When I started working on The Metalist I only had one idea in mind, a guy with metal attached to his body, and that metal could give him powers when he etched into it. I knew I needed a world where this could make sense, and that I’d have to build it.
To start, I had to decide whether the story would take place on earth, and if so how would it make sense? Was this a historical fantasy? An urban fantasy? Or would it take place in the future? No matter what, if the story is on earth, how would we make a story with magic make sense on earth? While you can get a lot of leeway with the reader to suspend their disbelief, they are still human. After reading people will think about what they’ve read and, if you’re lucky, discuss your work with others. This is why you have to nail out plot holes as much as possible and smooth over the science in some way, even if you have to venture into the realm of fantasy and the supernatural to do it. So I made my choices based on the story I wanted to tell. Earth, in the future, after the fall of society due to a catastrophic event that we weren’t prepared for, and this form of magic emerges.
So in this future technology is wiped out and magic is emerging. How do these events mold what’s left of society? How has climate change effected the world in the future? I’m taking two world changing events and mixing them together, all the while having to account for the world today and the track we’re already on. It’s messy and time consuming, but without a believable world for your characters to inhabit, then who will care about them? What does the plot matter if it takes place in a world no one will buy in to?
After that, I quit writing about the world on pages just as notes and I started drawing instead. I’m not a great artist by any stretch of the imagination, but I knew the majority of the first book was going to take place in one town. I began sketching out how the town was engineered and kept in mind how and why things would be built in certain places. How did economics separate people within the town? How did those economics play out in where things were built? If the town was run down in one section, why was it? What did that do to the buildings in the area? Buildings in your world need a purpose, a reason to exist, and a reason to exist in the condition you present it to your readers.
The easiest way to make a living, breathing world that can match our own is to give it life. The way I achieve this is by creating little stories attached to the world that no one will probably ever see. A shop owner may never be introduced within the novel, but I have a name for them, a back story, and a general idea of how they fit in with their world. While the character isn’t necessary to the main story, they are essential in making the world feel lived in and that much more realistic.
But overall, and this may have become obvious by now, but the best piece of advice I can give for worldbuilding is to ask questions. Ask a million questions about everything you’re doing. Ask people around you about what you’re doing and listen to the questions they have as well. If you cannot answer a “why is this like this?” then that element of your world is weak and you need to strengthen it. Show your world to a kid, they question everything, and you need to be able to answer all of it. If someone asks, “who lives there?” you’ll be able to answer not only who lives there, but also why.
And who knows, maybe those little, insignificant characters and details will grow to have their own stories. If your world is built well enough, it will be able to sustain a million stories, rather than one.