As a reader and writer of fantasy, I love world building. But it’s one of those things that is easy to get lost in, both as a writer creating it and as a reader consuming it. So, before we get started, please remember that this is supposed to be fun!
As always whenever I offer advice I give the caveat that you should take what I have to say with a grain of salt. Not because I’m trying to swindle you or sell you something, but because there are eighty million ways to be a writer and only a few of them are right for you.
For your sake, I hope you encounter every bit of writing advice here and elsewhere with the eagerness of a rookie and the wisdom of a guru. If it works, keep it. If it doesn’t, drop it. And remember just because it worked for you doesn’t mean it’s going to work for your third cousin once removed who wants to be a screenwriter.
Alright? Still with me? Excellent. Here we go!
World Building Tools
First let me say that there are some great world building tools out there including World Anvil, Campfire Blaze, and One Stop For Writers. Read all about these awesome tech sites for fantasy writers or gamers here: Best World Building Apps
I could geek out about these all day—they look amazing. I haven’t tried any of them yet and I’m finishing my first draft of my third YA high fantasy novel. Clearly, it isn’t required but I have to admit I have been intrigued by these sites for a while and before I start my next project I will be trying them out.
What a World Needs (besides a little love):
Time and Technology
When is this taking place? A novel taking place in 2045 is going to be a lot different than 1345 unless you’re making up an entirely new planet.
What kind of tech do they have? Weapons? This is the fun part of world building, guys! Captain Picard was reading on a kindle long before they were invented. What amazing things would you like to see in your science fiction?
Alternatively, if you’re writing epic fantasy (hiyo! I see you there!), what kind of science are they using in a time before cars and computers? I recently started reading a book about science in the middle ages (yes, they did have science!) The book is called The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science by Seb Falk. Seb is a medieval history and history of science at Cambridge University and I first saw him interviewed on Star Talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson. I highly recommend this book for research addicts and all those “must be grounded in reality” perfection nuts like me.
Last but never least, if you’re writing urban fantasy: how does your magic system interface with your technology? Can you cast spells through email? Can a vampire use nanotech to protect them from the sun? So. Much. Fun!!
An obvious one, but what is the geography of our world? The weather? What is important here and how does it interact with our protagonist and their path?
You can’t downplay the importance of setting, and I think of setting as my “other main character.” After all, what would Wizard of Oz be without the tornado and the hum-drum backdrop of a boring midwest Kansas town?
Who are the heroes? The villains? The underdogs? What are the past tragedies and victories? The political geography?
If you are setting your post-dystopian novel in a country like Ukraine, researching their history is vital to understanding the current crises. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are hundreds of years of wars and famines and population migrations around the world that will give your world some depth if applied right.
Music and the arts are a natural consequence of intelligent life, and always follow a culture with a period of relative political and material stability.
Have fun with this! I like to research ancient or medieval cultures for my stories but that’s my jam. You might fall in love with the history of music and art in Iran or Norway.
What culture doesn’t have their own version of the boogeyman, the monster under the bed, the villain in the shadows? What they’re afraid of says streams, rivers, oceans about what that culture is all about.
Other Questions to Ask when World Building:
- What are the idiosyncratic features of these cultures? What are the contradictions?
- How does the protagonist’s worldview impact, hurt, or help them on their mission?
- Are they an optimist? A realist? A pessimist? Or somewhere in between?
Thinking about creating languages from scratch? Are you an English professor teaching philology at the University of Oxford? No? Then don’t. Just don’t.
I did. It was a mess. Learn from my mistakes. (Or don’t. Like I said, maybe it will work for you).
What you can do is think about what kind of slang your characters use. What kinds of things do they say or think that are specific to their family or part of the world?
Let’s not negate what conflicts might arise from people speaking different languages in your novel.
Do I sense a research rabbit hole coming up? YES. Don’t get me started on this. DO THE RESEARCH RABBIT HOLE.
We’re writers, gosh darn it! We are not going to be put in jail by the Efficiency Police. We’re curious. Stay curious. Follow all those interesting white fluffy tails down those deep, dark holes, then come back and report to your readers!
World building: it’s not just for fantasy!
Sure, there isn’t a magic system to create in realistic fiction, but you still need to create the world.
We may share this world but none of us walks through it in the same way. We’re all a hodgepodge of unexamined childhood beliefs, stereotypes, fears, and blind spots.
You need to decide what kind of world you want your character to walk through. What are you focusing on? What are the bright spots and pain points? The point of view of a middle-aged professional working in Los Angeles is going to inhabit a starkly different world than a young man working a hot dog booth in Queens, New York.
Have I lost you yet?
If I have, it’s probably because I committed the mortal sin of the info dump. I threw a bunch of information at you and didn’t move the plot along at the same time. Basically, I grabbed your sleeve and was like, “wait, wait this is really, cool, no, I promise, it’ll only take like ten minutes and then we’ll have fun okay?”
Sometimes an info dump is okay. If you’re a celebrity or we know it’s going to get really good really fast because all of our friends are reading this book too. If that applies to you, excellent!
If not, better save those backstory tidbits for when they can naturally come out of a scene after you already have the reader’s interest.
And remember: just because YOU need to know which Queen dispatched which power-hungry noble three hundred years before your main character is born, does not mean the reader needs to know it too.
Tell us in the comments: How much do you love world building?
Angela Yeh is an East Coast Canadian native that lives and works in the great state of Texas. Angela is a black belt wanna-be who loves to garden, write about magic, and eat cake. If you’d like to check out her first published novel, A Phoenix Rises, she will send you cookies (not cake – she’s already eaten the cake). She lives with her husband, two lovely human children, and three cranky fur babies. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram or on her website.