It’s all well and good to take an extended tour through all the different corners of stuff your fictional world might contain. But as in the proverb about the elephant (“How do you eat an elephant?” “One bite at a time”), you have to pick a place to start. When dealing with something potentially the size of an entire world, how do you choose those first few bites?
One approach often I’ve seen recommended is to begin with the big pieces: things like religion, government, and so forth. I can see the sense in this; those central institutions tend to shape the rest of society around them, much more than (say) the questions of security technology or where travelers stay. Retconning major societal forces into place when you’re already written tens of thousands of words often results in them looking like they were pasted on as an afterthought rather than integrated from the start — because they were.
But there’s a significant flaw to this approach. Let me demonstrate it by using an idea I’m developing right now, which is about a group of people traveling to a mysterious, isolated island where weird magical stuff is going on. The extent to which the shape of the government is going to matter to this story is only slightly above the level of “bugger all” . . . so figuring that part out ahead of time is not going to be the best use of my time and effort.
Now, these things are flexible. I could imagine a version of this story in which the government matters quite a lot; all I have to do is say that the expedition is backed by the people in charge, and what’s taking place on that island could have major political implications. But as it happens, that’s not the kind of story I want to write. If and when the question of “who rules these people?” comes up, it’s likely to be in the context of a throwaway line — which means I can postpone figuring that part out until I get to that throwaway line, and then make a decision on the fly. Since it isn’t at all central to the story, the characters, or anything else, I don’t have to worry much about integrating that element with the rest of the text.
On the other hand, look back at my description, and the line about “weird magical stuff.” That’s definitely something I need to put thought into, because I can’t really know what counts as “weird” in this setting unless I also define what counts as “normal.” In fantasy, figuring out at least the basics of the magic is often necessary — but not always; there are plenty of fantasy novels in which magic isn’t actually a driving force in the plot. The same goes for invented technologies in science fiction. I’ll also want to decide some basic environmental facts, because the exploration of the island will have a very different feel if the climate is like Hawaii vs. Malta vs. the Outer Hebrides.
So your starting premise is going to tell you some of where to begin with worldbuilding. Given the kind of story you want to tell, what do you need to know? A tale of political intrigue means figuring out politics; writing about a thief means having some sense of the security measures (mundane or magical, low tech or high) your character will have to overcome. You want to aim first for the components of the world that are going to immediately and repeatedly affect the shape of your story, leaving less central things until later (if ever).
Some of you, however, may have already spotted a counterpoint to that approach. It’s one thing to know you want to tell a story about thus-and-such, and to worldbuild the things that requires. But what about the other way around?
This is, I’ll admit, probably an artifact of my studies in anthropology and folklore. I like having a shiny idea about the setting — either drawn from real societies, or wholly invented — and then letting a story grow around it. Some of my earliest short fiction was written through me saying, okay, if X is true in this society, then what kind of interesting conflict might result from that?
The merit of this approach is that it can change the shape of your story, maybe in ways that help you break out of a rut and grow as a writer. I think of it partly as the Tim Powers approach: if you’ve read his novels, you know they often feel like he found the following three to four things from history really interesting, and smashed them together until a plot fell out. The same can be true of worldbuilding, where tossing an unexpected kinship structure or tradition of dueling into the mix gives your story a dimension it wouldn’t have had otherwise.
So the bad news is that there’s no set path to follow, no universal checklist that gives you a clear-cut answer to Where You Start. If you like checklists, they exist; most of them will focus on basic questions like tech level and food, or the aforementioned government and religion. If those work for you, great! But for others, they’re more daunting than helpful. Sometimes treating them like MadLibs and filling in whatever sounds neat can be a way to generate an interesting and complex world, with a story to follow. I like mix-and-matching “what does my premise require?” with “what random shinies do I have lying around in my brain?”
Because in the end, a lot of it depends on your process. I know writers for whom the first draft isn’t even the novel; it’s the thing they have to write on their way to figuring out the novel. They’re accustomed to throwing ninety percent of that out and starting over from scratch — and for them, it’s fine if their early worldbuilding decisions wind up being unsuitable. Me, I try to make sure that the truly load-bearing stuff gets decided early enough, and is allowed to sit in my brain for long enough, that I don’t get halfway through the book and realize some snap decision is really screwing up my plot — or that I just don’t like what I chose, and wish I’d gone with something more interesting.
Which sometimes happens, and that’s what revision is for. But choosing the right place to start can at least reduce the risk of that happening.
(The question of where to stop . . . that’s a whole other essay.)