An Introduction to World-Building (complete with a brainstorming workbook)

An Introduction to World-Building | She's Novel

I have been so excited to talk about world-building on the blog!

I don't know about other fantasy writers, but I loved building my fictional world. Creating cities, shaping governments, forming cultures...it felt like I was breathing life into my story. From time to time, I still work on developing my fictional world further and it truly is such a rewarding exercise.

If you haven't caught on already, world-building is the process of creating a fictional world or universe. Everything from geography to religion to culture to technology must be considered. When done well, the fictional world feels realistic and approachable, even if it contains otherworldly elements like magic or time travel.

If you are interested in trying your hand at world-building, I suggest first reading a few novels from the masters. Here are a few books I suggest:
 

  • A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin
  • The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card


Side Note: The science fiction and dystopian novels I listed are actually set on Earth, but in future realities. Because of that, traditionalists would argue that the authors didn't do true world-building, but I think that those authors did plenty of creative work in building new cultures and geographies for their books. In my mind, that definitely counts.

WorldBuilding Brainstorming Workbook

Are you ready to build a fictional world that readers won't soon forget? Grab your copy of the Worldbuilding Brainstorming workbook and use it as you read through this post!

The scope of world-building can be daunting. There are seemingly endless aspects, each with their own intricate considerations.

If you don't know where to get started, don't worry. Not only will I cover the basics in this article, but I've created a world-building brainstorming workbook to help you get your ideas organized. Use it in tandem with this post for maximum awesome!

Got it all printed out and ready to go? Fantastic! Let's get started.

Two Methods For World-Building

There are two ways to go about building your fictional world: from the inside out or the outside in.
 

Inside-Out

If you've already got a story in mind, there may be one or two functions that your fictional world must absolutely serve. You can begin world-building by developing that function in depth. Once you've worked out all the rules and circumstances surrounding that function, you can fill in the other elements of your world. This method is especially useful when you've already got a specific story idea in mind, but it can also limit how effectively you are able to incorporate those secondary aspects.

For an example, let's say that you first iron out how a certain people have come to control magic in your world. Then you work on giving those people a name and a culture, a place to live, and relations with other people groups.
 

Outside-In

With the outside in technique, you begin by creating a general geography, climate, and technology level. You then work down, creating countries and cultures, cities and social classes, religions, communities, and any remaining aspects. This method creates a more purposeful and realistic world, but often takes a lot of time to develop before the information can be added to your story.

As an example, let's say you first form a basic understanding of a few people groups and the relative areas in which they live. You then begin to work down, creating governments, borders, rivers, mountains, appearances, and daily rituals.
 

Either method is perfectly fine for creating your fictional world. Which you choose to utilize will most likely depend on how much of a story line you've already developed. Now that we've identified how you can go about creating a fictional world, let's talk about the different elements. First up...

Geography

Geographies cover a lot of ground (yep, I went there!). When writing fantasy or science fiction, you have to do more than just decide where each scene will take place. You have to create every element of a physical world on your own!

That's kind of overwhelming, so let's break it down:
 

1. Locations. Consider the general layout of your world. It might be a good idea to break out a sketchbook and a pen at this point. You need to create continents, countries, cities, and towns. Remember that borders aren't uniform. Your continents and countries will vary in size.
 

2. Water. Life thrives off of water. Consider placing rivers or oceans next to each city and town. Also think about where there may be bays, canals, lakes, bogs, and springs.
 

3. Landscapes. Your world probably isn’t one big flat expanse of empty land. Begin to sketch out natural landmarks, such as mountains, valleys, deserts, forests, plains, hills, and wastelands.
 

4. Climate. The weather affects many aspects of daily life. Think about how seasons will work in your world. Which places remain hot or cold year round and which places get a taste of all four seasons? Consider how the weather affects the growth of plant life, which in turn affects where animals and humans live and what they eat.

Cultures

The real world has thousands of cultures, both ancient and modern. Don't let the thought of it overwhelm you as you build your fictional world. Two well-developed cultures will always be more impressive than ten half-built civilizations.

Here are a few aspects of culture to work on:
 

1. Government. Think about your countries. It's time to decide what time of government the people will live in. Who rules each nation and how do they rise to power? Also consider how laws are made, how the justice system works, and the types of rights the people hold.
 

2. Religion. Cultures are often build around religion. The way in which the people worship will affect the type of lifestyle they live. When creating a religion, consider who the people worship and what the religion tells them about the afterlife, good and evil, atonement, and life choices.

Also, think about how deeply the religion and government intertwine and how that affects the way in which the people live.
 

3. Relations. If the people in your world are anything like humans, they won't be at peace for long. Consider how people of different countries, races, religions, and genders treat one another. How do their opinions form and what kinds of trouble do they cause?
 

4. Art and Entertainment. Time for the (extra) fun stuff. Think about the arts and entertainment industries of your cultures. Consider what type of art is being created by whom, how well it is valued, and who is buying it. Is art solely for beauty or are the items useful in everyday life?

Also think about entertainment. What sports, races, fights, and games are played by the people? Are there professional actors, comedians, musicians, and magicians? How do these people live and who pays to see them perform?

Social Classes

Every society divides its people into social classes. This affects the way that people communicate and treat one another. We talked about this a bit already when we went over relations, but let's dig in further:
 

1. Divisions. Firstly, consider how the people in your country are divided. Who holds the wealth and who are the commoners? You may have different social classes based on income or profession, or there may only be the rich and the poor.

If your world has magic, be sure to consider who controls it and how that might effect the way people are divided.
 

2. Food and Drink. The environment in which your people live will have a major affect on what they eat and drink. Consider the environment from all sides. How does the climate affect what grows? What animals are bred or hunted?

Also think about who owns the farmland and how that affects what the different social classes can afford to eat.
 

3. Professions. The professions that are available for each social class will depend on what type of fictional world you are building. Not only should you begin compiling a list of what jobs your characters might have, but you should consider what types of jobs the people in each social class hold.
 

4. Appearances. The people in each social class will present themselves in a different way. Think about the materials available for use in clothing and jewelry. What can each social class afford? What are the popular styles in each class?

Also, remember that people of different social classes may differ physically in skin tone, build, coloring, or bone structure.

History

Unless it is newly born, your fictional world will have a good deal of history. No worries, you don’t have to go too in depth with this.

Remember, the history of your fictional world isn’t where the meat of your story lies. Keep your focus on the aspects of its history that will most affect the events of your story.

Here are a few aspects to consider:
 

1. Traumatic Events. Recent wars, famines, or plagues will have an effect on your story. The landscape will look different. Many people will have been cast into destitution while others will still be mourning the loss of loved ones. The people may also hold new beliefs or fears based on these past events.
 

2. Power Shifts. If your fictional country or religion has recently come under new leadership, there will be some contention. Whenever a new leader takes their place, some people will disagree with their new position. The new leader may also seek to change the way that things are run. This may lead to discontent, social change, fear, rebellion, or war.

Magic

It isn't a requirement for your fictional world to contain magic, but if it does then you need to spend some time hashing out its parameters. Here are a few questions to ask yourself to get the ball rolling:
 

  1. Who receives magic in your world?
  2. How do these powers manifest themselves?
  3. Is magic wild or can it be controlled?
  4. Can magic be learned or are people simply born with it?
  5. Where does magic come from?
  6. Are items such as wands or staffs needed to use magic?
  7. Is magic practiced or shunned by religious leaders?
  8. Do any of the social classes fear or ban magic?
  9. Is there good and evil magic?
  10. Can magic be defeated or destroyed?

     
Technology

Technology is an even more complex aspect of world-building than magic. If you are basing your fictional world's technology off of a specific era of human history, then you will need to do your research on that era.

However, if you are creating a futuristic world then there are a few questions you will need to ask yourself:
 

  1. What everyday problems might people face?
  2. How do people communicate?
  3. How do people travel?
  4. What powers the technology?
  5. What technologies have been developed solely for entertainment?
  6. What is weapons technology like?
  7. Who creates these technologies?
  8. Who can afford these technologies?
  9. How does technology affect education?
  10. What technologies does the government utilize to control the population?
     

Of course, there are always other aspects you can cover when creating your world: fictional languages, alternative races, unique species...you get the idea. The important thing to remember is to keep your world-building focused on strengthening the story.

World-building is a never-ending exercise. Many authors fall down the rabbit hole and never find their way out. Suddenly, their novels are no longer about their characters' stories but how in-depth they can get with the creation of their world.

Don't make that same mistake! A good story will always be worth more than a hundred pages of impressive exposition or backstory.
 

Use the fictional world you have built as the canvas for your story, not the paint. 
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Let's Chat!
 

Have you tried your hand at world-building? Which parts do you love and which do you loathe? Don't forget to give me a special shout-out if map drawing is your favorite part! Happy building! 


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Kristen Kieffer is a writer of fantasy fiction and the creative writing coach behind She's Novel. She's made it her mission to help aspiring authors write sensational novels because obliterating expectations is her jam. Her other passions? Coffee and Tolkien, of course!

Kristen is the author of the upcoming The Books of Maveryn series and The Astral Series, as well as several non-fiction books for writers.