The Dune graphic novel. Frank Herbert's was amongst the first thoroughly built worlds I encountered.
he Evil One’s ships had launched, three-hundred strong, an army headed to wage war upon the world, subjugate it to tyranny. But they had set forth from the northern port of Deridian, risking a surprise attack through the Circle of Cold and down into the peace-loving lands of Faeir, where they could trample and ravage the fields of wheat and barley without having to first cross the well-guarded mountain passes to the east (for the Faeir were peace-loving, not stupid). And this risky sea voyage proved the salvation of the world ... unusual weather patterns, started accidentally by unwitting low-level wizards far to the south, stirred up a vast storm, and the frothy waves rose and crushed the evil armies, and no one would ever know how close they’d come to facing the death-driven hordes.
Well, no one but me.
I created this world, whose name is lost to the dim reaches of time, but whose hex-paper-drawn landscapes are still burned into my memory, for a D&D campaign that ended up crossing multiple player groups across several years. I mean, why not? I’d spent hundreds of hours building this world, and while my non-player characters sometimes lacked ambition (or even good names—I remember borrowing several from the lists of kings in Tolkien’s books), the world itself was very, very detailed. Ports, farms, crops, types of fish, political systems, even weather patterns modeled on real-world meteorology (plus magic) were all a part of the world, even if the players never knew it. I spent entire evenings alone creating weather forecasts for the entire world, chortling with glee whenever the probabilities indicated some kind of major event, a hurricane off the coast of Slee, a major storm galing in from the Arctic ... I mean, the Circle of Cold (OK, again, naming things wasn’t my strongest ability). And more than once, events having little to do with the players would change the history of the world—or the players would change it, but have little idea that the Butterfly Effect they created stopped an entire war.
While for the longest time world-building meant, to me, a joyous exercise for role-playing games, it perhaps originates in some of the scifi and fantasy worlds created by some of the masters of fiction: Herbert, Asimov, Le Guin, Tolkien ... probably most famously Tolkien, whose detailed descriptions and many volumes of notes both fascinate and beleaguer us even now. And in the last ten years, it's become a favorite topic on the internet, the “in” thing, having reached that critical point where not only can you find dozens of world-building tutorials and tips, but the “why even do it?” anti-world building articles and blogs.
So is it a Good Thing? If so, how do you do it without spending more time on the world than your characters, plot, and novel itself? If not, why not? Or is there some sort of magical “between” space where you write your story but also keep track of the world?
Tolkien's The Hobbit. No way you avoid this one when talking about built worlds.
Should I or Shouldn’t I?
Let’s just start by saying the answer to this is, like so many real-world answers that aren’t being filtered by politics or internet firestorms, changeable and on a continuum. There is no hard-wired answer to whether you should spend all your waking hours creating day-by-day air quality metrics for your entire world or just randomly changing the color of the sky depending on how it suits your writing style in this particular chapter (although there are generally strong reasons to avoid both of those).
Some of it is just, honestly, whether you work better after creating all the worldly parameters you can stomach or just blurting your story out onto the page and then going back and fixing continuity errors. Each of these has advantages and drawbacks. Knowing your world in many dimensions as you begin your tale can give you a sense of what living in it is really like—you know that living in Romeland is, for some, to live with a rich sense of history and your importance in it, to have access to the finest museums and technology. You know that others of you are lurking just outside the city, having undergone brutal decades of suppression under the thumbs of oligarch after oligarch. You know that parts of this world are magic-rich, and that it’s mined as a resource and brought in heavily guarded caravans into the city, which lies in an area that has long since been mined out. And you know a natural disaster is just waiting to happen, destroying much of the city’s harvestable land and blocking the caravans from ever getting home ...
On the other hand, you might spend hours figuring out just how this mined magic works, down to such minutiae as hand gestures and eye winks, and you might know the course of earthquakes and floods for the next 400 years, well beyond the scope of your book. You might have drawn the shape and size of every leaf of every kind of tree and plant on the planet—which is great if one of your characters is a botanist and might figure out a way to use herbs instead of magic to heal people, but not so great if the flora have little to do with your story. You might, in fact, never quite get round to writing your actual story because creating the world is just so damn fascinating.
“Pantsing” it, as going into your story with little to no advance planning is so colorfully called, completely avoids the pitfalls of never getting started; you jump in, maybe with a character in mind, a scene in a pub where your young wizard has been taken by his warrior friends to teach him how to have a night on the town, and of course a brawl breaks out, and the youngster discovers drunkenly that he has more abilities than he’d thought, turning the entire pub into a sort of magical black hole, a tear in the mystical continuum, as it were. You can just dive into that, throwing out character descriptions and making up cool relationships between them as you write at a furious pace, throwing in a tidbit of history here and there as background, maybe leaving a little bit sketchy but with a note to come back to it, zoom, zoom, done!
On the other hand (if hand is the right term when pantsing), your terrific speed at the start is likely to be slowed waaaaay down afterward as you go back and realize that no one will believe that the pub was pulled over some sort of magical event horizon if you don’t sort out how that actually happened and stick to that (or maybe it gives you an idea for how the various Ancient Wizards will argue about it, each with their own explanation ... which sends you off again into the story writing, but then you have to integrate this into the rest of your story, and then rewrite from there, and from there, and from there ...). And you can’t say that elves have blonde hair and green eyes in the first chapter and then have them show up near the end with no hair and mystical black eyes (unless, again, there’s some cool reason for this, and so you start writing that into the story as well, and three rewrites later ...) Everything that needs to be fixed, whether for continuity reasons, for necessary explanatory purposes, or whatever, will create ripples in the pond, and you’ll either have to go through multiple heavy edits or just hope that the hodgepodge works, somehow.
Again, these are extremes. And as is pretty obvious in most things (or so you’d think), the reality is not a binary pants/no pants, but more likely some spot on the continuum between the two where you’re most comfortable.
I think the most important thing for me, despite my fascination with my D&D world, is to work outwards from my characters, from my people ... or from my plot. Or both. Maybe it has to do with working outward from whatever drew you into creating this story in the first place. If the plot about rogue AI-driven space stations converging on Earth is your book’s raison d’etre, work from there: How smart is the AI? Who built the space stations? What is the history behind this? If your starting point is the love between a dragon, two humans, and a manticore, go from there: What kind of challenges does such love present in this society/these societies? Does religion play a part? What are the creatures around this situation like? What is the area of the world like? What is the history of these cultures? And so forth.
Do I need to do it for every story I write, in every genre?
God no. But ... well, the right amount of it can certainly help.
Part of the issue is length. A short story is unlikely to need the entire, thorough geography/history of the world behind it. But some would help. Even if you’re writing a poem, if you’re writing it from the perspective of an otherworldly being, it’ll read as having much more depth and be far more convincing if you know the world behind that being, at least a little.
Once you get into novels, you’re definitely in some sort of world-building territory, even if only to keep everything consistent all the way through. You’ll end up building at least as much of the world as is necessary for your story to be good; whether you prefer doing that before writing anything else, alternating between the two, or figuring it all out after is up to you.
Genre is important, too (and by genre I’m being really general and including alternate histories or even stories using our own world). In a fantasy or science fiction setting, you’re likely to need a lot of world-building to create depth, other/alien races, backgrounds, whole worlds ... and the longer you expect the reader to be a part of that/those worlds, the more depth you should have.
Horror is another beast. If it’s horror based in our world (e.g., from Halloween or The Exorcist all the way through Get Out [for some reason I’m shifting to films, but these are stories, too]), then you might only need enough backstory to make the horror believable; in Halloween, you just need to make sure we believe in a small town called Haddonfield and a killer filled with so much evil he cannot die, even if you shoot him six times and set him on fire. In fact, you don’t even really need much depth to the killer’s background, or explain why he cannot die. On the other hand, something like The Descent requires some knowledge of caves and how you’d go spelunking, or you won’t create a believable world; you can’t just use a random cave generator and hope it all seems realistic enough. Horror often deals with much smaller world spaces or with twists on what we already know or believe, though, so you might not have as much world-building to do, and indeed the internet seems to ignore horror when discussing this topic.
However, along with alternate histories/futures based in our own world, you need to be aware of actual history/religion to create a believable jumping-off point, and you’ll need to explain anything that doesn’t fit with our knowledge of the world around us. If someone can fly, you’d better be able to explain it (perhaps she’s from another world; perhaps she’s a devil or angel). If the physics of the world suddenly fail, audiences are likely to be far less forgiving if you’re claiming to be representing the “real” world and don’t have some sort of explanation for why Neo can walk through walls and dodge bullets.
Ultimately, though, again, I’d go from your initial story ideas. Build outward. You’re more likely to figure out the parameters of your world-building and not go overboard. But that starts to speak about process.
If I Am World-Building, What Is the Process?
Well, of course there ain’t just one way to go about this, as you’ve gleaned from the above (unless you just skipped to this part, which may indicate something about your world-building process right there).
There are tons of internet resources on this sort of thing, and between those and my own creative druthers I’d say the following:
(l) One of the Bordertown books and (r) Wild Cards, two anthologies using already-built worlds.
- If you have a character or situation in mind, start there. Maybe brainstorm everything you know about that young wizard: even things like race and gender. How powerful is she? This will probably lead to at least a general idea about how magic works in this world. Does she have friends? Who are these warriors she’s hanging out with? You’ll probably end up with at least a sketchy idea of how this particular society works and with a deeper idea of just who this character is and how they got into this position. I’m not saying start writing the story yet; just start building from the idea of your story.
- Or, of course, the opposite might work better for you; you may want to go write some story first, and then start brainstorming and building that world. Whichever works best for you. Whichever keeps you writing, really. It’s all good.
- Some people might want to start with a whole chunk of built world, and then have its creation and inner workings suggest stories on its own. In some ways, anthologies of stories that take place in a single world are like this; I remember the Borderland/Bordertown series from about a zillion years ago, and also Wild Cards.
- Some authors start with their favorite thing, almost regardless of whether there’s any story idea at the beginning. Some believe Tolkien started his eventual tomes with the Elvish language, working outward from creating beautiful words to the kind of creatures that would use those words, and the kinds of history they’d have, and so forth.
So ... am I saying the process is whatever works for you? Yeah, pretty much. There are some general things to keep track of, though.
Things About Your World to Consider
Again, the internet is full of suggestions ... lists, lists, and more lists. And templates. We’ll link to some of these at the end of this article, but here are some of what we think are the most useful ...
Everyone wants to talk about maps! They are probably the first thing every fantasy story is supposed to have. But I have a confession: Most of the time I just skip looking at the map in the frontispiece and get into the story. It’s only if the author makes things really confusing that I feel like I need to refer to the map. (And I’m saying this despite my love of creating maps for RPGs!) I know, however, that a lot of readers do like to peruse any maps you provide, perhaps even memorizing them before starting your story—so you need to make sure that if you create a map, you follow it. If “Here there be dragons,” well, there better be dragons or a good reason for not having them there.
Maps are useful in certain situations, especially for the author’s own reference: If your story takes place in a specific neighborhood or city, you should know where things are relative to one another (especially for some genres/situations; you can’t have a mystery where the killer ran from the butcher’s to the candlestick maker’s in 20 seconds if these stores are then said to be across town from one another, unless that’s part of the mystery). If characters are travelling across the world (via something other than teleportation or airplanes), you’d better know what’s next to what. Maps are not so useful if your fiction takes place across worlds, or travel is interplanetary, or you teleport, unless there’s a battle across space and we need to know where everyone is. You also don’t need maps of the obvious—present-day Earth, for example, or the order of planets in the solar system. However, if you’re writing about a city, especially historically, a map might be very useful (say, London in the 1700s)—that is, if your story relies on a sense of place or spatial relations.
Nature: People and Animals and Plants
Or aliens and ... well, animals and plants. If your story has anything to do with people (by which I don’t necessarily mean humans), which most do, then you’ll need to have some idea of what those people are and how their environment shaped them. You don’t have to start at the beginning and work your way up from fish to land animals to dinosaurs and so forth; you can even start with the cool character you want to write and reverse engineer the environment so that it creates what you already have. If this is the Earth, plain and simple, then you already have more books about this than you really need; it’s only if you’re deviating in some way from what we think we know that you’ll need to explore this in depth. If you’re somewhere else, either a scifi or fantasy world, then we’ll need to know a lot more, even potentially down to gravity and the kinds of animals these characters would have befriended/hunted. If they tamed dragons centuries ago that’ll mean something in terms of modern society; if they hunted dragons to extinction, well, that’s something else. If they domesticated dragons like cows and eat dragon burgers, well, that’s something else again.
This is also where you’ll first begin to explore science, or scientific principles. How does physics work in this world? Like here on Earth? Great! You’re done (but you also better know what you’re talking about). Is gravity a lot greater on one of your worlds, but less on another? The creatures from the higher-grav world will find things a lot different on the lower-grav one. The physics (and natural characteristics, like climate and geography) of your world will determine how things evolved and how things work. (They could even affect your map ... maybe rivers run uphill!) It will also have an influence on everything in the next section ...
The Big Three: Social Structures, Magic/Science, Religion
Just exactly the things you’re not supposed to talk about in polite company (and you can add politics to “social structures”), but also exactly the kinds of things that will be super important in just about any story you tell, especially anything novel-length, but honestly ... well, most stories. Does this mean you have to know every Space Pope from the very beginning of time? No, but you need to know how the Space Pope and the religion and the policies of that religion affect your societies. Turning to a videogame story for a moment, have a look at Final Fantasy X: In this story, religion is the crux of everything that goes on, it has a real effect on day-to-day life, and it is integral to the development of the characters and the discoveries they make. Someone (or a lot of someones) had to develop this religious system in massive detail in order for the story to make sense, and for the characters to believably live it. And it also affects the social structures, racism, and laws throughout all the lands of the game world.
Your story, even if you begin by pantsing it and developing only a few characters in that pub, will eventually touch on the society in which that pub exists, the ways people interact in pubs (even if inebriated), whether the local religions frown on drinking or absolutely condone it, and even possibly whether it’s acceptable to throw magical spells around whilst in them. And it may (helpfully or annoyingly) lead to other questions that change the track of your story: If magic is verboten in pubs, then is there some kind of anti-magic field around it? If not, why not? Why would they even let wizards onto the premises? How does your young wizard manage to drunkenly screw with all this and create a magical black hole?
These big items can be the easiest to lose oneself in, never to find your way back to the lovely little story you began all those eons ago, when the world was simple and consisted of one pub and one wizard and a few of his warrior pals. You could come up with the equivalent of an entire role-playing game system, all just for your story, detailing all the ways magic can work, the ways magic is mined from the ground, the ways science supplants magic, how far science has advanced, every nuance of every religious belief on the planet, every political system and how those interact with the religions, etc and so on. You just have to know when to stop, and stop there.
(l) Dragonflight (the first Dragonriders of Pern book) and (r) a collection of the first four Earthsea books, two absolutely awesome worlds developed over many, many novels and stories.
Do we gotta learn history? Well, yes and no. Just like everything else, and especially like the “Big Three” above, you have to have enough history that you know the whys and wherefores of your story world, and of your story in particular, but you don’t need fifty volumes of everything everywhere everywhen. And again, if you’re using the “real” world as your starting point, great! You’re done! But, as before, you’d better know what you’re doing; using the real world as your base means you have to go learn about it, if you don’t know it already. And sometimes that can be as time consuming as creating it (try reading those fifty volumes!)
Even more fun is the fact that different societies are going to write about the same events very differently, and as the creator of all those societies it’ll behoove you to know each of those points of view. The German view of World War I in the twenty years after the war (especially as manipulated by the Nazis) was very different from the French view, which was again different from the English view; these viewpoints arguably lead to very different actions at the beginning of World War II. Or even within the same society ... an American history textbook created by the far Right is going to be very different from one created by the left, omitting and focusing on different events in such a way as to play to the ideology of that group. This can lead to the sorts of things that happen in 1984 or other dystopian fiction, where people grew up with only one “truth” and have been manipulated into a sort of mindless patriotism that promotes authoritarianism (in the guise of remembering a “reality” that existed only in textbooks).
History basically ties everything together, so having a basic outline is probably going to be a good thing regardless of whatever else you’re doing on the world-building front.
Most Importantly: See, Touch, Taste, Smell, Feel Your World
Even if you’ve developed your world perfectly, you have all the religious systems ready to go, all the historical anomalies in place, all the volcanoes temporarily dormant and all the peoples in their towns, waiting for dawn to arrive, you could still end up with a dry, boring, readily burned bit of parchment if your readers can’t sense as much of it as possible. We should be able to smell the incense, taste the roast Christmas dragon, hear the frivolity in the pub just before we see and feel the magical black hole destroying it, even as our mug of ale is pulled from our hands and sucked into mystical singularity. It may not seem like part of world-building (and indeed, I found very little in the way of internet corroboration on this one; just part of “7 Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding” by Charlie Jane Anders and “Worldbuilding: How to Create a Believable World for Your Fiction Characters” by Emily Wenstrom and Tim Hillebrant), but as you are noting the way magic works, also take note of how it smells, what it does to the air around it, whether it looks like anything in particular. While you are regaling us with the Battle of the Armored Dragons, show us what it looked like from the dragon’s point of view, how the human on its back smelled like it hadn’t bathed in a month but might still taste like the moistest Christmas goose if properly bathed in dragonfire (if only the dragon could reach it!). Take a page from cooking and travel shows, where they try to describe just how that meal smells and tastes, how damp those castle ruins in the north of England feel, how that little bit of sunlight breaking through the clouds changes everything. Do this, and every other bit of world-building will be magnified tenfold.
Finally, the Broad Advice
After all that, I’m not even sure what to say. I feel exhausted from those final exhortations. But really, it all comes down to this: World-building is neither the be-all, end-all of storytelling, nor is it anathema; you will end up with at least as much world-building as you needed whichever process or route you take through storytelling, if you do your storytelling well. I would think that having more depth than you need is better than having less, certainly, and continuity mistakes will come back to bite you if you aren’t careful, but ultimately world-building is about enriching your storytelling and giving depth to your characters, and gifting your reader with a thoroughly enjoying (or terrifying, or whatever –ing, just thorough) experience that they can take with them. And that’s the really amazing thing—that you can create a world your reader can live in, even if just for the time they are immersed between the covers of your book, and that they will fondly remember and deeply wish to visit again, when the time comes for your next book to come out ... and the next ... and the next.
Following are some of the many articles with world-building advice on the Internet.
- “Worldbuilding: the Master Guide” by Michael Rowley (https://blog.reedsy.com/worldbuilding-guide/)
- “What Is World-Building?” by Moriah Richard (https://www.writersdigest.com/write-better-fiction/what-is-world-building)
- “Worldbuilding: How to Create a Believable World for Your Fiction Characters” by Emily Wenstrom and Tim Hillebrant (https://thewritelife.com/worldbuilding/)
- “World Building 101” by Ruthanne Reid (https://thewritepractice.com/world-building-101/)
- “7 Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding” by Charlie Jane Anders (https://gizmodo.com/7-deadly-sins-of-worldbuilding-998817537)
- “Against Worldbuilding” by Lincoln Michel (https://electricliterature.com/against-worldbuilding/)
- “An Impatient Writer’s Approach to World Building” by Victoria Strauss (https://victoriastrauss.com/advice/world-building/)
- “25 Things You Should Know About Worldbuilding” by Chuck Wendig (http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2013/09/17/25-things-you-should-know-about-worldbuilding/)
- “The psychology of world building” by Gabriela Pereira (https://www.writermag.com/improve-your-writing/fiction/world-building)