There is lots of #SFF writing about world-building. This could be called “meta-writing”: writing about the process of writing. Distinct from criticism, or writing about the product of writing.

I searched around for a while until I finally tracked down this: Growing Your Iceberg by N. K. Jemisin. For me, this is the gold standard approach to world-building.

The “iceberg” model suggests that you have several layers of fictional world, and much of the details are hidden. The exposed layer is the work itself. There are several ways to expose this layer, depending on how immersive the writing is and how much explanatory stuff is required. (I’m a fan of immersive stories with indirect explanations.)

The narrative is supported by a hidden layer that includes motivations and back-stories for the characters and places. This layer has a direct influence on the visible interactions among the characters. The shape may be clear to the astute reader, but it’s back story, not story story. Who hates whom? Who’s trying to take advantage of whom? This is the foundation of the drama and conflict.

Under the back story is the vast world-building exercise that is only exposed as necessary.

One thread in Jemisin's presentation is to distinguish between Physical and Social aspects of the world. The Physical aspects are going to be central to everything because they’re plainly visible. The story has to take place somewhere. The locations are an essential element for drama, characterization, and mood. The Hero’s journey involves crossing water. So there’s going to be a river. Or an ocean.

Your characters exist in the Social context of the world. This will include categories like Philosophy, Religion, Politics, Law, Economics, Language, Science and Technology (or Magic), Culture and Art, Literature, and History. Do you have to detail all of it? Jemisin has advice on this.

Some issues don’t fit neatly into these categories. Issues of family, gender, and sexuality, for example, might be part of Religion or Economics, or Culture, or all three, depending on the role in the story.

(Start with the Sociology page in Wikipedia, for some starters. Jemisin provides real primary sources you should read.)

The approach is to pick a few key areas (three or so) and focus on those as distinctive aspects of your fictional world. Choose too many unique features, and you run the risk of getting so far from common experience that your story may be difficult to write or for readers to understand. Too few distinctive features and your characters aren’t really part of #SFF speculative fiction.

Sources of Conflict

Implicit in world building are the concepts of poverty and inequality as the seeds to conflict. These can be applied broadly to create reasons for national warfare. They can be applied very narrowly to define something the Hero lacks or the Hero wants to get rid of. The tussle over things is what brings people into conflict. Without someone’s scarcity or surplus, there is no story to tell.

These may be physical things, or emotional things. We have the whole of sociology to choose ideas from.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can help to define these surplus and scarcity issues:

  • Biological and Physiological (air, food, water, shelter, sleep, clothing, family)

  • Safety (security, employment, resources, health, property)

  • Love and Belonging (friendship, intimacy, family, connections)

  • Esteem (respect, self-esteem, status, recognition, strength, freedom)

  • Cognitive (knowledge, understanding, curiosity, exploration, meaning, predictability)

  • Aesthetic (beauty, balance, form)

  • Self-Actualization (fulfillment, personal growth, peak experiences)

  • Transcendence (mystical experiences, service to others, religious calling)

Central to the hierarchy is the dependencies of higher layers on the lower layers. A character who’s starving needs to sort that out before they can seek beauty and balance in the world. Or. The story had best provide some really compelling reasons for them breaking the typical mold.

See Chuck Sambuchino's Tips on World Building for Writers — How to Make Your Imaginary World Real for some advice on how to start with the conflict, and elaborate the world around it. This is complementary to Jemisin’s approach. I’ve arrived at a process like this:

  1. Rough out a physical space. Some continents are a good place to start.

  2. Define some essential economics of who has what and who lacks what. Maybe tweak the map a little to emphasize the inequities. This is the core conflict, so choose something you’re passionate about. (150,000 words is a lot of passion.) Sometimes agents want to know why you’re passionate about this.

  3. Define the society or societies. How far you go depends on the scope of the story: individuals vs. cities vs. nations. Use Jemisin’s three-features rule to keep things distinctive, yet recognizable. Also, note the core cause-and-effect: the physical wants will structure society so the greedy get most and everyone else suffers. Justice will be in short supply to someone.

  4. Sketch out the history that lead to the Hero’s specific conflict. Much of this will never make it into the story. Don’t forget law and politics and how they may evolve over time.

  5. Immersive Details. Cultural features: habits, clothing, food, leisure, family, rank or class stratification. This stems from the society description you built above as well as the physical world you built.

  6. Change. What can change? What is changing? What will change? Is the Hero’s journey happening against a relatively fixed background? Or is the Hero going to remake some portion of the world?

There is — and should be — a lot of depth here. From the superficial physical world, through the sociological world, to the personal world of individual characters.

After talking with the authors of the the Drake & McTrowell series, an important lesson learned is to have something interesting for conventions. They suggest that things like the Hot Potato School of Writing is a lot of fun for the audience — much more fun than answering complex questions from a moderator with a panel of other writers.