A book like A Game of Thrones, a movie like Star Wars, or even a video game like Final Fantasy can make it appear their creators have effortlessly built a fantasy world out of nothing.
In fact, these worlds may feel as real as the world you live in.
How do they do it? More importantly, how can you do it?
More than two-thirds of my nearly 200 books are novels, but creating fictional worlds never seems to get easier.
It’s an art, and in genres such as Fantasy or Science Fiction, worldbuilding is more important than ever and can make or break your story.
In this worldbuilding guide, I’ll give you tips to follow and errors to avoid.
Worldbuilding can be as complex as designing a unique venue with exotic creatures, rich political histories, and even new religions. Or it can be as simple as tweaking the history of the world we live in.
Go as big as you want to, but remember: Worldbuilding is serious business.
You want to create a world in which your readers can lose themselves.
Do this well and they become not just fans, but also fanatics. Like those who obsess over:
- Star Wars
- Star Trek
- Harry Potter
- A Game of Thrones
- The Marvel Universe
Each approaches worldbuilding in a different way:
1: Real-World Fantasy
Here you set your story in the world we live in, but your plot is either based on a real event (as in Outlander) or is one in which historical events occur differently (for instance, had Germany won World War 2).
In Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, he imagines a world in which Franklin Roosevelt was assassinated in the early 1930s.
2: Second-World Fantasy
Here you create new lands, species, and government. You also invent a world rich in its own history, geography, and purpose.
- A Game of Thrones
- The Lord of the Rings
- Star Wars
Some novels combine the Real World and Second World Fantasy. The Harry Potter series, for instance, is set in the world we live in but with rules and history foreign to us.
(The Chronicles of Narnia and Alice in Wonderland are also examples of this.)
Your job is to take readers on a journey that leaves them satisfied.
A Worldbuilding Guide (with Exercises)
Step 1: Plan but Don’t Over-Plan
Outliners prefer to map out everything before they start writing.
Pantsers, those who write by the seat of their pants, write as a process of discovery.
Largely a Pantser, I can tell you that “discovering” a new world is a whole lot harder than building it before you get too deep into your writing.
Build your world first, and you can focus on your story.
However, over-planning can also be a problem.
Many fantasy writers tell me they become so engrossed in worldbuilding that they find reasons not to write.
Worldbuilding must not come at the expense of your story.
If you’re mostly a Pantser, like I am, you may have to spend more time planning than you’re used to.
If you’re an Outliner, draw a line in the sand and start writing as soon as you’re ready, even if you suspect you’ll have more spadework to do as you go.
Step 2: Describe Your World
Paint for your reader a world that transports them, allowing them to see, smell, hear, and touch their surroundings.
Core aspects to consider:
- Climate / Environment: everything from the weather to the fundamental building blocks of your world. Is it like Earth or an alien planet?
- Resources: water, food, air, etc. A post-apocalyptic world, for instance, might likely lack fuel, money, or power.
- Geography: the landscape, important locations, landmarks.
When James Cameron wrote the movie Avatar, he created countless reference books on Pandora’s vegetation and climate and even botany.
In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the main characters live in a post-apocalyptic world covered in ash and largely devoid of life. Their entire journey revolves around finding food and water and how to stay warm.
In A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin went as far as creating maps.
Other novels that feature maps:
- The Lord of the Rings
- The Chronicles of Narnia
- The Princess Bride
World building questions:
- How much of your world do you need to show to support the story?
- How does the terrain influence your story?
- What is the weather like?
- How many mountains, oceans, deserts, forests?
- Where are the borders?
- What are the natural resources and how do they impact your story?
Step 3: Inhabit Your World
- Are the inhabitants people but somehow different from you and me?
- Are they aliens, monsters, or some other new species?
When writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien gave Frodo a past, certain personality traits, and unique morals. But he first had to determine what a hobbit looked like and how he lived.
When Worldbuilding, don’t worry yet about the individual. Establish the inhabitants as a species.
World building character questions:
- How big is their population (i.e., how big is your world)?
- How did they become part of your world (their backstory)?
- Do they have a class system?
- What are the genders, races, and species?
- How do they get along with one another?
- Are there alliances?
- What resources do they enjoy?
- What resources do they lack?
- Decide what they look like.
- Write a short story from one character’s POV.
Step 4: Establish the History of Your World
Many stories are defined by their pasts:
- The Lord of The Rings focuses on an ancient war.
- The Hunger Games is built on decades of oppression.
- The Divergent trilogy follows characters unaware of what the world used to be like.
When worldbuilding, consider:
- The Deep Past: What happened way back when that fuels the present economy, environment, culture, etc.
- Trauma: Wars, famines, plagues, and their aftermaths.
- Power Shifts: Political, religious, or technological.
World building questions:
- Who have been the major rulers?
- What took place during their reigns?
- What environmental disasters took place (famine, plagues, floods…)?
- What wars have taken place?
Next, organize all this history chronologically.
Step 5: Determine the Culture of Your World
- Societal Structure
- Political Power and Government
In Star Wars, for instance, religion (The Jedi vs. The Dark Side), societal structure (slaves and free), and politics (the trade wars) play huge roles.
- What is the political structure of your world?
- Who holds the most power?
- Does your world revolve around totalitarianism, authoritarianism, or democracy?
- Will your characters bend or break the rules?
- Are the rules considered fair, or is society opposed to them?
- How are inhabitants punished if they break the rules?
- What is the religious belief system?
- What gods exist?
- How do religious rituals or customs manifest themselves?
- Is there conflict between different religious groups?
- How do different social classes behave?
- How are gender roles defined?
- How do families, marriages, and other relationships operate?
- What behaviors are considered improper or immoral?
Step 6: Power Your World
- Is your world energized by equipment or magic?
Equipment involves technology like Artificial Intelligence, space or time travel, or futuristic weaponry.
Or it could focus on simpler technology like swords, guns, or horses.
Magic allows you to take your worldbuilding to new realms.
In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke explained how things worked and why, making it as realistic and factual as possible.
When writing his futuristic novels, Iain M. Banks referenced droids and spaceships but never explained how they worked.
The same applies to magic in your story.
You can either explain how it all works or simply focus on how it is used and why.
- Does magic exist in your world?
- How does it manifest itself?
- Can it be controlled?
- Can it be learned or are people born with it?
- Where does the magic come from?
- Are wands or staffs, etc., needed to perform this magic?
- Do people fear it or embrace it, and what makes the difference?
- Is there good and evil magic, and how do they differ?
- What other technologies do people use?
- How do they travel and communicate?
- Do governments use technology to gain or maintain power?
In Fantastic Beasts, J.K. Rowling wrote a guide that focuses on how the magic works.
If magic or futuristic technology play roles in your world, consider doing the same.
It doesn’t have to be as detailed or as complete as Fantastic Beasts. So long as you have a resource that keeps all the rules in one place, you’ll keep your world (and the rules it lives by) consistent.
These Worldbuilding Tips Can Help You Write Attention-Grabbing Fiction
No two writers will approach worldbuilding in the same way. These tips are here to help guide you, but what matters most is your own imagination.
Have fun with worldbuilding, and your reader will thank you.