Okay, so we’ve covered original vs. derivative in terms of world building. But whether you want to be completely original or mostly derivative, you’ve got to do some of the work yourself, otherwise your story will be a flat thing in a flat world (and I’m not talking about Discworld here.) So where do you start?
There are obviously a lot of things to think about when you’re building a world. What’s the geography like? What’s the climate? Who lives there, what do they want, how old is the world and what’s the current political situation, what events led to the current status quo, and on and on. To be honest, it can be more than a little overwhelming. It’s important to keep some basic principles in mind.
Build From the Bottom Up
Start with the basic ideas. Where did the world and the people come from? Is it a colony created by Earth around a distant star in the far future? Or is it on a disk on the back of elephants, put there by bickering lesser “deities”? And how much of the world’s origin is even known to the average person? If it’s not known, what are the prevalent theories?
Who lives there? Are there other races beyond humans? Are there humans at all, or is the average person an oddity there? How much of the world is actually explored and understood by the people who your story focuses on?
Frame the Rules of Enagement
What do you want to your world to be about? While in the real world science, exploration, political theory and standard of living were all linked in their advancement, there’s nothing wrong with your distorting your world slightly to bring one of those elements to the foreground. But if you’re going to do that, you need to know that you’re doing it from fairly early on, or you’ll have to go back and make significant adjustments to bring things in line.
Also, if you’re going to have magic, metahuman abilities like telepathy or telekinesis, nonhuman races or even stranger things like lurking eldritch horrors, you’re going to need to decide on that at this stage. Adding these things after the world is mostly set can result in story elements that are wildly out of place.
Set The Scene
Choose a particular part of your world to focus on first. Choose a country (or a city or a county) to focus on first. Build that place until it’s what you want it to be, then think about other parts. It’s true that no country is an island (unless, of course, the country is a literal island(s), like Britain, Japan or Madagascar, but that’s not what we’re saying here) and as you think of ways for that your first area of focus ties to other places in the world, go ahead and write them down.
Eventually, you’ll need to think about places outside where you want to tell stories, unless you want to convey the idea that you’re dealing with one of the last places on earth or a small colony in space or something. When the time comes, don’t be afraid to go back and edit what you’ve already written about your first place. It’s important not to give the impression that everything in the world revolves around that one patch of ground. But there’s nothing wrong with having a very firm idea what one place is like before you move on. If you’ve done it right, you can actually follow the lines of commerce, politics and money from place to place until you have at least a general idea what the entire known world is like!
Establish the Core Conflict
There’s a conflict inherent to every setting. When looking at the part of the world you’re working on, find out what that is. As your characters explore that world later, they’ll have to encounter it at least tangentially, or their life won’t look real. For example, in Asimov’s robot novels, it’s the struggle between Earth and the Spacer worlds that results in the murders that Elijah Bailey must solve. Bailey’s conflict is between himself and the murderer but the larger conflict in the world around him defines those smaller conflicts in dozens of ways, including the constant presence of R. Daneel Olivaw.
On the other hand, few conflicts are world wide. It’s fine if one area has one overarching conflict, such as the local equivalent to Prohibition and the resulting organized crime, while another area is wracked with conflict between a petty tyrant and la Resistance.
Identify Major Players
I’m not talking about the characters your story will be about (although they may be in your story, and they may even be your characters, the just don’t have to be.) Rather, decide who’s important in your neck of the woods. Who runs the government, who owns major businesses, who heads la Resistance (if there is one). Sooner or later, you’re probably going to need one of these people to help your story along, and it looks much better if you can show their influence from the beginning, rather than having a major player in the military-industrial complex simply appear out of thin air.
With these five basic rules to help you lay a foundation you should be well on your way to making a decent world. Getting the broad strokes down is just as important as all the other minutia, and the one won’t look nearly as good without the other. There may be another few posts on the subject of word building, but for the time being, I hope that will be enough to get the wheels turning.