Here are some elements to consider when building a world, based on the well-established Five Ws and One H of journalism: who, what, when, where, why and how:
Who - the People:
What - the Culture:
What is their culture like? Since words are the foundation of our craft, the way your characters use language is paramount in worldbuilding. Other key elements would include their family structures, social institutions, education systems, arts, food, customs, and work lives. The culture can be inspired by similar ones on Earth, from past history, from sociological theory, from myth or fiction. In each case, the culture you choose will inform how your characters will act and think.
Where - the Environment:
Where do your characters live? The sense of place is probably one of the most important elements to constructing a believable world. One of the best ways to do this is to describe it from your characters’ perspectives and using their experience of it. Try to describe the place using all of the senses. While the sights are often what come to mind first, don’t forget to describe the smells, textures, and sounds, even the tastes when appropriate.
How - the Technology:
When - the Time:
When do the events occur in your characters’ world? A sense of time is equally important to creating a believable world. Determine when in history the action occurs, be it past, present or future (or a combination of time periods, as with Steampunk). Then define the passage of time there, making clear the intervals within the characters’ lives and the overall story. Also, be clear about which time of life is being explored and how much time passes and how quickly. Your characters’ perception of the occurrence, duration, and unfolding of events is key, too. Finally, how time is measured tells us a lot about your world, too: diurnal or yearly, seasonal or cosmic, limited or continual.
Why - the Beliefs:
Why do your characters exist, and what do they believe and why? Even if it is mostly backstory, know the origins and evolution (or creation story) of your characters’ world. Then flesh out their beliefs, including their understanding of what is true and unreal, right and wrong, and valuable and insignificant. This opens up the worlds of philosophy, religion, and government, which are rich, complex, and meaningful. In terms of story logic, lay out your world’s rules and rituals and be explicit and consistent with them to be believable. Whether your characters agree and conform to these laws and doctrines is another matter entirely.
While all of these elements of worldbuilding are important, it is just as important to write them into your novel in a way that supports the story. They shouldn’t upstage the story or characters, or interrupt the narrative flow. Avoid “info dumping” at all costs! Be sure to include only those details that are relevant to the scene, that connect to the themes, and that aid in revealing your characters’ development.
Happy travels in your constructed worlds! All the best, Chris Brandon Whitaker