Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Organic Worldbuilding

Robert A. Sloan

2003, Robert A. Sloan

or many writers, an organized worldbuilding checklist like Patricia Wrede's website is a godsend. Fantasy, SF and horror have special worldbuilding needs, but even in contemporary settings, working out all those details can help immerse a reader in the setting.

Unfortunately, sometimes checklists can lead to excessive preparation instead of getting down to writing the story or novel. Less can be more, even in speculative fiction; in an SF story, the plot-relevant rules of robotics might be much more important than women's fashion unless your robot character is a shoe salesman. A few well-placed details, lightly sketched, can create a vivid impression--if they're the right ones for the story.

Organic worldbuilding is letting your world accrete gradually around the events and characters in your fiction, keeping every new element in harmony with what's been established. That robot shoe salesman might be funny enough to kick off a second story, where he gets a chance at his dream of piloting a spaceship.

Television, shared worlds, fan fiction and long-running series writers are already familiar with continuity bibles. Growing piles of worldbuilding notes may have started with a simple sketch, but proliferated like that spider plant your ex-roommate gave you fourteen years ago on moving out. Organization is essential. Whether you keep your notes electronically or on paper, make sure all of them stay in the same place and that you understand how to find what you need, fast.

My personal method of organizing backstory notes is to create a line per scene synopsis on everything that's rough, in a .txt file. I use
the free word processor RoughDraft, available from This program automatically attaches a "Pad" file to any .rtf file, and that's become a major worldbuilding convenience for my material.

For general notes, I make project folders like Nomads or Piarra for setting, nesting separate folders for novels or stories. General setting notes may get copied into both the setting folder and the novel folder. I use file names like NomadReligion.txt for a long note on religions in my Nomad universe, or PiarranCycleV02.txt for an often-referenced list of Houses in my Piarra universe. That makes them easily found, even if I misfile them. Character bios, timeline charts, any worldbuilding notes all become separate files with descriptive names. When I need to know what I did in the last book, I look in the last book's notes. I'm not afraid to copy the same file five times into different folders to make it easier to use with each project.

Back in the old days when my office wasn't paperless, I used one or several ring binders per setting and tab dividers within the binders. My hole punch got plenty of use, but that kept my assorted notes from winding up filed with last year's utility bills, grocery circulars and long letters from pen-pals. Some people use file cabinets. While they fill fast, staying organized will help you win trivia contests on your setting even when it's too large to handle.

How can this help?  Star Trek began with a simple premise, a strong theme, and a cast of great characters, most of who were replaced after the pilot episode. Today it dominates film, television and series books, with a depth of backstory that demands as much research as a historical novel if an author new to the genre lands a contract.

One trick to making your original world as compelling, organic and rich as Star Trek is to begin with a simple sketch. Instead of defining everything that's necessary to the premise, write a short, half-page description of what your first piece is going to be--and decide if you're going to leave it room to grow. This is the time to buy ring-binders, download RoughDraft, or set up your filing system.

One element will stand out from the rest as defining your world. For Anne McCaffrey's Pern series, that would be dragons. For Anne Rice's vampire novels, it's vampires. For a crime series, it might be a specific type of murder, serial killings, domestic crimes, or homicide. The defining element is central to your premise, main theme and main character's motivation, even if, as the series progresses, new main characters step into the spotlight.

From that starting point, your setting can grow in the same way characters do. Everything that happens in your outline demands special conditions, whether that's the internal rules of a street gang or the way dragons choose their riders. Some of these conditions will come up mid-plot, because they would create more conflict than your original default conditions.

If your detective grew up in a neighborhood with a gang, he may have relatives in the gang. That's good conflict; who wants to have to arrest his own brother?  Does the MC want to arrest his brother? That sounds like a family with plenty of conflicts where the detective may be the white-sheep cop of the lot. Alternately, if your detective is from out of town, he may not recognize any of the gang's habits, hangouts, members and colors. Given that, you gain an opportunity to stick his neck out doing things he shouldn't in a neighborhood where he should've brought two more partners for backup.

Those are all plotting choices that can result in a good crime story or novel. Either of them could work, or both could be combined into the same piece if those cops are partners. At this level it still looks like an ordinary premise. What would make this situation more original is if the gang was multiracial, the department more complex than all honest cops or all bad crooked cops, while some Asian mob starts moving in on everyone. Maybe a crooked cop straightens out when he's caught between payoffs from competing gangs, and the whole situation becomes more complex.

This is where filling your files with details as you go starts to become important. perhaps one faction or gang has one religion and historical background, another isn't religious and had a different history, a third came from another country and has completely different customs.  Keep track of the details.

With a fantasy novel, your magical system could be the starting point of organic worldbuilding. Magical systems can grow rapidly and stir reader interest, because like the crime in a crime novel, they are puzzles readers can solve. Fictional sorcery is a major hobby for many computer game players, programmers, and IT experts who enjoy reading fantasy. Like armchair detectives, puzzle readers like to outsmart mage characters and create interesting spells based on the magic system's rules.

Magic can also be mythic and carry a theme. This is where series theme starts to deepen. A main theme embedded in that first premise worldbuilding sketch can deepen and grow with subthemes developing in later stories and novels. Theme notes taken throughout may make it easier to keep sequels on track and variations reflecting back into the immersive core.

Turning back to the example of Star Trek, the series began with a theme of exploration and embracing diversity. Aliens symbolized wide cultural gulfs among the audience, and interacted with a multicultural crew drawn from those audience groups. Timeless values like courage, integrity, loyalty to crew, and good leadership qualities contrasted with theme-driven moral questions that picked up contemporary topical issues. In Plato's Stepchildren, Lt. Uhura kissed Captain Kirk under an alien being's compulsion.  Kirk objected, not because she was black, but because he was forced to violate a military code of honor against romancing people under his command. That proved more powerful than, say, if Lt. Uhura had dated the Russian, Mr. Chekov.

Whether the creators of Star Trek added the Starfleet ruling against fraternizing with lower officers at the beginning in the series bible, or after Plato's Stepchildren, it became a permanent element in the Star Trek setting. Rules, laws, customs and traditions are important sources of conflict.

Organic worldbuilding is character driven. Running gags may develop out of one starter idea like 'robot shoe salesman' into later quirks like the robot's giving shoes to every unhappy woman he meets in the starlanes, because he's a nice guy. Once he's made friends with a Galactic Overlord by complimenting her shoes, her character is around to trample the good guys in the next story wearing the high-heeled lavender conquest boots the robot thought were gorgeous in the first story.

Jotting details like lavender leather spike-heeled conquest boots can become a useful list of plot starters. They also tie a series together, if the robot doesn't appear in the Lavender Overlord's story, her accurate boot description will still remind readers of the previous story. The entire cast will become familiar, even for readers who aren't trivia buffs.

When you've missed one of those details, inconsistency can be a source of originality. That may sound insane, but if your backstory grows and apparent contradictions emerge, the process of rationalizing them can give rise to whole new conflicts. If the gnomes are a greedy people whom other characters in a fantasy world complain about, yet a gnome shows religious devotion and compassion for a character in another story, perhaps a comment on religion might emerge in the idea that these gnomes literally worship gold. A religion centered on capitalism can develop in depth in the background by contrasting weak and strong characters from that culture.

That contrast might not emerge until well into the series. How can an organic worldbuilder create elbowroom for concepts like that gold-religion?

Here there be dragons. Throughout, drop tantalizing hints that aren't fleshed out at all. Sketch. Mention the names of twenty different arcane tomes of mindbending terror, the way H. P. Lovecraft did, and sooner or later the nightmare contents of any of the titles may blossom in its own story. Detail what's foreground for the piece in hand, but make loose references casually and use side incidents that foreshadow longer arcs. Find new depths in existing developed areas by examining aspects that weren't important on your original list--like the gnomes' religion.

Worldbuilding can be approached in either direction--as prewriting or meticulous postwriting. Organization is essential to keeping continuity whether you create these details before, during, or after the first draft. Either way, consistency, inherent conflict and growing complexity makes a setting original and memorable!


Plato's Stepchildren first aired Nov. 22, 1968, in the third season of the first Star Trek series.

Patricia Wrede's Worldbuilding Checklist: