Every story needs a small, believable world but when you’re worldbuilding for an epic fantasy or historical saga, what can you do?
You can apply a simple checklist to the other worlds and cultures that interact with the small, knowable world of your main character — both his foreign and his familiar.
Every culture and world has features and flavors essential to the whole. You don’t need all of them for all of your cultures and worlds, but having different answers to each category for different characters allows for a layered depth to your world you otherwise would never achieve. With different answers to these categories for different cultures/worlds, you give characters a chance to interact both in contrasting and collaborative ways such as two characters comparing the barter system and representational currency or two characters agreeing that frozen tundra is a far more hospitable environment than the desert of a third.
In this post, I have a featured download: it’s a one-page checklist that you can use every time you build a world or culture. Print it out or use the PDF checkboxes. The post itself explains each category. Use all of them for your main character and have at least significant answers for side characters as well to provide contrast and collaboration.
Geography. Though this includes geological factors, the two most important pieces to a civilization’s physical existance are (1) who are their neighbors and (2) where is their water? Start here whenever possible.
Geology. These are the resources that dictate their survival. This will vary drastically based on atmosphere, gravity, sunlight, water cycles, nitrogen in soil, presence of CO2 in atmosphere, and the rest, but those resources will dictate both their struggles and strengths. (eg. rich soil, spice on Dune, the fires of Mordor)
Survival. How do they live longer and then finally thrive?
Food. How do they get energy and how or do they enjoy it? Do some of their everyday foods get traded for delicacies in other countries? Do any of their delicacies make foreigners gag? What seems normal and strange to consume? There was an entire story written once entitled The Plant that Ate Dirty Socks. That alone provokes us to turn to the first page.
Clothing. What protects their physical body while exposed to elements? In the bush, a loin cloth protects you more than a space suit precisely because you need to run more than you need protection from radiation and the vacuum of space.
Defense. What protects them from threats animal, environmental, existential, etc.?
Shelter. What protects their common space and their individual labors?
Education. How do people learn to think, speak, and write for themselves in order to learn, problem solve, and persuade others? What skill set do they need in order to succeed? Wielding a rapier gets you arrested in Brooklyn and promoted in the Musketeers.
Transit. How do people and goods get from one point in spacetime to another? Is it fast or slow? Convenient or inconvenient? Expensive or cheap?
Communication. How do they share ideas and relationship? Telepathy? Sign language? Secret codes? Spanish? Gary shorthand?
Economy. How do they get what they want and need? Barter? Representational currency? Bloodprices? Sanderson often interweaves his magic into the economy because money often is power and vice versa.
Technology. What tools did they devise to make everything on list possible or more efficient?
Social Structure. How is power, honor, and innocence distributed? What are the consequences of fear, shame, and guilt? What is a family? What are friends? Colleagues?
Beliefs and Traditions. What’s their idea of ultimate reality and how do they celebrate or mourn it?
Rules and Regulations. How does their understanding of moral law translate into legal code and how do local interpretations of that legal code translate into status quo that may need upending?
Beauty & Bliss. What do they make to express joy, bliss, and the beyond? As separate from their religion and beliefs, what does their mythology and poetry tell them about the world beyond their rocks and stocks and rivers? How do they express the humanities?