No matter what kind of book you’re writing, you need to build a world that draws in the reader. This gets more complicated when you write science fiction, fantasy, or dystopian fiction, but alas, it is true even in realistic fiction and memoirs. Your world needs to be immersive, with laws and mores and social structure. Things like the landscape, presiding government, and dominant religions can all influence who the characters become.
This is the absolute basics of building your world. What does it look like? Is it a city? A forest? A small town? What other regions border this one? How do they relate to one another? Factoring in the ecology, weather, landscape, population, and more will affect the types of opportunities available.
Think about Hogwarts and how richly the castle was developed. The moving staircases, the off-limits corridor, the animated paintings. The snake engraving in the sink in the abandoned bathroom. The décor changes with the seasons. The relationship with the citizens of Hogsmede. All of this was meticulously developed.
Some may argue that the government has little influence of the average citizen’s everyday life, unless you’re writing something like the Hunger Games, where the government has an active hand in the way the society is structured. But government doesn’t have to mean the literal government. In the microcosm of your world, who has power? How did they get it? Who does not have power? Who is invested in keeping the power structure as-is? Who wants to topple it? What sort of laws, rules, and/or mores structure the society? How are they enforced?
Think about the TV show Gossip Girl, in microcosm of Constance. Blair Waldorf is the Queen Bee of Constance. Her minions have power by association, but do not have power on their own, although it is their loyalty and willingness to enforce her reign that gives her power. Blair and her minions are invested in keeping the structure as-is, although the minions are not as invested as having Blair as Queen Bee. Gossip Girl also has power, which she gets because everyone reads her posts and submits tips.
This is especially important if you are building a world dissimilar to our own. What kinds of foods are relevant? Music? Literature? Sports? Fashion? Are some of these designated for specific days/people/holidays/ceremonies? What customs do they have? How do they greet each other? What gestures are rude? How is birth viewed? What about death? What roles do parents take on?
If we look at The Giver, which takes place in a society quite dissimilar from our own, we can see how these questions helped build the world. Everything from literature to sports to music to fashion has been pre-approved. Once a year, they celebrate everyone turning a year older, with specific changes occurring for each year (i.e. getting a bike or a job assignment). Family units are assigned, the children all born from the women selected for the job of giving birth. Death is not spoken of, only referred to as being released to elsewhere, and pills are used to regulate mood.
Religion can play a huge factor in building a world. If you’re writing nonfiction or realistic fiction, the specifics of a religion are already built out for you. You just have to figure out how religious the characters are, and which religions they practice, plus how this effects the way they perceive the world and each other. However, if you are inventing a new religion, there are plenty of factors to consider. How many gods are there? What do they represent? How do people pray? Is religion considered fact? What is the scripture like? What sort of rules do followers of the religion have to obey?
In the Superman mythology, people believe in Rao, the red sun that Krypton revolved around, and the deity, the god of light and life. There are ceremonies for death and scriptures to be revered. In the TV show Supergirl, the religion is even perverted by a human, who wants to worship Supergirl as the savior.
While technology could refer to tech the way we think about it, it can also be much more. What does the average citizen know about science? What role does it play in society? How is time kept? What is used for medicine? What sort of transportation is there? What forms of communication? What materials are used for building? What type of décor and furniture fill the different spaces?
In the world of Uglies, science was a huge part of everyday life. People used hoverboards to get around, surgery at sixteen was required to become a Pretty, and Pretties lived in modern buildings with giant screens and a hole in the wall in which they could request just about anything. After sixteen, Pretties voluntarily underwent surgeries quite often to get the trendiest mods.
Does your world have magic? Who has it? Is it feared or embraced? How is it used? What laws are there regarding magic? What are the limits? Are there magical jobs? Is magic accepted in the workplace? Can magic be applied to objects? What sort of magical creatures are in this world? Is there magical transportation? Communication? Is it used in warfare?
In The Magicians, the world has magic, but only a select few can tap into it. Magical schools, like Brakebills, test students with the potential to be magicians. If they pass, they are admitted, and if they fail, their memories are wiped. Magic is used by incantation with a series of complicated hand motions, although some have special powers beyond that. There some magical jobs, such as teaching magic, although most go on to use magic to make their lives easier and work non-magical jobs. Magic does have its limits, and too powerful of a spell can kill the caster. If magicians piss off the greater gods, they can shut off magic all together.
What different species exist? Do different humanoid creatures have a common ancestor? Are there hybrid species? Do any of the creatures come from myths? How do the different species relate to one another?
In the musical Starship, there are bugs, humans, other mammals, and robots. The bugs and mammals are native to the planet Starship takes place on, while the humans and robots come from several planets around the galaxy. The humans regard the bugs with fear and violence, and vice-versa. The humans were once enslaved by the robots, but they invented a chip to make it so the robots could not kill humans. Thus, robots look at humans with contempt. Bugs see the mammals as merely an incubator for their eggs.
This is not about building your main characters— that is a separate exercise altogether. Think about the population. What do they look like? What are common societal values? What about common skills?
If we go back to The Giver, we remember that the ideal is sameness. There was not a lot of variation in skin tone or build. Since the world was seen in black and white, hair color wasn’t much of a factor. However, we do know that it was quite rare for someone to have light eyes.
Especially if this is a warring society, the weapons and armor used can illustrate a lot about class, economics, and societal norms. Think about what weapons exist in this world. Which are common? What are they used for? Are there certain ones reserved for ranked individuals? Same for armor: how does it affect movement? Does it have decoration?
Weapons don’t always have to be literal swords. In Gossip Girl, fighting is sneaky. Tips are sent to Gossip Girl. Yogurt is dumped on people’s heads to destroy an outfit. Private investigators are used to dig up dirt. Money is used as both a weapon and armor— take the time Jenny bought the minions matching designer bags. That act became armor, shielding her from outside attacks to shift the minions’ loyalty.
Asking yourself these questions while creating your world will make it more vibrant and suck the readers in. For a more detailed list of questions, check out this list.