When creating your world your focus will probably be on the people your story is about. Even the most extreme sci-fi and fantasy stories have some form of humanoid creature as the dominant characters, or, if they’re not humanoid, they will to acquire human traits; the reason for this is simply because it’s going to be humans reading your story, and your reader needs to be able to relate to your characters. For that reason I’m going to focus on humans, though the same general rules will apply whether you’re writing elves or aliens. (Both mainstream fiction and historical fiction are set in real world locations with real world demographics, so there’s no space for creativity in this area, but even if you write these genres, knowing a bit about world-building might help you understand your people better).
Survival and Growth
Humanity needs some basic things for survival. Oxygen and gravity will likely be provided directly by the planet unless you’re writing sci-fi in which case, experiment, but don’t leave the people floating around because the planet you just created doesn’t have gravity.
Fresh drinking water is essential as is food. These will generally come from the surroundings of your people. How technologically advanced the population is will determine how these resources are acquired. History is the perfect place to find examples of how these can be attained and the effects that this has on settlements.
Hunters and gatherers tend to be nomadic, following herds or visiting known crop sites with the seasons. While a single centre may form, this will only occur if there is surplus food to support those that are not supporting themselves. They may have little in the way of minerals and technology, as ore cannot be mined by a nomadic people. While the need to mine may force people to settle and be supported by others, or people may trade for metals, it’s possible they live without metal, and spend time collecting flint, etc. from known sites when the seasons allow it.
Agriculturalists will settle on fertile land, inevitably near water, and may fell forests for more farmland depending on their location, needs and beliefs. It allows less work for more yield, and people could begin to find other pass-times, such as thinking (philosophy) and experimenting (science).
Nearby rivers provide the best early form of transportation. Villages and towns situated on river banks can trade with each other and eventually grow into towns or even cities as they trade for things that they can’t provide for themselves. As the population grows, more people are able to turn their skills to things that nomads may not have had time for, such as fashion and art.
As time progresses, your people will find other ways to provide drinkable water, such as wells, rain water tanks, condensation collection, or even salt to fresh water treatment plants, allowing towns to exist away from rivers and in less accessible or hospitable locations. However, out of the way towns are likely to remain small, while those that lie on trade routes or better yet at junctions will flourish.
Food will also eventually start being grown or made in the most appropriate areas for it and then traded across the world as it is today, allowing entire regions to specialise in a certain thing and relying on the rest of the world for everything else.
People will naturally go to the easiest places to survive, but it these areas are full or not appropriate for some reason, they may go elsewhere and develop ways to survive. Humans are the most adaptable creatures ever, so if you your setting is a swampy land with nothing but huge trees (the bark/leaves of which happen to be life-sustaining, or are able to be traded for food) then people would likely build tree-houses and swing bridges and live in this environment. If you want to see ways in which people adapt to different environments, then all you have to do is have a look around Earth. From Inuits to tribes in Africa, there are examples of people adapting to life in the extremes.
As the number of settled people grow, two things are likely to happen.
Belief in ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ will develop, and laws will have to be created to protect those that act ‘right’ and punish those that act ‘wrong’. Laws suggest a kind of government body to make the laws and a kind of police force to uphold the law. Even with the laws there will be inner conflict. What kinds of conflict, and how that is resolved will help show what your people value.
Not all laws make sense. Not all punishments make sense. One of the most basic beliefs is ‘an eye for an eye’. You kill, you will be killed. A common one (I think it’s shown in Aladdin), is losing your hand when you steal. It’s a good arena to explore your own attitude to things like capital punishment, or how to handle overflowing prisons.
Laws may be in place that are ignored. Some laws may get followed rigidly. And sometimes laws get used to exact some kind of personal revenge or to frame people (I’m thinking witch-hunts and the Salem Witch Trials in particular here).
Some laws aren’t so much ‘laws’ but more traditions that you have to respect, such as not interrupting your elders, or taking your shoes off inside, and often come from a place of reason.
Spiritual beliefs will also come into being, with people needing something to place hope in, and something to blame for the bad times.
No matter what your personal views on religion are, at some point as your society grows people will start questioning humanity’s place in the world. There are two sides to this: what is real, and what people believe to be real. What is real, and how it interacts with the people, may influence what people believe to be real, but you don’t have to look far to find real life examples that people will believe anything. The point here is, your people’s religious beliefs don’t have to be the truth, but they will believe something. Religion plays an important role in society. The type of ‘gods’ the people will come to believe in will depend on what is important to the people. If agriculture is the centre of their lives, they will come to have gods, or spirits, or energies, that control or influence the seasons or rain or fertility of the land.
People’s beliefs will affect their relationship with the natural world. If there is a great respect for forests, or a particular forest, there won’t be mass clearing of forest to make farmland. If people rely on swampland, or have some spiritual relationship with it, they won’t drain the swamps. Etc. People may avoid settling in a place that’s considered haunted or tapu. Places that are sacred may be settled by some kind of priests, or may be avoided and feared. While it’s easy to create a people who have no respect for anything other than themselves, often the culture will be more interesting if they hold extreme respect for certain things or places. And keep in mind, people’s relationship with the natural world will affect where towns appear.
Sometimes those that rule over religion also rule over the people, so laws are the laws of the ‘gods’.
The more time that passes, so the more people their are, the higher the chance of their being clashes of cultural beliefs. Differences between cultures can vary greatly. It may be that only the gods they believe in are different, or they may completely different races with a different language as well as different beliefs. In sci-fi it would be possible to write so far in the future that all cultures have amalgamated into one, but how long this would take (and if it’s possible) would be debatable. Even if there was only one human culture, there would still be different dialects and beliefs in different regions, and these semi-cultures would be sure to interact and, at times, clash. What conflicts occur, and how they are resolved, will depend on, and affect, the peoples’ perspective on the world and those that exist in it.
Wars are all too common, and even if you are not writing about a war, it’s likely that there would have been wars in the past. In this case, there’s likely to be some kind of town fortifications or army, and even if peace is now achieved there may be some bad blood between cultures.
Language become an issue when there are more than one of them (you can delve into this area when you only have one culture, but it can be tricky to show in the story). If you’re going to start creating a language, have fun, but do some linguistics research first. I think it’s worthy of a blog post of its own so maybe I’ll do that another day. What I do suggest is if you’re going to have more than one language, then read how other authors have handled it. Misinterpretation (and mis-translation) can be fun to write, it can start wars and feuds than go on for hundreds of years, or could just provide some nice awkward moments. One fascinating thing I love about languages is that there will be words in one language that other cultures just doesn’t have an equal for (such as mana). You can try explain it or understand it, but often true understanding can only be found by native speakers.
Generally readers assume things are the same as their own world, and will continue in that belief unless you give them a reason not to, so if they know of a habitat similar to the one in their story they will probably assume the people there live in a similar way. To make your job as a writer easier, you may not want to turn your world on its head. If having something drastically different is relevant to the story, such as coastal towns that don’t fish as all the fish they catch are poisonous, and your story is set in one of these coastal towns, then have fun, but make sure you consider the impact of the change. If coastal towns don’t live off fish, then how do they survive? If the fish were always poisonous why are their coastal towns at all? It would make sense if this were the situation that the coastal towns would not be as well off as the coastal towns in our own world are. There’s always an impact, even if it seems like a small change.
Two things to keep in mind: you don’t have to know everything about your world, and you don’t have to put everything you do know into the story.