Something I’ve always found fascinating, as a Christian with an interest in story, is how so many mythologies have points in which they reflect the truth of how the world was made, how it flooded, and even sometimes how it was saved and how it will end. When something is true, it is impossible to completely obscure that truth. Which is why I think it’s important for authors to lay out the groundwork for their fictional worlds fairly early on; what is true of your world will shine through in many different areas.
Considering Your Worldview
The truth of your world will likely find its roots in your personal worldview. What you believe is true will likely shine through in what you decide is true in your fiction. There are also certain absolutes of our world that are almost impossible to avoid carrying over into fiction, if not because they’re absolutes then because you don’t want to promote something that is in opposition to real-world absolutes. For instance, the idea that murder is wrong is likely to be truth in your world, even if certain characters or even whole cultures may disagree; the fact that it’s truth will still inform even those dissenting views.
It’s best to determine the foundational truth of your world in a lot of different areas, and everything will spring out of overarching truths like religion and science, but you may choose to focus on some smaller issues that interest you for starters. Is war ever moral? What is marriage intended to look like? Is magic a good thing or a bad thing, and is there any variation? What is the natural state of education?
Foundations = What Will Be Promoted
The foundational truth of your world ought to show through in all areas of life in all different cultures and to all different characters, though to varying degrees. It is impossible to avoid truth. And what is portrayed as truth will be portrayed as right. Keep that in mind as you shape your world’s foundations. Is this foundational value one you want to promote? Is this way of seeing things going to successfully encourage and/or educate the reader in a positive direction?
The Foundations of Religion
Was your world created or found? Do you have one deity or many? Is creation complete or ongoing? What are your deity’s moral laws? What are their callings for men and women? For parents? For siblings? For neighbors, civil leaders, law enforcement? What are their followers called to as far as evangelism is concerned? How are unbelievers to be treated? What is marriage meant to look like? How do the gods view magic? Is magic from them or does it have its origins elsewhere? How do they view race?
Many of these answers will intertwine with others, so start wherever feels logical and go in whatever order you’d like.
The Foundations of Science
I hesitated to even make this a separate category, since–if your world has a god or gods–developing religion often leads to developing science, but for organizational purposes, here we are.
Do things evolve? Have there been massive earth-shaping events (e.g. world-wide floods)? If you have more than one humanoid species, what happens if they intermarry? What are your planetary cycles like? What are some primary constellations? Does your world even have stars within view? Moons? Have any species gone extinct? What evidence is left of their existence? Do physics work the same as in the real world? Is your magic more magic or more science?
The Foundations of History
“History is written by the victors,” but what actually happened in your world’s history? Who did what? What good and bad was found on both sides? What about natural disasters? What impact did those have on the landscape and/or culture? Have there been any world-wide events (world catastrophes, world wars, etc.)?
Building on the Foundations
Once you have the foundations laid out, you can expand more intentionally. How have cultures spun their history? What myths have been formed to explain natural laws? What points of truth have been integrated into false mythologies? How do moral absolutes show themselves even when they’re ignored? How much of the world’s workings have been consciously discovered and acknowledged, and how does that change over time?
This expansion, and sometimes contrast, is where you’ll have the freedom to explore different worldviews while still keeping in mind the truths you want your world to communicate. Setting your foundations doesn’t mean that nowhere in your world can choose to contradict them, just that you’ll be able to more intentionally use those contradictions as contrast rather than causing confusion.