Building the world a bit at a time might sound ease if you’re writing a modern story in the real world because everyone has a grounding in the basics of that world. Gravity holds us down, the earth goes round one sun, and we have continents and countries and cities, but what about a fantasy world?
The problem with developing a fantasy world is that anything can happen, we don’t even need to have the same gravity or the same number of suns, or even divide up worlds the same way. So how can taking it a bit at a time help us there when there’s so much to develop?
Simply put considering all the possible questions of a fantasy world can seem mind boggling but considering the questions of one character’s existence can seem much easier. How do they get food and drink? Do they need food and drink? Do they have somewhere to live? And on and on. Once we have answers to these basic everyday questions we can build things up with the whys and wherefores of the world based on how they impact that character and the people around them. For instance, if there’s a war does it make it harder to get food? Is the place they live safe? Are they personally at risk from the war or the consequences of it?
Or, maybe, we don’t have any ideas for the characters yet, we might instead have an idea for an aspect of the world. If we focus on that aspect we can build outwards from it. Perhaps it’s an idea for a religion, how powerful is this religion? Is it integrated into politics? Is it new or old? We can form characters based on their attitudes to this religion which opens up other world building questions, even with seemingly simple answers, such as having people who are for and against. As soon as we have for and against groups relating to anything in our story we have the potential for conflict. What kind of conflict? Is it ongoing, recent, at a stalemate? Here we can develop characters with a variety of agendas. Gradually we can spread out linking or our starting point to all the other parts of the world from the socio-economics of one place to the way that place interacts with the rest of the world such as conflicting religions, politics, and science outside our starting point.
It’s also important to remember we don’t have to have a clear image of all of this when we begin, although some writers prefer to. We can develop it as we go and find out things through trial and error, even if we do plan it all out we can change it as we write the story and discover things that do and don’t work.
Whichever way we choose there is no one way to build a world, we have to find the method that works for us rather than use techniques of other writers that don’t simply because they claim it’s ‘the right way’. There’s not right way, only the way that works for us.