I thought I’d start this first worldbuilding piece by something I did by accident when I wrote Dragon Bound. I built a world bigger than I could ever possibly hope to explore completely… which means that now, years later, I still have tons of raw material lying around in my head, just waiting to be used.
I should probably clarify–if a writer is telling a very tight, limited story arc with a definite ending s/he may approach worldbuilding in an entirely different way than I did, and that would be an extremely valid thing to do. There are probably as many ways to build a world as there are writers, so I’m really talking about what has worked for me.
I should also make one more clarification: when I say I created the world of the Elder Races “by accident,” that doesn’t mean I hadn’t done worldbuilding before–because I had. Not only had I been a writer in my former incarnation as Amanda Carpenter in the 1980s and 1990s, but I also used to create world scenarios in a personal gaming circle.
It was sort of like Dungeons and Dragons, but we made up our own stuff. We played by simplified rules, usually with a couple of regular dice, took turns being the game master, and we really mostly operated this way because we cared about the characters and stories more than we did about the rules for how to play fantasy games.
So, when I wrote Dragon Bound, I was used to creating world scenarios with a quick sketch of words that should, hopefully, evoke larger pictures in the reader’s mind as s/he’s reading. The accidental part was sewing the seeds for more than I could ever hope to write…
That means creating more characters than will ever get their own story. Creating political frameworks that can be expanded on over multiple storylines. Basically, it’s creating a canvas with expandable edges. So I have multiple demesnes in the Elder Races, not only in the United States, but all over the world. And I have crossover passageways that lead from Earth to Other lands (this type of sci-fi/f story is often called a Portal Fantasy), which means the Elder Races universe is virtually infinite in terms of what I might want to explore.
The other technique that I like to employ is attention to detail… although I try not to get so swallowed up in detail, I lose track of the plot. Author Patricia Wrede has a fabulous list of things to consider when you’re worldbuilding. You can find it here on the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America website: https://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/
When I say attention to detail, Ms. Wrede highlights attention to detail. If a writer wanted to hit every single one of Ms. Wrede’s points, s/he would end up with a world SO detailed, and SO complex s/he could virtually write about that for the rest of his/her life.
I’d attach a warning to that, though. It’s possible to world build endlessly and lose track of actually telling the story. I think it’s possible to fall so much in love with your world that you fall out of balance as a storyteller. The most compelling stories, for me, are those that are rich in world building but character-centered. In the end, it’s the intimate details that make a world feel real.