1 Key Question for Worldbuilding (+ A Handy Checklist)

I’m a newbie to hardcore worldbuilding. Up until recently, I’d only developed stories that took place in the real world. I may have put fantastical creatures in the stories, but the setting was Earth as we know it. Now I’m writing a novel that takes place 100 years in the future, still on Earth, but it won’t be an Earth we recognize because, you know, it’s post-apocalyptic! That means I get to make up all kinds of stuff. Fun! It also means I need to figure out what Earth could be like in the future after a major disaster. Daunting!

I had some ideas, but I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything obvious during my first worldbuilding attempt, so I turned to the Internet and searched for worldbuilding checklists. I found a few blogs that were helpful, but for the most part the information I uncovered was either super general or intimidatingly detailed (really? 500 questions to answer! That seems excessive). So I created my own checklist and in the process discovered there is really just one question to rule them all! Ahem. We’ll get to that. But first…

Worldbuilding Checklist

1) History

How did this world come to be? Write your own creation story! Name the main problem with the world and outline how it got like this. I find it helpful to use the good old 5 W’s…

  • WHO were the major players in the history of this world? Anyone famous? A martyr? A legend? A tyrant? A family member?

  • WHAT happened to cause the Main Problem?

  • WHERE did it happen? Everywhere? Or were only certain places in the world affected?

  • WHEN did it happen?

  • WHY did the world become like this? This is very different than “what happened” which is more event-based, such as “there was a nuclear blast” or “the zombie virus killed 80% of the population.” When answering WHY, focus on character response. There are many different ways your characters can respond to the WHAT; the WHY regarding that character response is the key to making the story compelling.

2) Community

Humans are social creatures. Even if your characters aren’t human, you the human writer will naturally bestow upon your characters the social qualities necessary for a compelling story. (See this post about how the fuel of every story is character interaction.) Unless something has happened in your story that turns all humans into lone wolves, you need to outline how people live together.

  • WHO inhabits this world? Are they all human or not? Think about race, social classes, gender, etc. Who gets along? Who causes trouble? Who are allies and who are enemies? Does everyone speak the same language or not?

  • WHAT roles do people play in society? What are the social rituals? What traditions do people adhere to regarding birth, marriage, child-rearing and death?

  • WHERE do they live? Is the community small or large, rural or urban, or a mix of both? Do they live in houses or holes in the ground? Do they share living space with family or friends?

  • WHEN was this community and its rituals established? How ingrained are the traditions and rituals? Does anyone remember how things used to be?

  • WHY has this community developed like this? Again, focus on the characters’ reasons in response to their world. Basically, you can (and should) ask “why?” of all the answers to the questions above.

3) Leadership

Even the friendliest communities have a leader of some sort (or multiple leaders, or wannabe leaders) who could potentially butt heads with others. Hello conflict!

  • WHO is in charge? Is there a system of government? Is there religion? Is there a community leader?

  • WHAT type of government (democracy, monarchy, dictatorship) or religion (monotheist, polytheist, mysticism, occultism) or community leader (mentor, tyrant)?

  • WHERE are the leaders? Living amongst the commoners or high in an ivory castle?

  • WHEN was this leadership established?

  • WHY are they the leaders? Were they born into the position, or elected, or did they take power by force?

4) Economy

Besides work and money, I cover fashion and possessions to this category as well. After all, those things are tied to the economy!

  • WHO works? Who doesn’t work? Are there employers and employees, or is this a society where everyone chips in equally?

  • WHAT are the jobs in this world? What is the payment: money (paper, coins, gold bars) or a barter system? Do people make enough to acquire personal possessions, or are they barely putting food on the table?

  • WHERE do they work? Is there a main industry? Is there a uniform?

  • WHEN do people start working (age, time of day)?

  • WHY do people work? Because they want to or because they have to?

5) Education

How do the inhabitants of the world acquire, share and spread knowledge?

  • WHO is educated? Everyone or only certain classes/races/genders?

  • WHAT types of education are available? Formal schooling? Apprenticeships? A smart chip in one’s brain?

  • WHERE do they learn? Public or private schools? Libraries? Religious centres? The Community Leader’s living room? On the farm?

  • WHEN do people start and finish their education (age, time of day)?

  • WHY do people learn or not learn? Again, what are the human reasons behind this?

6) Infrastructure

This section covers many things necessary to society (technology, transportation, communication, food production, water supply, waste disposal, health, law) that we don’t always think about because they operate in the background of our lives. After all, if you’re lucky enough to live in the developed world, a simple turn of a tap provides you with clean water, and a porcelain machine sucks away your poop. Amazing! But in a post-apocalyptic state, how will you get safe, drinkable water? What will you do with human waste now that the sewer system no longer works? How will you get food once the grocery stores are raided and stripped bare? And so on and so forth.

I’m not going to go through the 5 W’s for all of these subcategories in this blog post (that would take too long), but here are some more general questions to get you started:

– What kind of technology does this world have? Are they still working on the wheel, or have they perfected space travel?

– How do people get around? Cars? Horses? Foot? Transit? Magic carpet?

– How do people communicate? What media (if any) is available to spread news and entertainment?

– Are there laws? How are they enforced? Is there an established legal system? Are there law enforcement officers?

– Is there health care? What happens if someone gets sick or injured? Do they go to the hospital or call the local shaman?

One Question to Rule Them All

So those are the six main categories of worldbuilding that I’m using. But what about that super important question that trumps everything? Well, it’s worked into the above section but not noticeably highlighted, so here goes:

worldbuilding WHY-alt

Yep, “WHY?” Many of the worldbuilding checklists I found online had dozens if not hundreds of questions to ask, but didn’t always get to the meat of the issue, which is basically: WHY are things like this? Writers can come up with all kinds of cool stuff for their made-up worlds, but if there is no reasoning behind that stuff, if they haven’t asked why and come up with answers, they may end up with a world that at best feels underdeveloped and at worst doesn’t make sense. So every time you build something into your fictional world, ask why it’s there and why it’s like that. You may conclude that it doesn’t fit or make sense at all and you need to change it, or you’ll come up with a fantastic reason that strengthens the story.

How do you worldbuild? Do you have a checklist? Or do you figure stuff out as you write the story?


Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a freelance screenwriter, game writer, and novelist based in Toronto. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

20 thoughts on “1 Key Question for Worldbuilding (+ A Handy Checklist)”

  1. Really good post. Growing up on Star Trek I find it difficult to beleive the residents of all those planents and civilization spoke Engish. Seriously, there was an planet in an episode of Farspace where 90% of the residents were lawyers. Fun, but questions like ‘How did this happen?’ and ‘ How could the economy function?’ kept me from enjoying it.

  2. I don’t even know where to begin commenting on this, Heather – other than I agree with you 100% on everything. 😀 History, culture, community / races, magic / technology (if your world contains either) – basically every aspect of life is important to consider when world-building. I also took a world-building class from fantasy author N.K. Jemisin at last year’s Writer’s Digest Conference, and she suggested to even go as far as understanding how the world itself works – geography, weather / climate, plate tectonics, natural phenomena, etc.

    I will admit that sometimes I forget to ask myself “why” when world-building. That’s something I’m trying to get better at doing; and if I find that I don’t know the “why” yet, I stop for a moment so I can figure it out.

    1. Aw, yes, geography! I’m currently envious of fantasy writers who get to make up their own worlds from scratch, sketching in mountains and rivers and deserts wherever they see fit, because I have to do a lot of online research to figure out the nature of my dystopian location. But I will also do my best to budget for a real live trip before putting the final touches on this story. At least travel in the name of book research is a tax write-off!

      Thanks for the comment, Sara!

      1. You know what else is fun from a geography standpoint, though? Finding pictures of places from one country that remind you of settings from your WIP. I swear Iceland resembles the northern reaches of my story world’s continent – and now I want to go there!! 🙂

  3. Great checklist, Heather. In my Artania novels I built little by little but when my human protagonists began to ask how and why an art-populated world could exist, wrote a creation myth. As soon as I had a creation story it was easy to envision the historical events that had occurred over millennia. I also found that having rules for the magical events that can occur, helped. For instance, since my boys are creators, they can heal themselves when they are in Artania, but not others. Also, they can only pass through to that world when it has need and can only return when their task is complete. I also outlined nations based on art history research, i.e. Renaissance Nation, Gothia, etc. That made it easier to be consistent since each of the lands is populated by art of that period.
    I would advise research for others who are world-building as well.

    1. Rules for magic is a good point that I left out since I’m not writing a fantasy, but absolutely! Apply all the questions to magic if it’s in the story. And Historical research is most definitely useful when worldbuilding. I’m currently reading GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL to learn more about why societies develop the way they do. It’s really interesting and may prompt another blog post on worldbuilding…

  4. Excellent tips, Heather. Though I don’t write fantasy or sci-fi, I can see the list (with a few tweaks, of course) also being useful for other forms of fiction, even if it’s only used a reminder to use the 5 W’s when planning your novel.

  5. This is a very well thought out list, Heather. I think many sci fi – fantasy writers ignore half these questions, and that’s why we get stories with such similar elements and vapid atmosphere. Everyone wears the same outfit, the governmental order is rigid and unforgiving, individuals are rebels who are hunted. It often seems like Egor based his world on the one built by Edna instead of creating one of his own. It takes time and lots of elbow grease to build a new world. Writers who internalize the questions you’ve posed write the most imaginative and enticing stories.

    1. Thanks, Sharon! Worldbuilding is definitely a ton of work, and perhaps this is why it sometimes gets shortchanged. And that is why I made a list — so I can’t get lazy. 😉 Thanks for the comment!

  6. I basically worldbuild by looking for the why in everything. I usually have a who, and a what. The hows and the whys are what I need to get at. I get at them with a combination of free-writing, test scenes, question and answer, and Holly Lisle’s culture building workshop, which I recommend to everybody.

      1. There’s a create a culture book Here:

        There’s also a language one, a world one, a character one, and some others I don’t use often.

        On her website here there are a bunch of short workshops. You have to pay for one on one with her, but I’ve used a modified version of her system for years.


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