This is a cross-post from the guide I posted on Wattpad; figured I’d bring it here just to have it on record. If you’re interested in world building but don’t know where to start, or maybe you just need the inspiration to get going, feel free to take a read! I hope this gets your inspiration brewing.
So you’re writing a novel. Your story takes place in a realm with magic and strange creatures abound, so unlike the Earth we know that it could very well be an entire world of its own. But how do you create it? How does it go from just a name, an idea, to a living and functional vehicle for your story?
Get ready to go on a marvelous journey of discovery and conceptualization, where you’ll dig far deeper into your story than you had ever planned to. This is what writing a good, complex story is all about. This is World Building.
Where Is Your World?
The very concept of your world revolves around the story. You may think that your story is just one of many taking place in this world, and it is, but your story doesn’t exist because of this world – this world exists for your story as a means of telling it. You need to decide what this world is in comparison to the world that we know, Earth.
Fantasy stories take place either in a different realm, or on an altered version of our Earth. Anything taking place on Earth is relatively easy to build on – you already have an entire planet that your audience is familiar with. But a different realm? That’s something you have to build yourself, and in turn, something that you have to explain to your audience. It’s something that you have to make work, something that has to make sense. Most of all, it has to be interesting and it has to be believable.
The Non-Earth World
Though your story may take place on another world, you don’t necessarily have to build an entire planet. You must evaluate to what degree you want to build your new world, which requires you to take into consideration the scope of your story. If your story never leaves a fictional city, then you can restrict all your details to that city – but you’ll need to build that city from the ground up. If your characters journey across a vast land, then you need to develop this region and map out it’s cities, towns, forests, lakes, mountains – sometimes, coming up with a name for this single region is enough, like the Kanto region in Pokémon, or Westeros from A Song of Ice and Fire. Once the story begins to traverse oceans and multiple regions, or ventures into the expanse of space, you’ll need a name for your planet – your whole world becomes the setting for the story, and it needs to be developed appropriately.
The name of your world is single-handedly it’s most important feature. It will be how your audience remembers your universe – a forgettable world is a forgettable story. You need something that is memorable and encompasses the feeling of your world. A mysterious, unexplored realm might have a short and non-explanatory name. A highly developed world might be a Republic, or a Dominion; a highly alien world may have a name that sounds foreign. If your world is reflective of a certain time period, it’s name should reflect that too. Medieval fantasies are built around Kingdoms, steampunk features strong, industrial consonants, and the future is complex and disjointed. You aren’t cheating by drawing inspiration from examples, real-life or fictional. Name generators can be your best friends.
Geography and Geology
These two facets of a world go hand-in-hand and are next in line when it comes to world development. You should be mapping out your world so you know where to place settlements and points of interest. Carve your world into continents and oceans, build your mountains and valleys, construct rivers, lakes, peninsulas, and islands. Spend an hour researching tectonic activity and learning how volcanoes shape the planet. Want to add an alien flare to your planet? Research geological features of other planets, like Saturn’s moons, or Mars, and incorporate them into yours. Better yet, come up with something completely wild and unheard of, then try to find a way to justify it. Make it scientifically plausible, then stick it on your planet. Only once you have the natural landscape of your world can you progress to its societal infrastructure.
The easiest way to divide political territory is by the land itself. This is why you built your world’s natural features first. A Kingdom might occupy an entire continent, and subrulings might take certain parts of it. A Lord might be Lord of an entire valley named The Vale. Maybe a beautiful golden forest is controlled by the Fairy King. A village might occupy a stretch of the coast in between two jungles. Once your have your world mapped out, you can start assigning portions of it to different factions in your story.
Not only this, but you can use the naming of these areas to give insight into what the land is used for, or what the culture of the people living there is like. Let’s take for example a place named “The Red Cliffs”. You have a place, and you have a name. Now let’s ask some questions: Why is it named The Red Cliffs? Maybe because the cliffs are red. Why are they red? Because the rock is chock full of iron oxides. Maybe this means that this area is rich with iron – that would imply that it would be a good location for a mine. Do people use it as a mine? Let’s say yes – they mine iron. What do they do with the iron? They could be blacksmiths or metallurgists. Now you have a group of people living at The Red Cliffs that are miners, blacksmiths, and metallurgists. They control a resource that might be useful to other people. Now you introduce the concept of trading. Why would they trade, and what would they trade for? Are they greedy or selfless? Do they even need to trade – why or why not?
See how quickly one simple name can build an entire community?
Take these concepts and apply them to every notable location in your world. Connect them, build relationships, but keep it simple – you still have a lot more development to do. And remember, keep your naming conventions consistent across your world.
Races and Culture
Now that you’ve shaped your physical world and divided it into geographical territories, you can start to build the people that live there. Fantasy worlds should be diverse – they aren’t just run by white human carbon copies. Maybe your world is, and maybe you even have a reason for it, but let me stop you right there by saying: this is boring. We see humans every day, and we predominantly see white humans in fantasy film and literature to the point that its exhaustive.
Ask yourself this: are humans the only cognizant creatures in your fantasy world? Are they the only species that is capable of building societies, communicating with written or spoken word, and using agriculture and domesticating wildlife? If you answered no, fantastic – you’ve just opened the doors to building countless new species with their own races and cultures! If you answered yes, don’t worry – you still have an opportunity to create races and cultures equally as interesting and diverse.
In the case of races and cultures, human-exclusive worlds and those with many different species, like orcs, trolls, unicorns, etc, are one in the same. You’re still developing new races and cultures, just instead of applying them only to different kinds of humans, you’re applying them to anything you want. So we’re going to move forward assuming that you can build new races and cultures regardless of how many cognizant species you have.
The first thing you should avoid is extracting straight from real life. By all means, use existing cultures as inspiration, but don’t copy their traditions word for word. Why? Because this won’t make sense in the context of your fantasy world. For example, religion as a part of culture: Christianity won’t make sense if there never was a Jesus Christ in your world. However, you can absolutely develop a new religion based off of Christianity. It might not make sense if your group of people celebrate Day of the Dead, but a similar holiday with similar traditions, tailored to the limitations of their world, could work.
With this is mind, let’s take a look at your first group of people. Say for example your Kingdom is inhabited by people practicing one culture. Are they all the same race, or are they different races? Different species? Why are they the same, or why are they different? If this Kingdom is full of racial diversity, explore that – do some people support it and others reject it, or does everyone accept racial diversity? If there is tension, why? But let’s take the easy route and say your culture is racially diverse and everyone is A-OK with it (note: just because its the easy route doesn’t mean its a bad one! Racial diversity can be a welcome change when it isn’t relevant to the plot.) What are common practices these people have? Do they celebrate any particular day of the week, month, year? Why? Do they worship a god, or a pantheon of gods? Do they have a political hierarchy or a class structure? What about education? Their stance on violence or sexuality? Take a look at it from all angles, and use yourself as a starting point. Take a look at your own morals and values. What can you project from or change about yourself that would make this culture unique?
Once you have your first culture, you’re well on your way to developing new ones based on different beliefs and traditions. You can apply these cultures to the factions you assigned to your world. If something clashes, change it – your world is malleable and nothing is set in stone until your story is published. You have lots of time to change what you need to.
Races and species are similar in that your first one requires the most thought and research. Decide on key morphological features and evolutionary traits. A race of people that have always lived in caves might have small eyes and large ears, or a race of people living in the canopies of trees might have developed skin-flaps for gliding. Bergmann’s Rule is a great way to start thinking of how people might look based on where they live. From there, you can develop more races based, again, on evolutionary differences.
Races might have their own culture, or cultures may be spread across different races. It’s up to you to decide how they are shared across your fantasy world.
Your fantasy world is huge and full of different kinds of people, and those people do not exist in a vacuum. They are aware of different races, different settlements, different Kingdoms, different continents. You will want to explore how they interact with one another. Let’s take our Red Cliff example again:
The people of The Red Cliffs mine iron, which is a useful resource in an industrial age. They are open to trading with the people of The White Sea, because iron is necessary for building ships and weapons. The people of The White Sea are efficient fishermen, so the resource they offer for trade is seafood. These two groups of people agree to a trade relationship. But say the people of The Green Forest also want iron for their hunting traps, weapons, and rudimentary plumbing that they have just developed. The people of The Red Cliffs might become interested in developing their own aquaduct system, so they trade iron to The Green Forest in exchange for more food and plumbing technology. Suddenly the people of The White Sea have to complete with The Green Forest for iron resources. This may cause some turbulence in the relationship between The White Sea and The Green Forest, as well as with The Red Cliffs too. Now we have conflict between people, and literature loves a good conflict.
If you apply these concepts to your own fantasy world, you will quickly have a world that is sprawling with complex relationships and conflicts. While they may not be part of the overarching plot, they can add depth to your world by simply existing in the background. Observation of them in passing will leave your audience wondering about that part of your world, and how the main plot might affect these conflicts. They’ll want to know more about the main plot and the story as a whole. As the writer, you can decide whether or not to sate this curiosity later on.
What If My World Is Earth?
Then you’re taking a big leap over the whole “physical world development” step in the process because, thankfully, you don’t have to explain to your readers how Africa is mostly a hot and dry place because it’s smack dab on the equator. If you mention the Latin culture, they’ll get it. They know what that is. Your world building focuses mostly on relationships and building new races/cultures from the ground up – werewolves, fairies, supernatural beings, pirates, anything that occurs as a part of your story needs to be elaborated on. That’s where you can apply your world building skills. The further away from modern Earth as we see it now that your story is, the more world building you have to do, and the more concepts you have to apply.
Incorporating Your World Into The Story
Once you finally have a vast and complex world, you will have to weave it into your story. Understandably, you’re proud and impressed with your work and you want to show it off. But your audience needs to have a reason to want to know these things, because otherwise, they won’t care. Unfortunately, your fantasy world is your baby – you need to assume, for now, that you’re the only person who cares about it. You need to find a way to make people interested.
Avoid infodumps at all costs. In the beginning of your story, in the middle, in the end, it doesn’t matter – if you throw a bunch of irrelevant information at your audience, they won’t care about it. Half of the information about your world exists for you to reference, and maybe to mention quietly every now and then. Only what is important to the plot should be revealed in the story, and this includes mention of races and cultures, locations, and anything else you developed. You can drop more information along the way in small blurbs, in interesting ways – describe a race or species by having your protagonist spot someone walking down the street. Have someone mention a great war that was fought years ago as an anecdote following or preluding to some important plot progression. You can show your audience your complex world, but be sneaky about it. Ignite their interest and make them crave more, rather than throwing it at them all at once.
And remember: if you’re going to focus on telling us about your world, only tell us what is relevant. Everything else is a tiny reward for those that keep reading.
I need help with names/map building/racial and cultural diversity/anything else!
Great! The fact that you acknowledge that you need help with something is the first step to making it great. Everyone likes to believe that their first idea is their best one, or that they’re capable of coming up with perfect stories on their own, but often this isn’t the case. In order to come up with something truly your own, you must be willing to ask questions, research, and explore!