultures interact and influence each other will help you build a more immersive world.
One important thing to remember before diving deep into the study of your world: most of what you create will not actually go into your story or novel. A great deal of worldbuilding is not done for the reader to experience directly; it’s for you, the author. Not only does it keep inconsistencies from cropping up later on, but it also offers new possibilities for your setting, characters, and plot.
As you dive into your world as a fictional anthropologist, your first tool is the understanding of cultural interconnectivity. One part of the culture will influence all the rest. A religion’s tenets could dictate how people dress, eat, interact as a community, interact with their surroundings, and much more. The same can be true in reverse. The natural surroundings, the type of community, and the daily life of people influence the kind of religion and mythology they develop. Nothing is isolated in culture, and that needs to be the overriding understanding you have as you explore your world.
The video game Horizon Zero Dawn is a fantastic example of cultural interconnectivity. Quick primer for those who’ve never played it: the world is a futuristic version of Earth, where our present society has destroyed itself, and the natural world had to be reset, so to speak. Different cultures and societies grew from the humans who populate the new world, and each one is rich and takes in the interconnectivity of human life.
In Horizon, the different cultures develop around the same things real cultures do: the environment. This influences all the different parts of the society, as can be seen in the Banuk. The Banuk entered the new world in a wild, mountainous, frozen landscape. As a result of the harsh conditions so separate from other lands and people, the Banuk grew to be hunters and survivalists. Because the Banuk value the ability to survive and overcome challenges so highly, the individual’s skill and ability matters more than gender. Also as a hunting society, they adorn their clothing with brightly colored designs, so others can identify them while on the hunt, and these designs are spiritual in meaning. The land influenced the values, and the values influenced how people were treated. Practicality of life intermixed with societal norms, such as clothing, which also mixed with religion. All of it is connected.
I use this technique often in my own worldbuilding, too. I also have a society that is somewhat a meritocracy. It still has class structures, but service and skill can allow a person to rise up the ranks. As a result, lower classes are not seen as less than the higher classes, and all are allowed to be friends or lovers or even marry anyone regardless of class. There is even a spiritual dance that requires the people to take the person closest to them as a partner, regardless if the person is a ruler or a servant. Servants have married rulers thanks to this dance, which influenced the value the society puts on people’s lives and worth. The single fact of mixing the classes has effects on the world’s cultural expression, interpersonal relations, and governmental values.
Everything is connected and influences each other. Take that understanding, and build it forward with the next tool in your fictional anthropologist’s belt.
The Importance of Why and If, Then
The next tools are the statements Why? and If, then. Learn them. Love them.
Take nothing in your world for granted. Sociocultural anthropologists don’t merely document what happens around them. They want to know why it happens. The ways people eat, speak, or interact with others can tell an anthropologist what is important to the society and how it treats what it does and doesn’t value. A religious artifact is not significant because it is religious; it is significant because of the way people use, or don’t use, it to convey a meaning to their society. That’s what you need to do as an author. Sometimes that random detail you added as filler can lead to a much deeper understanding of the socio-political structure of your character’s culture.
You can do this with those two statements mentioned above: Why? and If, then. When you add a detail, planned or at random, become like a four year old who’s just learned the word why. Ask and answer over and over and over as many times as it takes to find the connections to the rest of your world. This allows you to see how the details you add can build a larger sense of the culture. If, then statements do much the same, only in reverse. Instead of looking at the details and pulling back, you look at a major tenet of your culture and dig down into the details.
As an example, I’ll use the actual process I went through in creating what turned into several major influences on my characters and their culture.
The detail I started with: the greatest sin/crime in their culture is rape.
Why? They exist in a culture of consent.
Why? They are a matriarchy transformed from a patriarchy and have equal respect for both genders.
Why? When the people were blessed with supernatural gifts by the Spirits, the importance of family lines shifted from the father to the mother.
Why? The connection to the Spirits is passed from mother to child.
Now it’s time to take those overarching statements above, built by the Why? questions, and put them into If, then statements.
If they exist in a culture of consent, then ensuring people do not feel compelled/entitled to take someone by force will be an important part of society.
If ensuring people do not commit rape is an important part of society, then they will have a consensual sexual outlet for people to use, such as prostitution.
If they have prostitution and have a culture of consent, then there will be clear rules governing how prostitution is conducted to ensure all participants are willing and have the option to refuse; and they would be a respected part of society.
If they have prostitution and equal respect of men and women, then both men and women would use the prostitutes’ services.
If both men and women use prostitutes, then both men and women would act as prostitutes.
If both men and women are prostitutes and the mother’s powerline is highly valued, then when a woman became pregnant and gave birth, she would not work for a long time afterward.
If women didn’t work during and for a long time after pregnancy, then there would be more men than women continually working as prostitutes.
If there are more men than women prostitutes, then male/male consensual sexual acts would be acceptable in society.
If male/male consensual acts are acceptable and they respect men and women equally, then all same-sex sexual acts and relationships would be acceptable.
If all of the above is true, then sexuality for either gender would be freely discussed and taught to both genders.
As you can see, the Why? questions expanded the single detail into concepts that would affect how the society thinks and acts. Then with those concepts set, the If, then statements extrapolate how those concepts would affect the beliefs and actions of the people in that society.
You shouldn’t limit yourself to a single progression like the example above. Create many Why? answers for different parts of your world, and use them all to work through the If, then statements. That way the seemingly disparate details can help you build a broader understanding of your culture and characters.
“Enter your fictional world like a visitor, and explore a town or city there.”
Take a Walk in Your World
One of the ways sociocultural anthropologists learn about the people and societies they study is to live in the community. By immersing themselves in the culture, they are able to learn far more about the details of life and how people act day-to-day, a far richer experience than books or interviews can offer.
As a fictional anthropologist, you can do the same. Some of the most vivid worlds are not the ones that can trace their characters genealogy back ten generations, it is the world in which the reader feels like they could walk down the street and know what to expect. The action may lie with your characters and your plot, but the world lies in the little details of life.
The Harry Potter series does this very well. Long before Universal Studios built The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, readers could see the magical street Diagon Alley, could imagine the bustle of families shopping for school supplies, hear the clank of cauldrons, smell the sweets in the bakery, and see the wondrous and sometimes dangerous books stacked in the children’s arms. The world was as real and alive as the characters.
You can create the same richness in your world by taking a cue from real anthropologists. Enter your fictional world like a visitor, and explore a town or city there. Don’t think about the plot or the main characters; just take a stroll and look around for the items that catch your interest. While you, as the writer may, think it’s important to tell the significance of a green flag, you, as the fictional anthropologist touring the city, might wonder more about the colorful clothes the people in the market wear.
Don your proverbial fanny pack and ball cap and:
- Talk to the people on the street. What do they sound like? Do they use slang or languages you don’t recognize? If you speak a different language, how can you communicate?
- Ask for directions. Can you follow the road easily, or have you gotten lost ten times before lunch?
- Get a bite to eat. What kinds of food are available? How might that affect the people or society? Are there foods you, oh lowly tourist, aren’t allowed to eat?
- Check out the fashion. What do the normal people wear every day? Is it different from how important people dress? Do they dress differently on certain days or for specific activities?
- Take in a show. What kinds of entertainment are available? Are there different forms of entertainment for different people? Why do they find this entertaining?
- Visit the landmarks. What kinds of people or events do they commemorate? Where does the woman on the street suggest you visit, and why is it important to her?
- Take in the nightlife. What happens when the sun goes down? Does the feeling of the town change? Are there places that only open under cover of night?
- Search the back alleys. Is this dangerous to do or do the alleys hold places only the people who live there know about? What don’t the people want you to see on your trip?
- Find a room. Everybody’s got to sleep. What’s available to you? Is it nice or seedy? Do you get to sleep with flower petals on your pillow or a knife under it?
Don’t just ask the question though. Explore what the answers to those questions mean, how it affects your world as a whole and your characters in particular. That ground level worldbuilding is the foundation that your adventure can take place on.
How Does This Help the Story?
You may wonder if it’s worth going through all this trouble of building out parts of your world that may never enter into the story for readers to see your hard work. Considering this is an article on worldbuilding, of course, the answer is yes but for good reasons.
Though these specific aspects of worldbuilding may remain off the page, their effects will give your world an authenticity that merely piecing together the details you need can’t provide. Not only that, but creating these concepts and details can bring characters you’d never thought of, interactions you’d never considered, or plot paths that otherwise would have been lost in a less developed world. If two cultures interact, knowing the core beliefs and behaviors of your characters’ societies will allow you to more easily and thoroughly know how those two characters would interact. It can give a character depth, and you more options when creating their backstory.
Worldbuilding like this will also remove uncertainty and inconsistencies when adding details to your world’s setting. Randomly adding small details can lead to problems if you can’t remember what the previous details are or have a reason for that to exist in your world. If you’re throwing a banquet in your story, a society with little to no access to rivers or oceans might consider serving fish a sign of wealth, whereas a society that values (or used to value) hunting prowess might prefer to serve large game. They may be small, but those details can add up. It’s your job to make sure the sum of those details creates a single, consistent picture.
Your plot can benefit from a thoroughly built world as well. As you better understand your world and how your characters relate and interact in that world, you can find plot paths or solutions to plot problems. Because all these pieces of the culture are interconnected (tool #1), then you have far more opportunities to explore that culture as a part of the plot itself. The successes or pitfalls of a first contact situation or alien cultures trying to work together can be fascinating paths for your plot to take.
Worldbuilding is more than creating lists of plants and animals or writing down your culture’s version of the ten commandments. It’s about finding the soul of your world and allowing it to guide all the different parts of your story. Examining your world the way an anthropologist would gives you the tools you need to explore both the big picture and the small details and to see how all those pieces fit together to create a rich and vibrant culture that your readers can get lost in.
Shana Scott is a digital archivist and content specialist with a master’s degree in professional writing and publishing. She’s a member of SFWA, and her work has been published in magazines, anthologies, and podcasts, such as Escape Pod, Gothic Fantasy: Agents & Spies, and TulipTree Review. Currently, she writes about the craft of worldbuilding on her blog, Woman in the Red Room.