A book like Game of Thrones, a movie like Star Wars, or even a video game like Final Fantasy gives the impression creators effortlessly built a fantasy world from nothing.
How do they do it?
More importantly, how can you do it?
More than two-thirds of the nearly 200 books I’ve written are novels, but creating fictional worlds never gets easier.
It’s an art. In Fantasy or Science Fiction, worldbuilding can make or break a story.
In this guide, I’ll share tips to follow and errors to avoid.
Worldbuilding can be as complex as designing a unique venue with exotic creatures, rich history, and new religions…or as simple as tweaking the history of our own world.
Done well, your readers could become fanatics like those who obsess over:
- Star Wars
- Star Trek
- Harry Potter
- Game of Thrones
- The Marvel Universe
Each approaches worldbuilding differently:
A story set in our world, with a plot based on a real event (like Outlander) or one in which historical events occur differently.
In Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Franklin Roosevelt was assassinated in the early 1930s.
A creation of new lands, species, and governments—a world with its own rich history, geography, and purpose.
- Game of Thrones
- The Lord of the Rings
- Star Wars
Some novels, like the Harry Potter series, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Alice in Wonderland, combine the two.
A Worldbuilding Guide
Step 1: Plan but Don’t Over-Plan
Outliners usually map everything before they begin.
Pantsers write by process of discovery.
Largely a Pantser, I can tell you “discovering” a new world is much harder than building it before you get too deep into your writing.
Build your world first, then focus on the story.
But don’t over-plan.
Many fantasy writers become so engrossed in worldbuilding their story suffers.
Step 2: Describe Your World
Transport your readers by appealing to their senses.
- Environment: everything from the weather to fundamental building blocks. Is it Earth or an alien planet?
- Resources: water, food, air, etc. (A post-apocalyptic world may lack fuel, money, or power)
- Geography: landscape, locations, landmarks.
For Avatar, James Cameron created reference books on Pandora’s vegetation, climate, and even botany.
In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, main characters live in a post-apocalyptic world covered in ash. Their entire journey revolves around finding food, water, and warmth.
In Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin created detailed maps.
World building questions:
- What do you need to show to support the story?
- What’s the weather like?
- What’s the landscape? Does it influence the story?
- Where are the borders?
- What are the natural resources? How do they impact your story?
Step 3: Inhabit Your World
Are the inhabitants people, but different? Are they aliens, monsters, a new species?
In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien gave Frodo a past, and unique personality traits and morals. But first, he had to determine how hobbits looked and lived.
Establish the species first. Don’t worry about the individuals just yet.
World building character questions:
- Population size? (how big is your world?)
- What is their backstory?
- Is there a class system?
- What are the genders, races, and species?
- Do they get along?
- What are their resources?
Step 4: Establish the History of Your World
Many stories are defined by their pasts:
- The Lord of The Rings: ancient war.
- The Hunger Games: decades of oppression.
- The Divergent trilogy: ignorance of history.
When worldbuilding, consider:
- The Deep Past: What happened historically that currently fuels the economy, environment, culture…?
- Trauma: Wars, famines, plagues, and their aftermaths.
- Power Shifts: Political, religious, or technological.
World building questions:
- Who were the major rulers?
- What happened during their reigns?
- Environmental disasters?
Exercise: organize history chronologically.
Step 5: Determine the Culture of Your World
- Societal Structure
- Political Power/Government
In Star Wars, religion, societal structure, and politics play huge roles.
- What is the political structure?
- Who holds the most power?
- Is your world totalitarian, authoritarian, or a democracy?
- Will characters bend/break the rules?
- Are the rules fair? Is society opposed to them?
- How are inhabitants punished if they break the rules?
- What is the religious belief system?
- What gods exist?
- What are the religious rituals/customs?
- Is there conflict between different religious groups?
- How do different social classes behave?
- How are gender roles defined?
- How do relationships operate?
- What behaviors are considered improper/immoral?
Step 6: Power Your World
Is it energized by equipment or magic?
Equipment can be Artificial Intelligence, space/time travel, futuristic weaponry, or simpler things like swords, guns, or horses.
Magic takes worldbuilding to new realms.
In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke explained how things worked and why, making it as realistic and factual as possible.
When writing his futuristic novels, Iain M. Banks referenced droids and spaceships, but never explained how they worked.
Apply the same to magic in your story—explain how it all works, or focus on how it’s used and why.
- Does magic exist?
- Can it be controlled?
- Can it be learned or are people born with it?
- Where does the magic come from?
- Are wands or staffs, etc., needed to perform this magic?
- Do people fear/embrace it?
- Is there good and evil magic? What’s the difference?
- What other technologies do people use?
- How do they travel/communicate?
- Do governments use technology to gain or maintain power?
In Fantastic Beasts, J.K. Rowling wrote a guide that focuses on how the magic works.
If magic or futuristic technology play roles in your world, consider doing the same. It doesn’t have to be nearly as detailed or complete, but for consistency, create a resource that lists the rules.
These Worldbuilding Tips Can Help You Write Attention-Grabbing Fiction
No two writers approach worldbuilding the same way. Use these tips as a guide, but remember, your imagination is what matters most.
Have fun with it! Your readers will thank you.
(c) Jerry B. Jenkins
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