14 Essential Questions to Ask Yourself When Building a Fictional World
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Last Updated on January 8, 2020 by Katherine
If you have ever thought of writing a fantasy or science fiction story, you no doubt have pondered just how in the heck you are going to describe the setting. I wrote earlier last year about How to Write Killer Scenes Without Boring your Audience, but I wanted to specifically write this week’s post on building a world that doesn’t exist except in the depths of your mind currently. These questions will help you put that beautiful and fantastic image in your brain into something you can share with your readers.
As a side note, you will probably not reveal every single one of these in your writing. These questions are designed to help you as the writer translate your awesome idea in your head into a readable story.
So without further ado, here are the 14 world-building questions that I like to ask myself when writing fiction.
1. What is the Geography Like?
The mono-climate worlds of Star Wars are fascinating, but I don’t think they exist in reality. Your planet is likely going to have various climates as Earth does. You don’t need to use every climate in your story, but spend some time thinking about what you want for the setting of your story.
Also, are there multiple worlds? If you have a space faring race and storyline, that is something you will want to consider. In that case, you won’t just be answering world-building questions, you’ll want to expand this to universe building questions!!
2. Why Are Man-Made Creations Where They Are?
This concept mainly applies to cities, but other human-made structures will also have happened where they did for a reason. Cities typically develop close to good sources of water or trade routes. I try to come up with a logical reason why the structures developed where they did versus three hours in another direction. Again, I may not go into detail as to why that is in the story itself, but planning it out like this does help you create a more believable story arc.
3. What do people eat?
Your characters have to eat something. Spend some time thinking about what they might like to eat. Also, do they have the typical three meal per day that western society follows or do they do something different? Do they have cutlery or eat with their hands? Do they sit in a table and chairs or on the floor around a low table?
4. What do they worship? How?
Religion continues to be a very divisive topic, as a writer, but you shouldn’t shy away from it. Your readers will likely insert their own thoughts on it anyway. Some micro-questions in this vein include:
- Do they worship a single god, multiple gods or no god at all?
- Are there multiple religions within the same state? How do they get along?
- What rules does their religion require?
- Moral Code
- A Sabbath day observance? And so on.
5. Do these people have magic or other abilities (like telepathy) that are natural? Or unnatural?
If you’re writing fantasy, magic is a fairly common occurrence. You’ll want to answer that for yourself fairly early in development. Other talents to consider are things like telepathy or telekinesis.
You will also want to answer whether these talents are looked upon favorably or unfavorably by the general populace.
6. Government Structure
The government structure is sometimes closely tied into religion, but you will want to define who is ruling and how they rule. Are they hereditary (Emperor, Empress, King, Queen, etc.)? Oligarchic (Small group rule)? Or Democratic?
If you’re stuck, take a quick peek at Word Pandit’s list of Government Types. Once you narrow down the type of government, if you need further reading, I would google that form of power (i.e., Theocratic Republic) and do a bit of research on that expressly so you can understand it well enough to incorporate it into your story.
You will also want to consider whether there are challenges to this rule? Is there a rebellion out there, threatening to take down the status quo?
7. Is there a class system?
If there is a class system, you will want to consider how each class lives. Do the lower classes live in abject poverty or is the class system more benevolent. Do the classes restrict movement (that is, if you’re born in the low class, you die there) or do people move up and down the class ladder?
8. Are there multiple races?
Races can mean the specific earth races we have (i.e., White, Black, Asian, Hispanic) or it can mean Human, Dwarf, Orc, Elf, etc. You could even make up your own race. You’ll want to think about their origins a little and if you do have multiple races in the story, how they interact. For example, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the Elves and the Dwarves typically distrust each other. You’ll want to explain why as you may need to allude to that in your story at some point.
With Sci-Fi, you may have multiple alien races that you may wish to flesh out a little bit.
9. Is there a war? What stage?
Wars don’t just randomly happen; there’s usually a pre-existing political climate that makes it likely that a fight will break out. World War I didn’t just happen because of the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand of Austria, there were years of lead up to that; it was just the final straw. So spend some time thinking about whether there’s a war forthcoming, or if it’s happening and spend some time establishing what inciting incidents have led up to it.
Also, in times of war, there’s a fear of spies and infiltrators, so if your story takes place during a war, that is something you’ll want to consider. Travel will be restricted, and outsiders are treated with suspicion. And so on.
Societies behave differently based upon the level of conflict present, so I always like to spend some time thinking about this in some detail.
10. How do people dress?
Are there societal norms on clothing, for example, are women expected to wear dresses all the time? Are men the warriors and thus typically wearing warrior garb? Is there no gender restriction on clothing at all? If there’s a class system, do certain classes dress in certain materials?
You will want the clothes to match the level of wealth the characters have. For example, typically low born people would not have access to rare clothing fabrics and whatnot because they didn’t have the money!
11. Population Numbers
You will want to establish early for yourself how many people are living in your fantasy world. I like to start with defining the numbers for each segment of society (i.e., class, race, etc.) to come up with a final number. That number can change as you develop your story, but it’s essential to have a starting point in your head so you can start to visualize numerous things from how big your cities should be to the number of soldiers in the military.
12. What professions are there? Also, what do people do for fun?
Related to the class and race questions, you’ll also want to look at the different types of professions you’ll have in your world. You’ll want to think about what jobs are considered acceptable depending on race or class. Typically the lower classes did not achieve prestigious professions like a doctor or a governess position.
13. What languages are there? Any unique expressions?
If you have multiple classes and races in your story, it’s feasible to think about having different languages present. Also, you may wish to think about how a lower class person may talk versus a higher class person. Also, is there a written language of any kind? Are there rarer languages? For example, I have a story where the main character and her siblings speak a rare dialect of a language when they do not wish to be overheard.
14. What level of Technology is available?
Even in a medieval level fantasy story, you are going to want to consider what types of technology your people will have. What do they use to make weapons? What do they use to heal the sick?
Asking These World Building Questions Helps Breathe Life to a Fictional World
When writing a fantasy or science fiction story that takes place on a world that isn’t Earth can be daunting, but asking yourself the above questions can help you start to take that vague idea in your head and translate it into a logical story. These questions help you write about your fictional world in a systematic and meaningful way. Your readers will not read your whole story if they get confused or see a bunch of plot holes that don’t make any logical sense.
Since I started asking myself these questions, I feel like my fiction writing has become richer and I hope you found these questions helpful. If I missed a tip, you think I should include, let me know down below in the comments, I’d love to hear from you! If you did find this content helpful, please share this with your network and pin it to Pinterest!
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Next week I’m going to show you my first ever attempt at making resin jewelry, so until then, stay crafty my friends!