Worldbuilding: Who, What, Where, Why & HowApr 16, 2023
One of the big questions we get asked at The Novelry is how to create satisfying and immersive worldbuilding. It’s a huge part of writing in any genre; the setting is a memorable part of many books, and there are fictional worlds – and real places! – we’re transported to at the mere mention of a title. (Does anyone else feel chilly when they hear ‘The Secret History’?)
Fantasy writers and those crafting science fiction worlds are, of course, particularly interested in worldbuilding. After all, they’re conjuring up not only a fictional world, but often an imaginary world. You can’t visit your chosen setting or take a peek on Google Maps. You can’t research the terrain or the physical landscape, watch a documentary on the culture, or sample the cuisine. But the good news? You get to play God over an entire fictional universe, creating your own futuristic or magical world to roam in freely. Plus, readers of these genres welcome an intricate and highly detailed world. You have quite the playground!
If you’re about to write a fantasy world, or you’re editing your fictional setting to bring it to life, this article is not one to miss. Our senior editor Craig Leyenaar delves into his top tips for creating a brilliant fictional world – especially for those writing fantasy or science fiction. He covers key questions, such as how to organise the magic system or religious belief system that orders your fictional society, with rules considered fair and consistent, to create a believable world.
So whether your story is set on a desert planet or a post-apocalyptic Earth; whether you’re writing fairy stories or dystopia about artificial intelligence; whether you’re exploring our class system or gender politics (à la The Handmaid’s Tale) or simply enjoying the freedom that comes with SFF, this one’s for you. In this blog, Craig answers the big worldbuilding questions to help you bring your own world to life on the page – wherever you are on your writing journey.
Get support with your worldbuilding and so much more
If you want to ensure your worldbuilding is powerful, immersive and consistent, sign up for one of our creative writing courses at The Novelry. We have a dedicated and highly experienced SFF department, so you’ll write your story with coaching from our team of expert published authors. They’ll work with you on all things speculative, bringing magic to your science and science to your magic.
You can also get personalised, in-depth feedback on your writing with editors like Craig to help with everything from keeping your spells spelled consistently, to balancing your worldbuilding with the action of your plot.
Now, over to Craig!
Pay attention to your worldbuilding!
First, a word on the importance of both science fiction and fantasy worldbuilding.
Worldbuilding is a crucial aspect of the broad spectrum of science fiction and fantasy writing – the believability and richness of your imaginary world can make or break a story. To get that ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ from your reader, it is vital to make your fictional worlds convincing.
So to help you create imaginary worlds your readers want to come back to again and again, here are some of my top tips. They should help you ensure the world constructed by your imagination is believable and immersive.
To get that ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ from your reader, it is vital to make your fictional worlds convincing.
The ‘where’ of worldbuilding
For the first step in your worldbuilding process, I’d suggest thinking about the physical world that your story takes place in.
This is where you face the blank page and get to have some fun! You can create whatever your imagination fancies, so let it run wild.
Start by defining your sandbox: is this story taking place in a galaxy-spanning empire with characters crossing multiple planets? Is it in a solar system two centuries from now, or a secondary world where mountains can talk? Are you dreaming of a hidden world of supernatural, exotic creatures lurking beneath our own? Or perhaps a single house containing eldritch horrors?
These decisions will most likely be determined by your chosen genre, but there’s always room to mix things up. Most readers are open to being surprised and having their expectations subverted – many even welcome it! How about a haunted house set on a spaceship where the artificial intelligence goes rogue and ancient beings lurk behind the scenes? (This could apply to both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Event Horizon, oddly enough.)
Now you have your canvas, let’s start painting
Let’s think a little more about the details of your physical place.
Have a go at sketching out the geography of your fantasy world. This is a really important step, and brings up lots of crucial worldbuilding questions which you’ll want to answer before you dive too deep into the story.
The choices you make here will impact your whole tale, as characters, locations and plot events will be affected by the environment in which they occur.
Ask yourself: how does the terrain influence your story? Spend time establishing the physical laws and parameters, such as its size, geography, climate and natural resources. What features are there? Decide on the shapes and locations of continents, islands, oceans, mountains, space stations, planets.
The choices you make here will impact your whole tale, as characters, locations and plot events will be affected by the environment in which they occur. Think about the specifics of your world early on!
How your fantasy world determines your story
So what kind of features will impact the way your world works?
Well, for example, a resource-rich region could mean a wealthy culture, or one that’s constantly under threat as others want the wealth for themselves. Or if you’re writing science fiction, you might decide you have wormholes that allow faster-than-light (FTL) travel or that the inhabitants live in vast megastructures or in the atmosphere of gas giants. Seemingly small decisions can have an outsized effect on the fabric of your entire novel.
These aren’t just constraints. They’re opportunities for new stories, too!
Have fun here, but create with intention. Your choices will affect your writing in fundamental ways. If you create a huge landmass for a secondary world fantasy, your characters may have to travel hundreds or thousands of miles by horseback. What are they doing during this time, what are other characters up to, and how are you showing all of this to the reader? Unexpectedly, a single choice regarding the geography of your world could mean your story takes place over years rather than weeks.
Similarly, if you don’t have FTL then you will have to consider time dilation and the centuries it takes to cross interstellar space.
However, these aren’t just constraints. They’re opportunities for new stories, too! One example comes to mind right away: Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War uses time dilation to brilliant effect.
The setting as a character
Your world can be considered a character in its own right in that the setting is integral to the story – the events of your plot couldn’t take place without that specific world.
N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy is a great example of this. Think about the genres of post-apocalyptic science fiction, secondary world fantasy, or haunted house horror – what would the novels be without their settings? A good setting can be as memorable as the characters who explore it. Think about Narnia, Hogwarts, or the USS Enterprise. Just saying those names can transport you directly to those fantasy worlds!
The ‘what’ of worldbuilding
The next step in our journey to powerful worldbuilding is the what.
Once you have a good sense of the fantasy world where your novel is set, it’s time to think about the tools your main characters will have available to interact with that world.
In the previous section, we saw that depending on what kind of world you’ve created, the availability of different magical or technological abilities will dramatically change how you’re able to tell your tale.
Develop a magic or technology system
With science fiction and fantasy worldbuilding, you need to think carefully about the rules and limitations of the magic or technology in your world. When you’re creating them, ensure they’re consistent and coherent.
Physics and technology
In both fantasy and science fiction, you should think about the laws of physics and what level of technology you want to use. Consider how technology works and, importantly, what it is used for. Why was it created and who created it?
With SF, this can lead to exciting possibilities with ancient progenitor civilisations or the idea of ‘forgotten knowledge’ where people use technology but have no idea how to build it.
This is also true for fantasy novels. What level of technology do you want your world to have? Traditionally, fantasy novels have been set in a pseudo-medieval world, but this is changing in recent years, which is exciting – the genre appears to be going through its very own ‘industrial revolution’.
With magic systems you have some more flexibility. Do you want to explain everything and have the magic system in your fantasy story feel more like a science, such as in Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere novels? Or will your magical elements feel more nebulous and unknowable, as is the case with The Lord of the Rings series? Each comes with pros and cons, and will significantly change your story. The key thing to remember is that the more you explain, the more you have to explain, which makes keeping things consistent difficult and also opens the door to potential plot holes.
Something to keep in mind when establishing magical abilities is how they may be used other than how your characters are using them. Many fantasy writers at some point realise they’ve unintentionally created the opportunity for an easy solution to a character’s problems, if that character just used their power in a certain way. When the character doesn’t do this, and the reader picks up on it, the author’s hand in the story becomes more obvious. Think very carefully and broadly about how your magic works, and how it can be applied in the key events and even the more minor moments of your plot.
The more you explain, the more you have to explain.
Be clear, consistent and purposeful
The key things to consider with both technology and magic are: what can it do, what can’t it do, and how could people misuse it? Or use it to gain power or profit? Remember, it will always be people using the magic or tech and they won’t always use them how you would like!
Be consistent – don’t use either magic or technology to solve problems for your character, unless it comes about through effort and conflict.
And just like the unintended consequence of having your characters needing to spend months of page time crossing a mega-continent, think about how easy or difficult it is to learn the magic or technology. Usually, in science fiction, the tech is just a part of the world like it is for us, so this isn’t an issue. However, in fantasy, your characters will not be familiar with magic; if it’s difficult to learn, how long does it take? How do they learn? Once again, these kinds of questions can lead to new stories – ask how they learn magic and then write a novel answering it. J.K. Rowling did this, and created the global phenomenon that is the Harry Potter series.
Don’t use either magic or technology to solve problems for your character, unless it comes about through effort and conflict.
Sometimes, you might not need to develop extensive systems of either magic or technology and just have it in the background. Don’t add these elements to your novel or short story because you think they’re supposed to be there – they should serve a purpose. If magic exists or a technology has been invented, be very clear with yourself – as well as the reader – about what it adds.
The ‘who’ of worldbuilding
Finally, we get to the people! I know, right? Took a while.
But now we have a world and a way to interact with it, so let’s get populating.
It’s important to establish the basics of where and what before you get to this step of your worldbuilding, because those elements are some of the building blocks of society and culture. People respond to their environment, and how they respond tells you so much about them. Do they choose to live in harmony with nature or dominate it? Does a society embrace technology, worship it or fear it?
Once again, these questions are where stories are born. Society’s relationship with technology/knowledge is the basis for Asimov’s Foundation series. Likewise, the way the Fremen adapted to the sands of Planet Arrakis is fundamental to Frank Herbert’s Dune series.
Create unique cultures
Before creating a new fictional culture or society, consider why you want to do so. What themes or ideas do you want to explore through your worldbuilding? What aspects of your own culture or society do you want to challenge or subvert? What perspectives or experiences do you want to highlight?
By starting with a purpose, you can create a more intentional and meaningful world – and one that has something to say about the real world.
History, customs, religion, values, politics, relationships and attitudes to other cultures – these are all important to think about. What about the power dynamics between different groups? Who holds power and who is marginalised? Who are our major rulers, and how did they get there? How do the different social classes behave towards one another?
What themes or ideas do you want to explore through your worldbuilding? What aspects of your own culture or society do you want to challenge or subvert? What perspectives or experiences do you want to highlight?
Of all the elements that shape your story, the cultures you create will have the most impact on your characters. Iain M. Banks’s bestselling science fiction series is literally called ‘the Culture’ for a reason! These elements can help you create distinct characters, especially if you look at how you can use contrast to create conflict and characterisation. For example, if you have a main character who is a pacifist in a warrior culture, there’s a story right there.
To create a rich and believable fictional culture or society, draw inspiration from real-world cultures and societies. Do your research and borrow elements from different cultures, but do so respectfully and without appropriation. Avoid using real-world cultures as a sort of worldbuilding template for your fictional universe without understanding and acknowledging their complexity and diversity. Avoid stereotypes, prejudices and harmful tropes.
Include diverse characters
As an author, you should do your best to represent the real world around us, whether you’re writing science fiction, fantasy or horror. If you find that all the people in your fictional worlds look, speak and act the same, it’s worth re-examining your worldbuilding.
The real world is full of variety and difference, both geographically and in the people who inhabit it. This difference is exciting! Having everyone the same is rather boring, unless you’re choosing that for a specific purpose – for example, if you’re writing a dystopian SF novel about conformity. But even then, you could include diverse characters because the interesting approach would be to examine how those who don’t fit in struggle to conform.
As the author, you have the power to broaden readers’ perspectives and understanding of different cultures, beliefs, and experiences.
By including characters of different cultures, races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, and abilities, you allow readers to see themselves reflected in the stories they are reading, which can be incredibly empowering and validating. As the author, you have the power to broaden readers’ perspectives and understanding of different cultures, beliefs and experiences. And from a storytelling perspective, it’s important as it adds depth and richness to the worldbuilding and storytelling of your novel.
For example, N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings, Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti all show that everyone can be the hero of their own story, and that representing the rich variety of backgrounds can create some of the most exciting stories and worlds.
The ‘why’ of worldbuilding
When we create any fictional world – in any genre – it’s always worth interrogating our why. Why have we chosen to examine a particular place, community and series of events? Why have the systems and structures we include come to be? Why do people make the choices they do?
And when you’re diving as deep into worldbuilding as the SFF genres allow, this question is arguably bigger than ever.
History informs the present
While some speculative fiction uses and adapts real-world history (like The Handmaid’s Tale and The Man in the High Castle), fictional historical context can also act as the cultural geography upon which your characters interact and live. A well-developed history can contribute to a sense of realism and make your worldbuilding more immersive, providing a backstory that explains how the world got to its current state. It helps to establish the credibility and depth of your created world, providing a strong foundation that will enable your readers to engage with your story more fully.
To create this sense of realism, describe significant historical events – such as wars, political struggles or natural disasters – and show how these events have shaped the culture, beliefs and customs of your characters. For example, in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, the history of the Seven Kingdoms is full of battles, betrayals and alliances that have left a lasting impact on the current state of affairs.
Fictional historical context can act as the cultural geography upon which your characters interact and live.
A well-crafted history can also provide essential context for your story. By understanding the past, your readers can better appreciate the present and the challenges faced by your characters. This can be particularly useful when writing stories set in secondary worlds, as it can help to ground your readers and make the world-building more understandable. For example, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy fiction The Lord of the Rings, the history of Middle-earth is integral to understanding the motivations and actions of the characters.
A fictional history can also be used to create conflict within your story. By highlighting past grievances, feuds and rivalries, you can create tensions that add depth to your plot and drive your characters’ actions. For example, in Frank Herbert’s Dune, the longstanding feud between House Atreides and House Harkonnen is a crucial plot point that drives much of the conflict.
And don’t forget about cultural history! Think about art, literature, religion and cultural traditions that have evolved over time. For example, in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series, the history of magic and the origins of the wizarding school at Roke add to the richness and complexity of the world.
The ‘how’ of worldbuilding
Now you have a really strong sense of your world, it’s time to think about how you can convey it to your readers. How can you make an imaginary setting really immersive?
Pay attention to the details of your world
Think about the small details that make your world come alive, such as fashion, cuisine and language. These details will help your readers feel like they are really there and make your world seem three-dimensional.
This includes names of streets, locations like theatres or parks, space stations or moons. It’s good practice to avoid generic terms when describing things unless you’ve already introduced them or they’re really not important. So, add a touch of specificity! Remember, this is a real place. For example, if you’re in London, you might say ‘Jenny walked down Oxford Street.’ That’s how you should approach your world.
Use all the senses when you’re worldbuilding
Remember to engage all of the senses in your descriptions, not just sight. We’ve all grown up consuming stories through film and TV, and often come to reading later. As a result, we tend to imagine stories cinematically; it’s a movie inside your head that you then describe. But as a writer, you have a whole range of tools at your disposal to evoke this fantastic world you’ve created. Consider how things feel, smell, sound and taste.
Consistency is Queen
Make sure that the different elements of your world are consistent with one another. Avoid contradictions or plot holes that could break the suspension of disbelief.
While it’s important to establish the details of your world, you don’t want to overload your readers with too much information at once. Introduce elements gradually, and only include what is necessary for the story.
The Iceberg Principle
Ultimately, the purpose of worldbuilding is to serve your story. Don’t get so caught up in the details that you lose sight of the plot and characters.
A good rule of thumb is that 90% of your worldbuilding will remain out of sight while only 10% will be explained or even shown to your reader.
But don’t worry, all that worldbuilding work won’t be wasted! It just means there’s the opportunity to tell more stories and reveal new mysteries in your world.
And lastly: remember to stop!
You will do a lot of worldbuilding and it’s incredibly fun, but it’s easy to spend all your time building your world and never actually finish (or sometimes even start) writing your book!
Writing for children? Here are 3 tips from Piers Torday on worldbuilding in middle-grade fiction
1. Keep your worldbuilding simple…
Middle-grade fiction appeals to children aged around 8–12, with varying levels of development. It’s best not to overwhelm your readers with overly complex worlds involving multiple locations, kingdoms, generations etc. That kind of worldbuilding might be better suited to high adult fantasy.
For some readers, Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory is world enough. For others, Hogwarts and the wizarding world of Harry Potter is the next level of complexity up. The multiple dimensions of Philip Pullman’s MG/adult crossover, His Dark Materials, might be considered the highest and upper limit of worldbuilding for younger readers.
And never forget that a private school murder mystery or a neighbourhood family drama need just as much worldbuilding as a fantasy adventure.
2. ...But rich!
Child readers – familiar with the detailed worlds of many a video game, graphic novel/comic series and visually expansive streaming content – do love immersive worlds and strong, visually distinct locations. Consider The Misty Mountains, a haunted house, a monster hotel, a hat shop… All of these can offer a wealth of concrete visual and sensory detail, often with factual or historical takeaway for the reader, that an adult might find overkill.
3. Show as you go
Discover your world through their eyes! This applies to all worldbuilding, but particularly with young readers who have next to no appetite for narrative-only exposition, apart from in the smallest and most interwoven quantities.
Always think, ‘What is my young reader’s way into this brave new world?’ This is why the trope of a newbie at school can be helpful, or following a map through a fantasy land can help space out the cognitive comprehension required to fully imagine a fictional world.
Remember, a writing coach can help keep you on track, and ensure you don’t let worldbuilding become a roadblock to starting to write your book. If you want a sounding board to run ideas past as you create your world, and help you see how it will affect your plot, sign up for one of our creative writing courses. They delve deep into worldbuilding, ensuring every writer creates a rich and dynamic setting – whatever stories they’re telling.
Editor at The Novelry
Before joining us, Craig Leyenaar was a commissioning editor at the famous Titan Books, a publisher specialising in science fiction, fantasy, horror, crime, and thrillers, and home to authors including Stephen King, V.E. Schwab, James Lovegrove, Mikey Spillane.