When creating a world, be it for a novel, a short story, a tabletop roleplaying game, or some other reason, choosing where to begin can be a challenge. I like to say you have to think big & small.
Thinking big is painting with the broadest of strokes. What genre are you going to create in? Science Fiction, Fantasy, something in between? What type of reality is it? Does magic work? Are there ultra-technologies? Is physics broken? Are there gods? These are some big, broad questions. You don’t need to answer them all to get started, but you should think about some of the big ideas for the world you want to build.
For my Conquest of the Sphere setting, I made some big choices. I wanted it to be a Science Fiction setting. This means that even though the stories often don’t feature advanced technology or such common tropes within the Science Fiction genre, my way of thinking of the world is rooted in that genre. So, I try to have some kind of plausible scientific concept behind strangeness. I don’t hand-wave things away with ‘it’s magic’ or ‘the gods did it.’ Looking at something like Edgar Rice Burroughs’s At the Earth’s Core, for example, the big concept is that the Earth is hollow and life exists in this inner world in a similar, but sometimes starkly different way from what we know. Many worlds, like Tolkien’s, are birthed from some supernatural forces, like gods or proto-god chaos or what have you. In worlds where magic is a thing, this is often the case, and the magic wielded by characters is in some way an aftereffect of that magical creation.
Now that you have your big idea, it’s time to zoom in. Way in. You may go down as far as to a single city, or farmstead, or space station. Or you may go down to an individual character. After the big concept of your world has been set, it’s time to look at what that means to someone who lives within it. What’s the point of world building, afterall, if it’s not for characters to live in. I’ve found that this is where I start to have the most fun. I’ll create a character, thinking about who might exist in the setting. Then I have them begin to look around. What do they see? You can easily fall into a trap of trying to make the world perfect, of trying to cover every aspect from as many angles as possible. But looking at the world through the eyes of a character (or two or three) is a great way to keep it to what’s important. You can always fill in details later if you want.
Say a world was created by the decaying of a dozen dead gods who were slain by a darkness from the Void. The blood of those gods seeped into the ground and birthed twelve different kin, each carrying traits of their root god. Part of the Void was broken off in the battle, and that infected the land. It is this infection that gifts and curses some with natural magical abilities. Cool. OK. That’s the big idea. Now, let’s get small. Kivi is a Nev, a tall, slender, blue skinned kin who came from the blood of Nevi’del, god of ships. She is captain of the sailing ship Ham’a. She and her crew have returned to the port city of Oji, a cosmopolitan place where various kin have managed to forge a tenuously peaceful existence. Kivi is always uncomfortable when she’s on shore. She pretends it’s because of her preference for life on the sea, yet the truth is more dangerous. She bears the mark of the Void and is constantly in fear of being discovered by the Lasqua Priests. The priests jealously guard the secrets of magic, tracking those with the mark of the Void. Those unwilling to join are disappeared. The truth of what is done to them is truly horrifying.
That was just some off the cuff world building. When I started the previous paragraph, I had no idea where it was going. Do I have all the rules of the world set? Nope. Do I have the overall demographics and politics? Nope. I don’t know who the other eleven gods are. I don’t really know what the Void is. I don’t know how magic works or what the mark of the Void is. But it’s a starting point. I can fill in those details as I go. I’ve got a character, Kivi. I know she’s a sailor and she’s scared. She’s a Nev, but what are they? They’re blue. Do they have four arms or gills or nictitating membranes on their eyes? I don’t know. Are each of the kin similar in some way or are they vastly different? If they’ve built a city together, for a common good, then why and how? These can all be explored as a story develops. What’s the story, though? We know Kivi is freshly back in town and nervous about the Lasqua Priests. Great. Who are they? What would they actually do to her if they found out she had the mark? How will she avoid them? What if she’s betrayed? Start building the story and fill in the details as you need them.
Every question you answer will produce dozens more. It’s difficult not to fall down rabbit holes, but try to stay focused on the story. If some big ideas, or even some middle sized ones start to sprout up, jot them down and think about how or if they affect your story. What I’m trying to get at, I suppose, is that you don’t have to have the entire stage, back stage, and theater built before you start the play. You need a general concept and an interesting character or two. From there, you can begin to draw the larger picture and start adding color.
If you’d like, go on over and read the first few parts of an ongoing story, Echoes of Yesterday, where I’ve used some of the above techniques.