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 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, world building is more important than ever. It can make or break your story.
In this guide, I’ll give you tips to follow and errors to avoid. But first…
What is World Building?
Writing a story is much like building a house — you can have all the right ideas, materials, and tools, but if your foundation isn’t solid, not even the most beautiful structure will stand.
World building is how you create that foundation — the Where of your story.
World building involves more than just the setting. It can be as complex as 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, but remember: world building is serious business.
Create a world in which 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 world building 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 so compelling they can’t help but keep reading to the very end.
A World Building Guide
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 — or, as Stephen King puts it, they “put interesting characters in difficult situations and write to find out what happens.”
Though I’m 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 the writing.
Build your world first, then you can better focus on your story.
However, over-planning can also be a problem.
Many fantasy writers tell me they become so engrossed in world building that they find reasons not to write.
World building must not come at the expense of your story.
If you’re like me, 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
Once you’ve determined your genre, paint for your reader a world that transports them, allowing them to see, smell, hear, and touch their surroundings. Show them, don’t tell them.
Which idea for this new world most excites you ? An other-worldly landscape? A new language? Strange creatures? Build on that to give you the momentum you need when the going gets tough.
- Climate / Environment
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 stories that feature maps:
- The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
- The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
- Discworld by Terry Pratchett
- The Princess Bride by William Goldman
- Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
- Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne
- A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin
World Building Questions:
- Was your world always the way it is now? If not, what was it like before and what caused the change?
- 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 and does it impact your story?
- How many mountains, oceans, deserts, forests?
- Where are the borders?
- What are the natural resources and how do they impact your story?
Be sure to focus on all five senses, not just seeing and hearing. Touch, taste, and smell will make your world feel real and familiar, even if it’s fantasy.
Step 3: Populate Your World
- Are the inhabitants people, but somehow different from you and me?
- Are they aliens, monsters, or some new species?
In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien gave Frodo a past, personality traits, and morals. But he first determined what a hobbit looked like and how he lived.
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?
- Does everyone speak the same language?
- How do they get along?
- Are there alliances?
- What resources do they enjoy?
- What resources do they lack?
Step 4: Establish the History of Your World
- The Lord of The Rings focuses on an ancient war.
- The Hunger Games is built on decades of oppression.
- The Divergent trilogy characters are unaware of what their world used to be like.
When world building, consider:
- The Deep Past: What happened to fuel the present economy, environment, culture, etc.
- Trauma: Wars, famines, plagues.
- Power Shifts: Political, religious, or technological.
World Building Questions:
- Who have been the major rulers?
- What took place during their reigns?
- Who are the enemies of your world?
Step 5: Determine the Culture of Your World
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.
World Building Questions:
- Is your world totalitarian, authoritarian, or democratic?
- Do your inhabitants speak a common language?
- How do your characters behave? Will they break the rules?
- Are the rules considered fair, or is society opposed to them?
- How are inhabitants punished?
- What is the religious belief system?
- What gods exist?
- How do religious rituals or customs manifest themselves?
- Is there conflict between religious groups?
- How do different social classes behave?
- What do they wear?
- How do families, marriages, and other relationships operate?
- How do inhabitants respond to love and loss?
- What behaviors are forbidden?
- How are gender roles defined?
- What defines their success and failure?
- What and how do they celebrate?
- Do they work?
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.
World Building Questions:
- Does magic exist in your world?
- How powerful is it?
- Where does it come from?
- How does it manifest itself?
- Can it be controlled?
- Who wields it?
- Can it be learned or are people born with it?
- Are wands or staffs, etc., needed?
- How does it affect the user?
- Do people fear it or embrace it, and what makes the difference?
- Is there good and evil magic?
- What other technologies do people use?
- Who controls it?
- How do they travel and communicate?
- How do they use these technologies day-to-day?
- Do they use technology for entertainment?
- Do governments use it 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.
Keep Your World Grounded
World building involves a lot of preparation. But it’s also easy to go overboard with the universe you create, especially if you’re an Outliner.
The excitement of creating and exploring your new universe should be accompanied by a commitment to believability.
That might sound strange when we’re talking about wholly made-up worlds born in our imaginations. But one of the reasons series like Star Wars, Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games garner so many devoted fans is because their worlds have been rendered in such a way that viewers and readers wholly buy in and see them as real places.
If you’ve come across the phrase “a willing suspension of disbelief,” you know it refers to a reader’s willingness to temporarily embrace the impossible—setting aside their natural skepticism. And for the most fun reading experience, despite knowing down deep what they’re reading is fantasy, they allow themselves to accept the premise.
So how do you convince your readers to believe in such things as space knights and wizard schools?
1. Be consistent
Always follow your own rules. If yours is a story in which monkeys fly, have them fly and treat this as normal.
As you build your world, reinforce the laws you create (religious, political, physical, etc.).
While these rules will not likely be the focal point of your novel, they should be prominent and accepted as normal throughout.
2. Draw inspiration from real-life
Real-life historical events, personal experiences, interesting natural phenomena, and ideological beliefs (such as ancient religions and philosophies) can inform your world building.
Whether you’re writing real-world fantasy, second-world fantasy, or a combination of both, stories from real life inspire compelling fiction.
As I discussed before, real-world fantasy is a story set in a world that closely resembles our own, often with familiar locations, cultures, and historical contexts. However, it incorporates fantastical elements, such as magic, mythical creatures, or supernatural phenomena.
- J.K. Rowling has said that many characters in the Harry Potter series were inspired by people from her real life including childhood friends and teachers. She was also influenced by myths and folklore around the world, including creatures such as basilisks, centaurs, and trolls.
- C.S. Lewis drew from his experiences opening his home to evacuee children during WW2 for the story of the Pevensie children in The Chronicles of Narnia.
Second-world fantasy, also known as high fantasy, is set in a completely invented or parallel world distinct from our own. The author creates the entire setting, including geography, cultures, languages, and magic systems. However, authors of these made-up worlds still draw inspiration from real life.
- J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth in The Lord of the Rings was greatly influenced by his study of Old English literature particularly the epic poem Beowulf.
- George R.R. Martin’s Westeros in A Song of Ice and Fire is loosely based on The War of the Roses fought in 15th-century England.
3. Prioritize your story over your world
Be very careful to make your plot even more interesting than your world. As fascinating and engaging as Harry Potter’s world is, the real music of the story is what happens—not simply where it happens.
If your world is populated with the most fascinating magical societies, mythical creatures, and mysterious histories, your fantasy fails if your characters are flat and your plot is predictable. While fictional worlds can intrigue readers, your other story elements must captivate them.
Write Attention-Grabbing Fiction
No two writers will approach world building the same. Just be careful not to get so bogged down in world building that it keeps you from writing your story.
Have fun with it!
Write a story that keeps your readers riveted to the end.