Every author is a world builder, an architect of settings and characters that interact in various ways. Fantasy and science-fiction writers are particularly reliant on world building because the settings, denizens, or rules by which their world(s) operate are more imaginative. The best are able to balance fantastical elements with plausibility and realize a place that has real weight and dimension — a world that the reader finds both authentic and enticing. This is easier said than done and thus I’m going to share an approach that I’ve found helpful.
When I tackle world building, I use an acronym from my days as a history teacher. The acronym is S.P.R.I.T.E and its letters stand for the following aspects of a civilization: Society, Politics, Religion, Ideas/Culture, Technology, and Economy. By working through each of these categories, I can systematically brainstorm a world that makes sense and whose pieces intersect in logical ways. Here are some examples of questions I consider for each category:
Society: Who has status in this society? How is status defined? How rigid are social classes?
Politics: What kind of government exists? How centralized? How powerful?
Religion: How prevalent is religion? What are its core tenets? Is one religion dominant?
Ideas/Culture: How valued is life in this society? What assumptions are shared? What new ideas are controversial? How dense is the population? What kinds of people/attributes does it celebrate? What are its taboos?
Technology: What technologies are common in the areas of transportation, communication, agriculture, leisure, and military? Is technology readily available to all? Who controls and/or develops it? How heavily is it regulated?
Economy: What defines wealth in this civilization? What are the society’s leading industries? Who does the work? Is wealth evenly distributed or concentrated among a few?
These questions are just a sampling. I might work through forty or fifty questions and sub-questions for each category if I really want to get a handle on a particular civilization and what makes it go. Hopefully, this will get you started, however — started on creating a world that’s not only wildly imaginative, but is anchored to a solid and thoughtful foundation.