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Foundations of Worldbuilding

While touring a historic lighthouse, novel writer Lauren DeFelice contemplates the three main concepts of worldbuilding.

By Lauren DeFelice

September 14, 2023

Recently, on a trip to California, I visited a historic lighthouse overlooking the San Francisco Bay. Inside, old maps hung framed across the beamed walls. One in particular caught my eye: a map of every shipwreck off the coast of San Francisco.

As my gaze moved from the map to the dangerous cliff sides and the jagged rocks dotting the bay, I recognized how the Point Bonita Lighthouse was created in response to the problems presented by the environment. With the dark seas and jagged rocky coastlines, the lighthouse guided trading vessels into safe harbors and moored ships carrying people seeking a new home.

It struck me how all civilizations are built to protect the people within from danger. Humans seek to withstand the difficulties of their location by using the resources available and solving problems of their environment.

In fiction writing, “worldbuilding” is defined as the process of defining or creating a setting that has history, ecology, culture, and depth. It exists in general fiction but is most commonly used in speculative fiction such as sci-fi and fantasy.

After seeing the rich history of San Francisco, I decided to dive deeper into the origins and history of each city-state in my fantasy novel. In doing so, I considered three major aspects of my novel’s environments: 1) the problems, 2) the benefits, and 3) the resources. How people interact with these factors—how they create solutions, jobs, classes, politics, myths, values, beliefs, and relationships based on the environment—are crucial parts of cultural identities.

First, I asked about problems. In an imagined coastal city, for example, they would have the issue of navigating the dark seas during trade, so star navigation could be key as well as utilizing a form of light to guide ships into port. Do people fear the ocean or worship it? Do they worship light or the stars or fire? Do they feel a need to control their natural environment?

Then, I asked about the benefits. These people would benefit greatly from trade as they have access to waterways, so they could value commerce, communication, and mastery over land and sea. In this specific coastal city, dense forests would be great for shipbuilding and hunting, the sea is great for fishing, and the mountains would provide mining jobs and building materials. In other port cities in my novel, the environments change the available resources and how they deal with sets of problems differently.

Finally, I asked about resources, which would provide details of what people wear, eat, trade with, and use to combat the problems of their environment. In a coastal city, frequent rain storms well up from the tropics, so using stone from the mountains and the massive bones of whales as structural reinforcement and breakwaters would ease the impact of storms.

I applied these three concepts to many different environments throughout my book—deserts, tundras, rainforests, volcanic islands, temperate forests, and mountains—and I derived cultural information from the notes on each. 

Not all moments in revision happen at your desk. That day at the Point Bonita Lighthouse, I wasn’t looking for a lesson in worldbuilding. But I learned something that I could apply to my novel in progress. I plan to continue to travel, experience new things, and learn as much as I can to bring back to my book. 

Lauren DeFelice

Lauren DeFelice is a novelist and illustrator pursuing an English major at Monmouth University. She is currently revising her debut YA Fantasy/Thriller series, CALL OF EMBERS.

Lauren DeFelice is a novelist and illustrator pursuing an English major at Monmouth University. She is currently revising her debut YA Fantasy/Thriller series, CALL OF EMBERS.