There is no other genre quite like fantasy for exploring new and unusual worlds, but building those worlds can be a real challenge. It’s one of my favourite parts of the process, but it takes a lot of work to create something truly memorable and immersive.
So where should you begin?
Too often people make the mistake of starting at the literal beginning. I know I have. There are plenty of wonderful worldbuilding questionnaires floating around the internet, and frequently the very first thing on the list is the creation myth, and where you’d naturally start. After all, you are building a world.
This was how I used to build my own fantasy worlds, but I kept getting bogged down in all the minutia, and while it was fun, when you’re trying to write a novel (or a series of novels), it’s really not conducive to fast writing.
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I’ve been writing (and worldbuilding), for a long time, and I’ve tried to do it many different ways. Starting at ‘the beginning‘ was too broad, so I went smaller, and started with the towns and villages and the individual lives, but then they lacked cohesion. The top-down and bottom-up methods I found lacking. Filling out all the prompts and questionnaires was fun but unsatisfying.
I want to be immersed in my world when I’m worldbuilding. I don’t want it to feel like I’m filling out forms and checking off boxes. I want the world to come alive when I think about it, to invite me in for tea and a swordfight when I sit down to write.
My approach to worldbuilding, because I’m a writer, is a decidedly narrative-fueled one. And I’ll admit that it isn’t for everyone. For many, the straightforward methods work just fine, and if you find this one a little strange or daunting, then I highly encourage you to do what feels most comfortable for you. Creating anything is never a straightforward process, and it will be different for everyone.
How I Build a Fantasy World
It’s been two years since I posted my last worldbuilding template, and I have learned a lot about writing and my own process since then, and I’ve refined the method a little more.
For me, the worldbuilding process begins when I get a new idea for a story. My story ideas usually come as fragments of scenes, so I have a rough idea of character, setting, and conflict. It’s not a lot to work with, but there’s usually enough for step one.
Step One: The Rule of Cool
Unless you aim to write a literary novel where the fantasy world is heavily steeped in metaphor, there is probably something unique about the world you’re building – something that piques your interest and makes you want to explore it more.
It’s the rule of cool – that thing that captures your attention and makes you want to explore the world further.
For me, when inspiration strikes, there is usually some hint of the rule of cool – something I want to know more about, and that is typically where I begin.
If you don’t have any rule-of-cool in mind, especially if you are in the early stages, this is where I fall back on the things that inspire me. Look at your favourite books, movies, games, and tv shows. What was it that grabbed your attention? What did you want to know more about? What do you wish was explored more? This might be a good place to brainstorm for some cool element that you can use as the starting seed.
And once you have that, see what other connections you can make. If this element of your world is “true” what does that mean for other aspects of your world? What inferences can you draw?
Inspiration Fuels Motivation
The reason why it is so important to have that interesting nugget at the core of your world-building is for one simple reason – if it excites you, you’ll want to work on it. If it doesn’t excite you, why on earth would you want to waste your time writing and developing that world?
And if it’s not fun for you, is it going to be fun for other people?
When the motivation is lacking, it’s important to remember the best parts of what you are working on – the things about your world that excite you will make it easier for you to jump back into it.
Step Two: A Look at the Past
Once I’ve explored my rule-of-cool with a little more depth, it’s time for the next step – looking at the history of my world. Everything that is is a result of what was. I go through what I have and I start asking myself what might have happened for things to end up the way they did.
I’ll use my current work-in-progress as an example.
In the novella I’m working on right now, one of the major conflicts is between the naturally-born magic casters and a group of mage-hunters known as the Red Legion. Obviously, the Red Legion didn’t just appear from nowhere. Something must have happened in the past that caused this group to be created, and things have happened since that continue to promote the rift between those who have magic and those who do not.
In the same way that a character’s backstory explains why they are the way that they are, your world needs the same. Once I know what draws me into the world, I like to create a loose timeline of important events that helped to shape it, specifically those aspects that I find interesting (and will be explored in the story I’m writing).
Step Three: Internal and External Elements
Now we get to the more conventional part of worldbuilding, where you develop various aspects of your world, like culture, government, geography, and ecology. I prefer to use my timeline as a base, and make inferences from there about what sort of world I am creating, dividing them into one of two categories:
- Internal Elements – beliefs, values, ethics, laws, prejudices – the things you cannot see but are still integral to how society operates
- External Elements – clothing, food, festivals, plants, art, landforms – the physical, tangible things you can understand with your five senses
From there it’s pretty straightforward – I ask myself questions to probe deeper, such as:
- What sort of laws or values might emerge as a result of what happened in the past?
- How might they affect people’s opinions, for better or for worse?
- How might that have affected the geography of this region?
- What were the long and short-term effects of these events?
What I want more than anything at this stage is for there to emerge some sort of internal logic to the world. Things should start clicking into place, and every decision you make about the world will have some sort of logic behind it.
This is also the point where I look at the overall visuals and get a rough idea of my map. I never pin it down – everything I do is in flux until it’s made canon in the story itself, but it’s important to have some idea of where something is located.
Step Four: A Picture of the Present
At this point, the picture of this world should be pretty clear, but if you want to write a story in it, it’s important to get an idea of what the world looks like in that story’s “present”. What are the sources of conflict that are affecting people in the “present day”? What moments of history might be playing out before the character’s eyes? What does the world look like when the story begins?
This is probably more important to the writers out there because it’s the “normal” that you are in when your story begins, but I think the transformative possibility in the story should always be there. Like a powder keg waiting for the spark of flame – there has to be conflict and hardship present, certainly in the character’s own lives, but also in your world, ready to light up and send them on that journey.
Step Five: Bringing it all Together
What makes a world compelling and authentic are the connections – the idea that one choice creates a rippling of reactions and consequences. One thing leads to another that leads to another, and every choice you’ve made will have some explanation. The decisions you’ve made thus far were not made in a vacuum. All of them are related to each other, and it makes consequences feel more intense and real, both to the characters and the reader.
So keep making those connections. Pour over what you’ve got to see if there are more connections to be made. Expand your history and continue to dive deeper. If you need to you can loop back to the beginning and continue to delve deeper into your world and flesh it out even more.
Just remember that it’s important to write the story and go back to the worldbuilding only when you need to. Especially if building the world is something you particularly enjoy – it’s so easy to get lost in it.
Worldbuilding Paradigms & Brainstorming Prompts
If you’re not interested in printing out a worksheet (I’m there with you – all of my brainstorming is now done in Notion, after all), I’ve listed all of the questions below so you can take a look to get an idea of how I explore worldbuilding and continue to expand my world with each of these categories – or to be fancy about it, paradigms.
paRADIGM oNE: The Past
- What major events happened in this world in the last decade? The last century? Even further than that? (ex. technological/magical developments, natural disasters, wars, sweeping illnesses, etc.)
- Are any of these events linked? How?
- What were the short and long-term effects of these events on things like government and law, ecology, geography, culture, religion, myth, magic?
PARADIGM tWO: Internal Elements
- What do the people of various regions value? What do they dislike? What are their prejudices?
- What are their customs and gestures? How do they treat family? The elderly? A lover?
- What do people believe in? What is/are the predominant faith(s)? How do people demonstrate that faith? Where do they demonstrate it? At home? In a place of worship?
- What are the laws of this region (outside of the obvious ones – do not kill, do not steal, etc)? What do the people think of these laws? Are they followed or ignored? Why do these laws exist? What are the consequences of breaking them?
- Are there well-known stories and tales? Myths? Superstitions?
pARADIGM tHREE: External Elements
- What are the common languages? Who speaks them? What do they sound like? Is there a written alphabet?
- What are the common foods? Why are they common? What do they smell like? What do they taste like?
- What do their clothes look like? Their armor? What dyes do they use and what accessories do they wear? Are there uniforms? Who wears them and what do they look like?
- What is the climate? How does it affect their clothing? Their food sources?
- What jobs or roles are common in your world? Which are unique? What do they do?
- What are the celebrations and festivals? Why do they celebrate them? Are any of them celebrations of faith? What do they look like and how do they celebrate them?
- What do people do for fun?
pARADIGM fOUR: The Present
- What are the hardships that people face right now?
- Economic (poverty, lack of or mismanaged resources, etc)
- Political (war, changes in leadership and policy, etc)
- Environmental (bad weather, poor harvest, invasive species)
- Cultural (new religion, generational differences, etc)
- What are the effects of past events that are still being felt in the present day? How are people coping? How are they not?
- What are some previously held ideas, laws, or long-standing beliefs that might be challenged?
Download my Worldbuilding Worksheet
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I want your feedback!
My approach to worldbuilding might be a little unconventional, and I’d love feedback to improve and expand on this worksheet. If you have any questions on how to use it or if you’d like a deeper explanation, drop your questions in the comments below! And if you’ve used and enjoyed my worksheet, I’d love to know!