WHEW! Process for Fantasy World Building

by Casey Cooper
published in Writing

Let us begin with the very basic question: “What is world building?” If you are going to write fiction, every story needs a place to call home, where the action happens, where your characters live. This can be extraordinarily complex (as in the case of fantasy world building), or as simple as “the story takes place in the real world.” 

Whatever method you choose, the most important thing to remember is to stay consistent. If the story takes place in the real world, you do not have to deal with many of the complexities which arise in a fantasy story. 

It is when you are setting your story in another world that you need to be creative. This article deals with fantasy world building, although it can be used for almost any world building.

Where to Begin with World Building

I know building a new world is quite daunting for many people. Where to begin? Do I need to make maps? Do I need to create history, religions, political and economic systems? So many questions that need answers—Whew! Right? 

I have an acronym I use to start my personal process for building a new world: WHEW.

  • Who?
  • How?
  • Effects?
  • Why?

Each of these questions, when answered, makes up the basis of your world.

WHEW! Process for Fantasy World Building Explained

Who lives in your world?

The first question, the big question, I ask myself when I am building a new world, whether for a game campaign or for a story, is: Who lives there? 

Now you probably already have a good idea who the characters in your book will be, so that is your starting point. If you are writing a traditional epic fantasy, you may already have your book’s races in mind: Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Haflings, etc. 

Your geography will probably be defined by where your races traditionally live. Elves live in the woods, Dwarves live underground, etc. This is not saying every elf is found in the forest and you will only find dwarves underground, but it is a starting point. 

If you wish to create a totally unique setting, then deciding who lives in your world will be a vital first step. If you want a story set on a water-world, then you need races which can cope with being wet. Aquatic elves, Mer-folk, etc. If you want your story to take place in a desert, then you definitely want people who can cope with the lack of water. 

Thus, deciding who lives in your story will set the basic parameters of your world.

How does your world work (magic, technology, etc.)?

How your world works is another point which needs to be decided early on, especially in fantasy world building. 

Is your world rich in magic? Or is it scarce and only available to a very few? How is it acquired? Are only some people born with the ability, or can anyone learn to cast spells? Is magic a force of mind or personality or is it a gift bestowed by the deities? Is there more than one kind of magic in your world? And what about magical objects? Does everyone and their brother carry a magic sword, or are they rare and only used by an occasional hero or villain? At what stage is technology in your world? Stone age or are there printing presses and mechanical clocks? Is some technology enhanced by magic? Or conversely, is some magic enhanced by technology?

How your world works gives you a basis to set up the systems your world needs to be a place where your story can happen. For example, if your world has an economy, then you need some kind of exchange system for goods and services. Is there money? Or is everything bartered? Does your world have civilization or is it pure barbaric savagery?

What effects make your world special and unique?

The hows spelled out above give cause for whatever effects you may wish to have. 

Is there a gold standard? If so, where does the gold come from? Only from Dwarven mines?

Why did this come to happen?

Explaining why things happen isn’t something you need to completely lay out for your reader, perhaps not at all. But it is important that you have this well in mind for yourself. 

Remember what I said before about being consistent? If you are not consistent, readers will notice. 

Once you have a firm grasp of why things are the way they are in your world, you can give out bits and pieces here and there in numerous ways as needed, such as dialog, backstory, description, etc. 

Unless it is vital to the story, the reader doesn’t have to know every detail as long as you keep things consistent.

Map-Making and Fantasy World Building

I enjoy map-making, but not everyone does. A map of your world may be important for you in order to keep details consistent (there’s that word again). Was the great forest south of the mountains or to the north? You may need to know how far someone has to travel and how long it will take them to make the journey. 

If you can do this all in your mind, that is fine, but you don’t want the trip to take two weeks the first time it happens and two days the next. Readers notice!

Before you get overwhelmed again by the scope of all this, remember: you do not need to create everything that exists in your world before you begin writing your story. 

In fact, you do not want to have everything done and dusted before you start. You will want room to add on and grow. 

What you need is a solid starting point, that’s all.

Casey Cooper is the son of two teachers, the grandson of a university professor on one side, and a jazz drummer on the other. Somehow, he escaped teaching, but not music. After retiring from his day job, just in time for COVID, he devoted his first year of ‘freedom’ to self-recording a musical concept album. In his second year, he turned to writing.

An avid reader, he averages a book a week. The usual fare is Fantasy or Sci-Fi. Sometimes Action/Adventure. He has been seen reading all kinds of things, from fairytales to super-string theory.He holds guest citizenship in The Forgotten Realms, Oz, Pellucidar, and on the Discworld. He lives alone with his two trusty cats. Liv, a lavender tortoiseshell, and Riley, an orange tiger. You can follow him on Facebook.

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