All fiction requires some worldbuilding, even stories set in the most mundane of settings. Fiction, by its nature, is fabrication, and the writer must make a conscious effort to create and flesh out the world in which the characters live. A story set in New York City is working within a simulacrum of the city; a construct which resembles reality but is still, in the end, a construct. Does the author use only real streets and buildings? Those are still fabrications, because the events described did not actually take place. The street is an alternate version of the real street, where such events did happen.
I’m making an extreme point of this only because most of my writing happens on the other end of the spectrum, in worlds almost entirely separate from the real one. And this end of the spectrum is frequently criticized for being nothing but escapism, for being too implausible, for being downright delusional. I just wanted to point out that no matter how stringent one’s efforts to include only the most realistic of elements in one’s worldbuilding, it is still worldbuilding. Fiction is creation, and why not embrace that instead of trying to shove it under the rug like an unpleasant side effect of literature?
Worldbuilding happens at every point of the spectrum; it’s the mark of creativity. And there is good and lousy worldbuilding to be found all over the spectrum, whatever the genre. Whether it’s a setting intended to closely hew to reality, or generally realist with hints of fantasy, or hardcore science fiction, quality worldbuilding requires adherence to two basic principles. Internal consistency, and appropriateness for the nature of the story.
Internal consistency is different from realism or objective plausibility. If someone in real life told me they had magical powers, I would find it pretty laughable. But if the worldbuilding of a book clearly establishes that this is a world where magic is a real, accepted fact, someone with magical powers fits within the internal consistency of that book. If, however, the bulk of the book has maintained that all magic comes from little green rocks, and suddenly someone has magic from an entirely different source – say moldy cheese – it’s going to be jarring. It might be possible to regain plausibility, if there’s some adroit reasoning accompanying it; still, it had better be pretty adroit. The occasional shocking reversal of established rules can make for a great plot twist, but if there’s constant reversals and contradictions and rewriting of the rules, it’s just a disordered, confusing mess. Make up whatever rules you want, just be true to them.
It’s also worth noting that worlds other than our own, however fabricated, usually carry some traces of the real world, sometimes deliberately, sometimes not. Be careful about this. If you’re not deliberate, you may come across as portraying some perceived “exotic” place or culture from our world in the form of stereotypes and caricatures. Be conscious of what you’re doing. Do research. Even if you can make the excuse like “But it’s not China/India/Australia/Northern Illinois! It’s a fantasy world that just happens to contain a few elements that might remind people of that place” – you could come across as insensitive or downright racist. It doesn’t have to cleave precisely to the true setting, but at least try to make it more nuanced than a collection of clichés. I offer this warning because I’m fully aware of the danger of falling into it myself, being an American with only a perfunctory knowledge of most places and cultures elsewhere in the world. Start with the assumption that you know nothing, and move forward from there.
Second, to make the worldbuilding appropriate to the particular story, you have to take a good look at the plot, the characters, the motivations and meanings, and decide what world fits it best. Or maybe you’ve done it in reverse, Tolkien-like, and started creating a world before the story. That’s fine too. The important thing is to make them work together organically. For example, I first conceived the idea of a world in which women gain superpowers at menopause, then extrapolated that one possible conflict in such a world could revolve around the political structure and a potential upheaval in that structure, sparked by an unexplained murder. Superpowered beings would plausibly have a considerable influence on the power dynamics of the political system of where they lived.
But I had to go deeper than that. Worldbuilding requires details, fleshing out. Some things are more crucial to the plot and character development than others, but that appropriateness should be taken into consideration even for the smallest, most inconsequential of details. I decided to set my novel on a chain of islands unified as a city-state, on a world mostly covered in water, with five moons in the night sky. The moon and tides have frequently been used as symbols of womanhood, femininity and the dark, mysterious Other. Granted, this is generally because the moon cycles are associated with menstruation, and since my women only gain superpowers after menstruation ceases, the metaphor kind of breaks down. But it’s not meant to be an allegory; it’s meant to serve the purpose of backdrop that unobtrusively, quietly evokes symbols that might resonate with us. I also created a religion based on mother and father figures in fables that incorporated the changes she underwent upon her Silvering, and used the moons to represent their children. It wasn’t necessarily a plot-driving, crucial part of the novel, but it was fun to extrapolate what sort of culture, traditions and daily practices would be present in this sort of world. Did it work in Silver? Well, I’ll have let other people read it and find out. I hope so. And whatever didn’t work, I can try to improve in the next novel.
There were more practical things, like the idea that people either walk or take a ferry on the river and its tributaries to get where they need to go. This was largely because I thought an archipelago city-state wouldn’t really have the resources or the pressing need to manufacture land-vehicles like cars, but also because I just plain don’t like cars and I’d prefer to live somewhere that they aren’t necessary. You can decide things on a whim like that, as long as they don’t interfere in the overall integrity of the storyline.
And that’s what I’d like to finish with. In the end, have fun. Use some restraint, of course. If you’re only including things because you’re thinking, “Oh, this would be cool! And how about this, and that? So cool!” you might want to step back, take a breath, and consider whether you’re being too self-indulgent. But as long as you’re coming up with worldbuilding details that are consistent and appropriate to the story, let yourself enjoy it. A primary reason I write and read speculative fiction on the extreme end of the worldbuilding spectrum is because it’s just a blast. Creativity can really blossom if you keep asking yourself “What if…?” It can even blossom on an ordinary street in New York City in the mundane world. You can visit there, but if you’re looking for me, I’ll be riding a ferry on the main island of Halbrechta.