A lot of us like to bang our heads against the wall trying to design sprawling worlds to rival settings like Forgotten Realms or Middle Earth, but attempting a project with such a large scope takes time and may very well lead to disappointment when progress doesn’t come as quickly as hoped.
The good news is that you don’t need to design and entire world. Plenty of interesting stories can be told that take place only in a single valley, forest, city, forest, or even house. If you are designing a setting for your stories to take place in the you need to be honest with yourself about the story’s scope. Figure how much space your characters need and stick to it, make a few one-line summaries about far off lands that you can expand on if needed. Doing this will help you keep your goals in mind and prevent your worldbuilding process from taking over your writing process.
When it comes to worldbuilding there are two basic methods; Top Down and Bottom Up. The process I am describing here is called Bottom Up, where you start by building up a small corner of the world and then expand in scale to fill in the rest of the map. If you have a story to tell and don’t need an entire world to do it, this is where you would start.
For me, if I am going to build a world Bottom Up then I prefer to start at the national level. Even if I only have need of one or two locations in it, I like to have an idea of where my characters might be from and a general idea of events elsewhere that may have an influence on the course of their lives. This approach also makes it easier to focus on a world’s minutia, if that’s what you’re into, rather than getting distracted by what might be hiding in distant lands.
This list of questions is meant to help focus the scope of a worldbuilding project, and help you to decide on what matters in your setting and what does not.
Where is the country located?
Where a nation is plays a huge role in its success and failure. Just as it is hard to become a major naval power without easy access to the sea, it is also hard to build significant influence abroad if your tiny kingdom is sandwiched between two giant superpowers.
Rivers create avenues for trade and enable farming, mountains provide natural barriers and refuges for outcasts, forests and swamps provide a ready source of timber and place to hide all the things that go bump in the night.
Once you know what stories you want to tell, you can design your geography to create the setup to make it possible.
Where are the people from?
Mass migrations and invasions are hugely influential in our own history and can create divides within a populace that can last for centuries. A small group that speaks one language ruling over a much larger population is a situation that is almost guaranteed to spark conflict. Migrations can also explain why certain languages are spoken, or why your country has five different holidays on the same calendar day.
Going back further, these migrations can play a vital role to constructing the country’s mythos. Perhaps these people were once nomads and settled down after receiving the sign from the gods. Or maybe some of your characters are refugees that have been taken in and are trying to survive in an unfamiliar and possibly even hostile land.
Where are the major cities?
When your farmers go to market, where do they go? Where are the train junctions? Where do people send their children off to school? Where do they go on pilgrimage? What are their industries?
Besides the obvious points that major cities are home to centers of military and political power, they may also be the centers of regional rivalries or home to minority ethnic groups. People from different cities might speak different dialects, wear different cloths, celebrate different holidays, or speak with different accents.
Regionalism is an important part of this. No country is truly homogenous. The monolithic nation states today only seem that way because of decades if not centuries of effort expended to create a sense of national identity. In reality separate regions within a larger country may be fierce rivals, and may even hate each other. Or may compete for lucrative contracts and trading partners. In a nation with less centralized authority, these cities may even enter into their own treaties with foreign powers.
What do the people believe?
Religion can serve to unit a populace around a core of shared goals and values, or it can serve to drive a wedge between different segments of the population. Deciding what people believe goes a long way towards explaining their motivations and their biases.
Similarly, consider whether this country as some sort of national mythos around its creation. Does it see its history as a long and drawn out struggle for freedom, or do its leaders preach a vision of the future in which they dominate the continent? Just like religion, founding mythis can act as powerful motivators.
Who is the government?
Few things tell you as much about a country as who gets to participate in government and there are lots of interesting spins that can be put to make an established system of government unique.
First decide who has the power, the people, hereditary nobles, the king, the church, the rich. The possibilities are nearly endless here and you are free to imagine all sorts of checks and balances, traditions and laws surrounding voting, and even past civil wars that have shaped politics in the country’s “present.”
Once you know who calls the shots, you can start to imagine who might be demanding a larger voice in government.
Who are the country’s neighbors?
I warned before against trying to create an entire world when you only need a small corner of it. That said, it’s important to know where the nation stands. A quick list of what countries border this one, who its allies and enemies are, and who buys what from who will help you get a clearer picture of that larger world.
If the country’s neighbors are likely to play a larger role in your story you might spend a few more paragraphs on past conflicts, customs, and clothing so that you can quickly create foreign characters for your protagonists or player characters to interact with.
Armed with this brief outlining you’ll be able to quickly incorporate one line references to far off places. Small details like this are a huge part of what gives a setting sense of size and depth.
Do you prefer this approach, or would you rather build your worlds from the top down?
There are many more questions that can be asked to facilitate this Bottom Up approach. Find me on twitter if there is one that you’re especially fond of or wish I had included.