“People are afraid of information-dump, but I turn away far more manuscripts for being set in Generic Fantasy World A.”
-Fantasy editor, overheard at Convergence
World-building is important. There’s a chance that you’ll be able to squeak by without your readers noticing (or caring) that you haven’t built a complete world, and there’s certainly no reason to flesh out every single aspect of things, but the depth that good world-building brings to a story is incredible. Below are some of the more important aspects of world-building for you to consider. If you have one you’d like to add, leave a comment below!
Maps and Geography: this will inform your writing, whether or not you release the map with the book(s). I strongly recommend that you mark cities and geographical features. Things like mountains, deserts, and waterways (especially waterways) will have strong effects on cultural development, both through the harshness and variability of the climate, and through aspects like trade.
Flora and Fauna: I was lucky enough to attend a fantastic world-building panel at Convergence 2013. One of the best pieces of advice was to consider ecosystems and flesh out the flora and fauna – there are more than just deer! You’ll have domesticated animals, most likely, as well as their predators (foxes, tigers, bears), and your populace will likely not be fond of these nuisances and dangers. There will be birds of all kinds, insects that destroy crops. Speaking of crops, there will be crops! Refer back to your geography, and consider types of trees, flowers, and grasses.
Class, Groups, and Social Mobility: this is almost always highly relevant in fantasy, often relevant in scifi, and yet often not fleshed out very well. What are the social classes and groups in your society? What are their ways of life, characteristics, and internal divisions? And what are the possibilities of moving between them? Often this means caste and social stratification, but not always. Consider that geography and religion can play a huge part here. Speaking of which …
Religions: you should know the place and importance of religion in your world, and, if religion is highly important, some things about rituals, important figures such as saints, and core tenets. Religious strife, sects, and power grabs are all pieces of this. The rituals of the High Church versus the poor is another cultural division. Is the religion strong? Fading? Is it seen as foolish? Is there no religion? (If so, there will probably still be rituals of some sort around marriage, birth, death, etc – these should be planned out.)
Physical Mobility and Trade: trade has a near-unparalleled level of effect on religion, social structure, stability, and war. You should understand how and why the groups in your world trade (or don’t), and what effect this has on culture. Merchants and trade often have significant power.
Magic: this encompasses more than you might think. Magic is not just a system of power, the types of effects conjured, and the rituals to conjure them. Magic also appears in non-magical worlds, in the form of fringe-groups and cults; almost every human society features this. In addition, magic interacts strongly with religion. Whether religion and magic are combined, or whether they are opposed, you can bet that your religious groups and governments have strong opinions about magic.
Government: it should be clear to you (at the least!) how leaders and advisors are chosen, how succession works, and how laws are made and enforced. Bear in mind that if you have a democracy or common-people-centric society, it is likely that the events leading to that will be fairly important.
As you can see, all of the above points interact with others. There may be additional aspects you need to work in, but this should be a good jumping point. Is there anything you’d like to add? Feel free to leave a comment!