I’ll do this backward and just reveal my premise at the beginning: for me, the best worldbuilding comes as a theme develops over time. Here are two examples.
Lately, I’ve been retooling my fantasy world (the one you can find in the archives). Originally, I sat down and hammered out the universe in a few days, and it ended up fairly generic in every way but the name. It belonged to a homebrew roleplaying game, and so familiarity for the players was at least as important as a fresh, intricate world. I ended up dissatisfied enough with it that I dropped that writing project—the first one I really put a lot of time into—altogether.
In between then and now, little things have jogged me into tweaking the theme. I was thinking of a character who I might describe as ‘elfin’, and that pushed me to discard the Tolkein forms (elvish, -en) for more Germanic ones (ælfish, ælfin). Visiting Hoelbrak in Guild Wars 2 suggested that I replace ‘inn’ with ‘lodge’, and that one change has given any writing in a city a much more Viking feel already. Reading various fantasy stories changed my magic model—as practiced by humans, it’s much more ritualistic than it used to be. I asked myself ‘why’, and ended up with a nifty point of differentiation between human and ælfin magic, and the psychology of its practitioners. Another ‘why’ question yielded more characterization of the not-goblins in a few sentences than had ever come up before.
The other example comes from a different angle. My most mature universe, in terms of development, is Nexus and the Naval Arm, and it’s not because I’ve given it particularly deep attention at any one time, but because it’s been in my head for so long. Its genesis reaches back more than a decade, at which point I had in mind a universe centered around a planet called Nexus, with an event called the Threshold Rebellion and a focus on naval stories. It’s become much harder on the science fiction scale since then, and overall, the pattern of change is the same. I ask myself questions about how the universe works and why it works that way, and over time it changes to become more plausible and more nuanced.
All of these things happened over the course of months and years: if I’d sat down and said to myself, “I’m going to improve these themes,” they’d be entirely different creatures, and I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be as good. I have a way of getting stuck on certain ideas, and letting my universes develop organically gives me the time to open up to tweaking things I’ve decided in the past. My writing is better for it.