Let’s take a look at worldbuilding. Whether you’re writing an AU, or trying to explore a facet of your canon’s universe that got a bit sidelined, or even trying to branch into original fiction, here are some things to think about when you’re creating the world for your characters to live in.
Worldbuilding ultimately comes down to a lot of invisible rules that the reader will never notice, but which should be adhered to as strictly as possible. One of the reasons people like to dunk all over JK Rowling is because she set up a world which, in her original books made sense for the most part. When she started adding information after the fact, all those little gaps became enormous holes that nobody would have ever noticed had she not said anything in the first place.
The first thing to consider is your template. Is your new society earth-adjacent, an alternate history/timeline, or completely from scratch? Depending on where you sit will determine how much work you’ll have to put in. An earth-adjacent society will exist in a recognisable setting, but with little tweaks. These are your Marvels and DCs and Harry Potters. The overculture (more later) is already set, and doesn’t need to be fiddled with too much. What you have to focus on here are your magic/power systems, and how they fit into a society that already exists.
Alternate histories and timelines are your “what if JFK wasn’t assassinated” kind of societies. Anything from that point forward is subject to change, but parts of society would still be recognisable. You just get to cherry pick which parts.
And starting from scratch is your Star Wars and Game of Thrones. People are going to be people no matter where you put them, but nothing about where they live is recognisable to a modern audience. Obviously, this is the one that will take the most work.
How it Started
Very occasionally, you’ll get lucky on this one, and canon will tell you how it started. I’m not talking about the advent of society, but the very beginning: the Creation Myth. Because the Creation Myth fuels religion, religion fuels values, and values fuel politics. Even if this never once comes up in your story, it’s a good idea to know what your society believes. If you have multiple cultures clashing with one another, knowing what each one believes can help solidify why the cultures are clashing.
This contrasts with the biological theory. How did your people actually come to be? These two concepts are not mutually exclusive. If you look at mythology from around the world, ancient and present, you’ll notice that a lot of myths run in parallel. And that’s because ancient people were smarter than they tend to get credit for, while myths were used to fill in the gaps for concepts that hadn’t yet been fully realised. These people weren’t necessarily wrong; they just lacked the vocabulary to explain the fragments of truth that were already known to them.
Knowing how your people understand the universe, or once understood it, will go a long way in knowing how your fundamentalists see the world around them.
Similarly, knowing your world’s migration history ties into this as well. How did your people get where they are? Did they steal land from natives, systematically wiping them out? Or did they find some barren land, and because it’s how people do, forced it to bend to their whims? Where did your people come from, and were they even what society would presently call people when they arrived?
Over the course of Earth’s history, there have been over 20 species of human discovered and recorded. What would a world look like if more than one had survived, rather than a single dominant species fucking and fighting the rest into extinction? If you’re starting from scratch, this is something to consider when building clashing societies.
Ecology, Climate, and Biodiversity
For the most part, you want to avoid creating Star Wars planets, unless you are writing for Star Wars, in which case carry on. What I mean by this is planets with a single ecosystem from pole to pole. Having an entire planet be nothing but desert, or dominated by 200-foot redwoods is quick and easy, but reduces conflict. In these sorts of worlds, resources would typically be spread out evenly. People on one continent will have the exact same resources as people on another. The western world has found reasons to be at war in the Middle East since the discovery of oil, and that is not a coincidence.
Instead, spreading out resources can create an unstable geopolitical atmosphere that will serve to drive conflict. If there are only very small temperate regions suitable to growing large crops within your planet, those regions will be most valuable for feeding a population. If there is an energy source that is only available under extreme conditions, simply harvesting it can become a conflict in an of itself.
On a similar level, animals like to live in very specific areas, and will adapt and evolve to live in that area as comfortably as possible. An animal that lives in the desert will not thrive in a cold climate, and vice versa. Working out your biological diversity, food chains, conservation statuses, etc, can both add flavour and life to your surrounding world, as well as build conflict within it. Is there an animal which naturally produces a source of energy outside of food? What happens when that animal is hunted to near extinction? What happens when the pest species that has been eating all of the farm animals gets hunted to extinction? What happens when the grazing animals get hunted to extinction? But even without exploring this as a source of conflict, what kinds of plants exist? If one goes for a walk in nature, what are the animals they need to be wary of? What animals are good for food, or what plans will poison you? Your biodiversity can exist just to add flavour, and make your world feel more lived in as a result.
Superstitions, Rites, and Rituals
As with your creation myth, knowing what parts of religion are deeply engrained within your culture can help guide and colour a character’s ideals, values, and actions. What superstitions exist within the society? Are there things a person must or must not do, for no reason other than luck? Do these superstitions come from belief, or folk wisdom?
What holidays are celebrated by the majority of your population? Are there fringe holidays celebrated by a minority population? Are holidays mandatory or just an excuse to get off work? And where does worship fit into these holidays? Are they all secular, or religious, or somewhere in between?
And what rites of passage do the members of society undertake? Not all rites are going to be some big, religiously significant thing. Sneaking into an R-rated movie for the first time is a very common rite of passage for many western teenagers, even though it bears no cultural or religious significance. A rite can be your Confirmation or Bar/Bat/B’nai Mitzvah, but it can also be your first sleepover at a friend’s house. And even though your first sleepover is not culturally significant in and of itself, it is part of the cultural experience. Having a mix of the two, both the religious and secular, can signal values within your society.
This is where your worldbuilding starts to narrow down to a societal. You want to look at aspects of your society dealing with racial biases and social ladder. Who is perceived better than whom? Who is undesirable? Who is perceived better at something? Racial biases are not always overtly negative (Asians are good at math; Germans are hard workers, etc), but can still contribute to unfair advantages and disadvantages in those areas.
Creating these biases and barriers does not necessarily need to be an in-depth takedown of them, but their presence will help inform a character’s values and beliefs. If a bias is built into the social structure itself, as many are, it can present itself as micro-aggressions.
Similarly, what does sexual and gender acceptance look like? What’s taboo, and what is expected? This doesn’t have to be in your face conflict either. It can exist in the form of certain jobs being only for women, or a division of labour that places emphasis on certain tasks being for men. These gender roles are not necessarily bad, or even a source of conflict, but they can be if you want them to be. You can even play with it. Perhaps women do more hunting for your society, because they are perceived as lighter on their feet, and therefore make less noise. Is this true? Who knows, but your society sure seems to believe it. Sex and gender roles don’t have to be allegorical for society, but there’s a tendency to make them so.
And last, what rights are legally guaranteed, and for whom? With the more obvious example, who can own land and vote? But also, who’s allowed to wear the colour blue? Who’s allowed to wear a certain style of coat? Who’s allowed to shop in this district? Again, the tendency to draw real parallels is very strong, but the farther you get from reality, the more unique and lived in your world can feel.
Overculture, Underculture, and Subculture
To tie all of this together, we start looking at the individual. And first, we need to start zooming in on different levels of society.
Your overculture broadly encompasses the entire race, country, or continent. There can be some overlap between several different overcultures at once, but they will all vaguely melt into the same thing.
To bring reality into this discussion, let’s look at America’s overculture. America’s overculture, sometimes broadly defined as part of Western culture usually, is predominantly Christian, and holds Christian-adjacent values. Most of the west celebrates Christian holidays, regardless of which flavour of Jesus they worship. Even amongst non-Christians, the attitudes of sex being taboo, while violence is more acceptable, especially in the media we consume, is pervasive. We’re a culture that places emphasis on the individual, rather than the society, although that does vary a bit from region to region even within the west.
Your underculture is what defines a more narrow region. Within the American overculture, the underculture is looking at a specific state or metropolitan area. This is why, even though we are all part of the same overculture, states vote differently. People who live in an area where taking the train is more efficient than driving will vote on policies that benefit people who take the train.
While America’s overculture may be heavily influenced by Christianity, a city’s underculture may still carry some of that baggage without putting any real weight to it. A large city will be more accepting of “Happy Holidays” than a small town where everyone goes to Church on Sunday. They’re both American, but place different weight on how you greet a person in December.
And then you have your subculture. Within our big city, these are the neighbourhoods. While one neighbourhood within the same city might place emphasis on health food and gyms, another might place emphasis on kooky small business or entertainment. A person who goes to art galleries and has a Coexist bumper sticker on their Subaru may have wildly different values from the HOA soccer mom who lives just a few miles away, because they come from different subcultures. But these two people will still carry that same baggage from their shared over and under cultures.
And yet, all of these combined will help colour and inform an individual’s values and morality. The HOA soccer mom will likely see society through a much different lens than the person who likes weird art, even though they both live within the same small area.
Worldbuilding is not necessarily the process of creating a brand new society from scratch, although it can be if that’s what your story calls for. Worldbuilding can simply be the act of establishing values held by your characters. Most stories probably do not need to know the whole biological theory or migration history. But if you plan on making your world a character within your story, they’re good things to have in your back pocket, even if they never make it onto the page. Simply knowing these things may be all you need.