I think the most common mistake I see in worldbuilding is borrowing too much from existing fictional worlds. Loads of writers, for example, will have elves, orcs, dragons, humans, etc. all living in a pseudo-medieval world that they’ve consciously or subconsciously patched together from books and video games, and just take it all for granted. That’s not real worldbuilding. What Tolkien did was real world-building. How did he do it? Well for one he had a lot of life experiences that influenced him. For another he did a lot of reading and research. And he also had a purpose in mind: to create a grand mythos like the myths of cultures that he’d studied and admired. He borrowed, rearranged, thought deeply on things like industrialization, war, mortality, and massive natural forces against which humans look pretty puny. He created something really wonderful from all of that.
Contrast that with a less sophisticated, less thoughtful process. It’s often character or plot driven sort of thinking with the rest being a series of clichés and/or assumptions that rely too heavily on what’s already in someone’s head and too little on exploration and observation of what’s around us, what has been, and what might be in the real world.
Even authors who write non-fiction or fiction set in our world ‘build worlds’ after a fashion. The really good ones don’t just toss characters into a generic setting and start writing about the difficulties that those characters will face. Their stories exist in a specific place and time, and that point of space/time is an integral part of the story. It should (and does) matter whether a story happens on Mars, or NOLA, or India. In a way the story of Romeo and Juliet can be set anywhere, but that anywhere will affect the story in nuanced ways that will reach into different places in people’s hearts and make powerful (and perhaps unexpected) connections with their own lives depending on whether it’s set in Machiavelli’s Italy, New York City in the 1950’s, or Beirut in 1985.
Given how important setting can be to a story, I think it’s problematic when an author ignores setting or worse, uses someone else’s setting without giving serious thought about the impact and implications of that choice. Of course using settings set up by other authors is perfectly acceptable, as long as you jump through the appropriate hoops (if hoop jumping is required). We wouldn’t have game-based series or shared world fiction without it. But I strongly feel it should not only be a conscious choice, but have a purpose. The default should not be to set a story in a particular space/time because that’s what everyone else does or because it’s the first idea in your head that makes sense, but because it’s the best choice for the story you want to tell. Hopefully it’s also a creative choice that challenges you and makes you stretch and think deeply as you develop your story.
One more thing about worldbuilding: Too many authors seem to assume things without thought. We can and should assume some basic things or the task would never be done. Building a world absolutely from scratch is too much for most of us. But, for example, does money have to be made from precious metals? (Of course not.) Who decides on the value of money and how is it regulated and/or exchanged? Does the weather mimic what you know, or is the weather unusual in some way? How have people adapted to that weather? You don’t have to come up with a vast, intricate world with dozens of cultures, but if you make way for a few unique things, like the idea that there are very deadly insects on a world and so most of the cultures have either set up safe, screened areas, use adaptive clothing, or maybe attract and/or raise insect-eating birds or dragonfly colonies or whatever, suddenly you’ve got something that will lend a richness that is uniquely your own invention. Or, if you’re writing in a ‘real world’ setting, you can bring out the details that make a place come to life not just for the kudos you get from writing good descriptions, but to lend added dimensions to plot and characterization. After all, a Mongolian Romeo will and ought to be quite different than a Maori Romeo. They will have similar, but slightly different challenges that will be affected not only by their love for Juliet, but by their environment and nuances in their cultures.
It can be difficult, but it’s more than worthwhile.
Speaking of which, worldbuilding doesn’t have to be intricate, nor does it always require maps, laws you’ve made up, and it’s own unique economic system. In some ways it’s better to keep the changes simple. Some of those simple changes may well end up having profound importance on your story, invoking rich themes, subtle sub-plots and memorable characters that are integrated with their environment rather than pasted on top of it. Like a ‘what-if’ proposition for an alternate history, a single change in a real world place and time can create ripples of effect that delight and invite the reader to consider what it means to live as we do, as well as imagine how we might live if things were just a little different.
Great question. Thanks!