Readers want to be transported out of their reality and into a brand new world, but that only works if the imaginary setting feels real to them. Fleshing out your worlds by giving them their own history, folklore, languages, and cultures can create the illusion of a world which feels lived in, ancient, and expansive.
You don’t have to be JRR Tolkien and build a whole universe from scratch. You don’t have to mimic HP Lovecraft and create a pantheon of cosmic deities. But you do have to present the reader with enough hints to make them believe the world is bigger than the story that’s set within it.
In the Beginning
There are two distinct types of world origin. The first is the scientific, literal way your setting began, be it a fairy island in the sky, an alien empire, or an entire parallel universe. Did it come from a fluke of science or an all-powerful designer? Do the gods have a plan for this place? If there is magic in your story, what is its origin and original purpose? The possibilities are endless, and though not all stories require an author to know these details, thinking about them can be a fun and useful addition to your world-building.
Then you have your origin stories. These are the creation myths your characters grew up believing. In the case of fantasy, the creation myth might also be factual. If you do a little research into the plethora of creation myths in Earth cultures, you’ll see how various and weird these tales can be. To challenge yourself, see if you can come up with a truly original and meaningful creation myth for your world.
A Record of the Past
Like with the origin, the history of your world comes in two forms: the true facts and the tale as your characters believe. How has history in your world been presented? Are the records reliable? How has it shaped the beliefs, biases, and goals of your characters?
Studying the real history of humanity can be a wonderful exercise for all authors. History is complicated, hilarious, terrifying, and tends to repeat itself. The backstory of your worlds should follow suit, or if not, have a reason as to why history developed differently there.
Designing the long term history of an imaginary world can be addictive. This is where many authors first get ‘world-builder’s disease’. Don’t let yourself get so involved in creating the history that you forget to actually write your story! Once you know the basic history, only focus on those aspects which will affect your characters and plots. Do your characters visit a magic castle? Then sure! Write the story of that castle in your notes. But you don’t need to come up with centuries of history for the other 150 magic castles spread throughout your world.
And there’s another type of history that shouldn’t be forgotten: that of your characters. You don’t want your characters to feel like they were born yesterday. (...Unless of course they’re newborns, though that would be tricky to write, especially in first person.) It’s not usually necessary to have a whole biography of your main characters, but knowing the key events in their lives will help inform you in writing the way the character speaks, interacts, and makes decisions. Who were their families, their friends, their lovers? What brought them to the point in their lives when the story begins? These details will make them feel more real to the reader.
Here’s where world-building can get really messy, really fast. Cultures are complex, interconnected, and ever-changing, and you want your readers to feel the societies in your stories are as real as any on Earth. The cultures your characters belong to or interact with will affect everything in your story, from the physical setting to the curse words characters use. When planning out the cultures, there are plenty of aspects to think about.
You may wish to consider the following: ethics, social order, caste systems, prejudices, economies, jobs, politics, laws and rights, justice system and/or conflict resolution, philosophy, manners/formalities, architecture, food customs, arts, recreation, storytelling, fashion, education, technology, weapons, courtship, gender roles, family roles, urban vs. rural life, division of nations or tribes, medicine, and scientific fields. How does the culture meet the fundamental needs of individuals? Is individuality or group identity more important? What is the culture’s attitude toward birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, old age, death, the afterlife, sex, violence, and mental disorders?
Don’t worry. No story will deal with all of these! Instead, construct a general overview of the culture, then pick those specific aspects which will influence your plot, characters, and themes.
If you’re basing your imaginary culture on a real-world counterpart, use caution. It’s all too easy to cause justified offense this way, especially if you’re inspired by a culture you yourself do not belong to. It doesn’t mean you can’t do it, but you need to do your research. Be respectful and present the cultures with accuracy and nuance. Before making your stories public, try to find a reader that belongs to that culture and have them look over your manuscript, then listen respectfully to any complaints they might have.
Unless you’re a linguist nut like JRR Tolkien, you probably won’t be inventing whole new languages for your stories, but thinking about language is always important in world-building. Most speculative fiction will require the coinage of new terms: alien names, fantasy locations, technical terms for imaginary technologies, etc. Don’t assign these new words randomly. Look for patterns. Play with sounds. If you have characters that come from different cultures, a shorthand to present their differences might be in the way they are names, the curse words they use, or even the metaphors they make. Even if you present all dialogue as written in English, a fantasy race from the ocean and an alien species from a frozen moon should use drastically different allusions, jokes, comparisons, etc.
It can be tempting to create words which are impossible for readers to pronounce. (“Presenting her royal majesty, Queen Qplvxltljkfg!”) This is very distracting. Unless you’re doing it for a specific effect like humor, it should generally be avoided.
Religion: Folklore, spirituality, and organized religion have not only played a pivotal role in world history, but will likely be important the majority of your readers. Including it in your world-building not only gives the reader something else to relate to, but adds bountiful opportunities for conflict, character development, and emotional depth. The beliefs your characters hold should inform their worldviews and the decisions they make in the story.
Just like with culture, presenting religious views is going to offend some readers, especially if your fiction is preachy. Most modern readers don’t want preachy, even if they agree with your view. So if you’re going to be influenced by real-world religions, do your research and consider including multiple perspectives to explore the themes from different angles.
World-building religions can also be a lot of fun. The cultural significance of religion can play a major role in all levels of your world. What or who do the characters swear by, for example? What are their curse words? What about their holidays, festivals, rituals, rites of passage, and ceremonies? This is an area where an author can go wild and let their imagination run free. But remember to think about how the specifics of your other world-building would affect the faith and folklore there. If in your world the gods are real and walk among us, how would that change religion? If your story is set on Earth but in the distant future, how would religions have evolved to that point?
Seek to find that perfect balance of realism and imagination. Make readers believe that somewhere a portal really does exist through which they could pass and find themselves in your world, a place rich with history, peoples, cultures, and a million stories begging to be told.