What You Need to Know Before World Building

Worldbuilding is one of the most interesting aspects of writing stories. It has the power to captivate us, and is why we keep rereading the same novel or rewatching the same series, solely to repeat that magical experience of entering their worlds.

However, when we sit down to build a captivating world ourselves, there are a series of questions we will inevitably face: Where do we start? Where do we stop? How much is too much? How much is enough?

To make sure you create that perfect world that works in favor of your story and not as a distraction from it, you need to make certain elements of your story clear. Here’s what you need to know before creating your story’s setting:

1. Characters:

To build a world for your characters, you need to build your characters first. Your story world exists in the service of your characters and not the other way around. The world of your story is more of a manifestation of your characters’ values, their society’s values. Let me explain.

In the Lord of the Rings, the Shire is the home of the hobbits and our hero Frodo Baggins. This locale is serene, festive, and joyful. It is known for its green fields and cool weather. Frodo must travel from his safe home in the Shire to Mordor so he can destroy the ring of power. Mordor is a black volcanic terrain with an enormous volcano, known as Mt. Doom, where Frodo must drop the evil ring. Mordor is a dry, stormy, joyless, and dangerous land where the climate itself could take your life.

The relationship between the Shire and Mordor exists in a series of dimensions. In the realm of values, they’re the antithesis to one another. The Shire stands for everything our hero stands for: happiness, peace, and goodness. Mordor, on the other hand, represents war, the survival of the fittest, and evil. What makes these settings so fascinating is that they both stand for the values of our heroes and villains respectively. Mordor is a microcosm of what the world would become if the villains won, and the same could be said about the Shire, should our heroes win.. To create settings like the Shire and Mordor, you need to have a clear understanding of who your characters are so that your settings can effectively become manifestations of the characters themselves.

2. The Moral Argument:

The moral argument is a one-line sentence of the moral idea that the story’s events and outcome communicate. What we reference as the message of a story is actually the moral argument. When constructing your world, it should communicate the worldview that your story’s moral argument promotes.

The moral argument should be present in your fictional world’s history, political systems, social systems, hierarchies, landmarks, man-made spaces, holidays, and rituals. Along with your character’s values, your world should be able to communicate a single and unique message.

Again, using Lord of the Rings as an example, our heroes must destroy the ring of power. (SPOILERS for Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) Throughout the story, this ring corrupts a series of good characters and even ends up corrupting our hero, Frodo Baggins. The moral theme suggests that power can corrupt even the kindest soul. Frodo’s journey takes him through a series of micro-worlds that expresses how power can corrupt the good. This theme is demonstrated in Rivendell, the elven city and in Lothlorien, the elven forest. Both these places are presented as graceful, dignified, and borderline divine locations where elves, the elevated version of mankind, live. However, in both of these places, good characters become corrupted by the thought of having the ring of power for themselves: Bilbo Baggins, Frodo’s father figure in Rivendell, and the welcoming princess Galadriel in Lothlorien are all tempted by the ring. These instances of corruption remind Frodo why the ring of power must be destroyed and motivate him further into his journey.

Both Rivendell and Lothlorien are Lord of the Ring microworlds that exist as physical manifestations of the moral argument. In both idyllic places are at risk of being corrupted by power which moves Frodo to move forward into his adventure.

3. The Hero’s Journey:

Before you start building your story world, you need to have a clear outline of your hero’s journey. The story world is an expression of where your character is in the story and how they’re feeling at that point in their journey.