Worldbuilding: Not just for Fantasy

Using a fantasy-style worldbuilding worksheet will help you create an immersive setting no matter what your genre

Fantasy writers spend much of their pre-writing time creating worlds. We dream up social structures, strange customs, and foods. We wonder how many moons our planet has and whether the day of their annual eclipse would be significant. Worldbuilding for the fantasy writer is paramount.

But it should be for every writer.

Worldbuilding is nothing more than the setting. If story equals characters reacting to an environment, then the setting is half the story. No matter what genre you are writing, you should have a well-developed sense of your characters’ world.

Using a fantasy-style worldbuilding chart will help any writer draw a better picture of their story’s setting.

The most exhaustive (and perhaps exhausting) worldbuilding outline is by Patricia C. Wrede and is available on the SFWA.org website.

While not every category will apply to every story, most will.

Let’s take a look at how to apply worldbuilding to a non-fantasy story.
Under the People and Customs heading Wrede lists:

  • Customs
  • Eating
  • Language
  • Ethics

There are more, but this is a short example.

Just from these few categories, a writer can paint a completely different world.

Example 1

The doorbell’s electric buzz made my stomach churn. Someone else stopping by to tell me Mama’s in a better place and give us another casserole. Ain’t nobody eaten half of one. But they’re still bringing ’em. The entire congregation’s been in my living room today. They’ll all be back tomorrow. Probably with more casseroles too. Can’t they just let us alone?

Example 2

I lay the bouquet over the dark stain on the asphalt and listen to the plastic wrapping crinkle in the wind. The people huddled around the burning drum hush their conversation, but otherwise, ignore me. They know I came to say goodbye. Now, it seems pointless. My mother’s gone. I don’t know if she’s in heaven, but I know she’s no longer here. That has to mean she’s in a better place.

In these two examples, different characters are dealing with the same significant event (the deaths of their mothers) but are demonstrating two different world systems. One is an Appalachian preacher’s daughter; the other is a foster kid in NYC. While these are both contemporary settings in the United States, these two characters have vastly different world experiences.

Using a worldbuilding chart will also help you research an unfamiliar setting

Been a while since high school? Language, customs, and ethics and values have changed dramatically in the past decade. Some for the better (more tolerance) some for the worse (prom-posals? really?) What about the rules for Snapchat? (My total NARP status would show in 5 sentences.) If I wanted to portray this world, I would have to research it. A worldbuilding chart would give me a map for identifying what elements will make this world feel authentic to a reader.

If you plan to use Wrede’s worldbuilding guide for a non-fantasy story, here is an edited version. Answering all these questions before you start writing isn’t critical, but having these things in your mind as you create your characters’ world will help ensure your setting works.

The Questions: What is/are…

Physical World

  • Climate and Geography
  • Natural Resources
  • World History
  • Specific Country(s) History

Peoples and Customs

  • Customs
  • Eating/Food
  • Greeting and Meeting
  • Gestures
  • Language
  • Ethics and Values
  • Religion
  • Holidays

Social Organization

  • Government
  • Politics
  • Crime and the Legal System
  • Foreign Relations
  • Waging War/Rivalries
  • Weapons

Commerce, Trade, and Public Life

  • Business and Industry
  • Transportation and Communication
  • Science and Technology
  • Medicine
  • Arts and Entertainment
  • Architecture
  • Urban Factors
  • Rural Factors

Daily Life

  • Fashion and Dress
  • Manners
  • Diet
  • Education

Feel free to add your own categories or omit things that are not relevant.

No matter what genre your story is, the setting must be deep, consistent, and immersive. Using a fantasy world-building chart will help you map out out a seamless world for your characters.

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