I gave a lecture on worldbuilding in SF/F and did a question and answer session on the TAMU campus last night, as part of Cushing Library And Archives Hal Hall Lecture Series. It was a great audience of students and faculty, and I had a lot of fun.
Here's the talk I gave about worldbuilding:
What is worldbuilding? Briefly, it's the setting you create for a fictional work, including the type of landscape, the environment, the climate, as well as the people who live there and their cultures. It's the physical and mental space that your story occupies.
Worldbuilding is all about choices. Even if the setting is a real world place, (like the way The Avengers was set in New York) you will be making choices. Where do the characters live, what things do they need there, what is their income level, what is the weather, what is their community. That's all worldbuilding.
There are also settings that are fictional but are meant to be understood by the reader as real. One older example is in the book Raintree County by Ross Lockridge, Jr. It's a fictional setting inserted into a real world place, so seamlessly that readers can't tell if it's based on a real town or not. You can find the spot on the map where it's supposed to be, it's just not there.
But the kind of worldbuilding that most people think of when they hear the word, is in secondary world fantasy. That's fantasy that does not take place on earth, but in its own invented world. Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, are secondary world fantasy. It's sometimes called created world fantasy. Or just fantasy.
Worldbuilding is an element of a fantasy novel, but like all the other elements, plot, story, characterization, it can't exist in a vacuum. Who your characters are and what their goals and problems and agendas are is going to be wrapped up and inseparable with the world they live in. Worldbuilding can and should help drive your plot and be essential to your story. The best fantasy stories can only take place in the world that was created for them, they can't be removed from that context without changing things that are essential to the story and the characters.
For example: My current fantasy series is the Books of the Raksura. The main character is an orphaned shapeshifter who can transform into a flying creature who looks like what we would think of as a demon. He has no idea what species he is, but has to hide his ability to shapeshift because the species he most resembles are the predators that everyone is terrified of. He finds his own people by accident, and then has to try to fit in to a complex matriarchal culture that he has a very important biological role in.
The themes of that story are about identity, about finding your place in the world, finding a place where you belong when it's maybe a little too late for you to adapt your behavior to fit in. There are themes about gender roles, about sexual roles, and there's a lot of fighting and chasing and adventure. Those individual themes can be removed from that setting and put into a real world context, but the specific way this story uses them really can't.
Worldbuilding for fantasy can be realistic, which is where you think about things like how your magical floating city in the clouds gets its food, water, and the other necessities of its infrastructure, and how it deals with its sewers and garbage. The solutions to those problems can of course be magical. And you don't have to tell them all to the reader, unless they're important to the story. But knowing how the nuts and bolts of your magical city work can inform your worldbuilding with a sense of verisimilitude.
Some people believe that fantasy by definition has to take place in a kind of world that's basically a caricature of medieval England. It has certain inalienable characteristics. Everyone wears hooded cloaks, because it's always cold and rainy or snowy. Everyone's white. Women have limited employment choices. In fact they have two employment choices: princess or whore. Or sometimes nuns, if they're lucky. The government is a monarchy. Everyone eats stew and there are a lot of taverns to sit around in and meet the rest of your party.
It used to be called "derivative" because the assumption was that the author didn't do research on the real Europe, the real England of the medieval, or any other, time period. They read other people's fantasy books and copied them. Derivative fantasy tends to be about as much like the real middle ages in Europe as New Orleans square in Disneyland is like New Orleans. Except everyone knows Disney New Orleans isn't real, isn't supposed to be real, and a lot of people think the faux medieval world of these novels is "historically accurate." (air quotes) That's an excuse, and it's the kind of excuse that's a lie.
That standard faux medieval setting is not real, it is not even close to the historic reality. It's a choice. It's a secondary world, a created world, made up of the author's choices. Making all the characters white, erasing the rest of humanity, and taking any kind of agency away from women characters are choices the author made. It doesn't have to be that way. But people who don't read fantasy assume, and will tell you, that those derivative worlds are all fantasy is, and they are wrong.
The not so secret key to fantasy is that your secondary world can be anything you want, and there are an inspiring and astonishing variety of worlds out there.
I'm going to talk briefly about three of them.
The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin
Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson
The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard
All three are secondary world fantasy novels with magic, all three were published last year, all are critically acclaimed and have been on various genre award lists. All three are examples of stories that would not be the same if they were removed from the context of their created worlds.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin takes place in a world where catastrophic seismic disturbances are commonplace. These disturbances literally destroy and remake the large portions of the landscape periodically, and it's a struggle for the various peoples who live on this planet to survive, and retain some grasp of the history of their world. There are people who are born with a kind of magic who can control these seismic disturbances. You'd think that would solve everything, but people being people, that is not what happens. As the book goes on we see more and more evidence that parts of their history have been deliberately concealed to manipulate their society.
The worldbuilding is told in what I would call a very spare style. We don't learn a lot about what people are wearing or what they eat. There isn't the abundance of lush material culture detail we see in other fantasy novels. The pace is fast, and we learn what this society is like by the way various characters are treated, what happens to them when they conform, and what happens to them when they resist. We're getting a glimpse of the history of this world, and it's that history and the radical changes that the world has undergone that help drive the plot. Through the worldbuilding we begin realize that there is a mystery at the heart of this world and the characters are just beginning to uncover it.
It's an example of the fact that fantasy secondary worlds don't have to be static, don't have to be pre-technological. All worldbuilding should drive the plot and the story, and this is a great example of that idea in action.
Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson is a short novel that was published as a novella, but which packs a huge amount of worldbuilding into a high concept, intense story. It's set in a place somewhat based on medieval Africa, with huge trading cities like Axum in Ethiopia or Benin City, but it's entirely original. As the story goes on, we realize the main character's magic is based on real science, in that he's magically manipulating his environment based on scientific principles. It's a short book, but the descriptions, the language, is intense and vivid. The author uses the main character's memories of his past to fill in detail as the characters travel to their destination. You have this world in your head in full color, and it's fascinating.
It's an example of how you can have all the swords and fighting and adventure and magic you want, without having to set it in the same boring rain-soaked taverns of white male faux-England.
The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard is set in an alternate world version of late twentieth century Paris, except the world has been all but destroyed by a magical war. Parts of the city are controlled by Great Houses, using magic to protect their dependents and maneuver for power. The magical war has been just as devastating for the environment as it has been for the people, and we see a world where the Seine is black with debris and dangerous to even approach the bank. Dying angels occasionally fall to earth from heaven, and their bodies are broken up and sold as part of the magical economy.
It's an example of a fantasy setting that uses a real world place. You can follow the actions of the characters on a map of our Paris, but it's a Paris with magic and a different history. One of the main characters is Vietnamese, brought to Paris to fight in the war, and through his perspective and memories we get some idea of how different the rest of the world is.
This is an example of how to make a real world setting fantastical, and how adding magic and changing history can transform a real world setting.
So in conclusion, your worldbuilding will say as much about you as a person and as an author as any other part of your story. There's very little in the fantasy genre that hasn't already been done, but what makes it unique is you. There are no rules, no guidelines, just choices, made by you.