World-Building in Fiction: A Guide

May 23, 2011 By: Christopher D. Eldridge Category: World-Building

World building is not an exact science. There are countless ways to go about doing it, largely because there is some level of world-building in all fiction. World-Building in Fiction: A Guide is meant to help you build a world through several different approaches. You may use one of these methods or any combination of them.

I. Macroscopic Scale – Top-Down

This is the process by which you build your world from the outside in, starting from the largest scale possible and moving down. For sci-fi, you might start with the universe or galaxy your story takes place in. For fantasy you might start at the planet level. From there you move all the way down to individual people.

Here is my suggestion for world-building through a Top-Down approach:
1. Astronomical Processes – Create your universe, your galaxy, or your planet
2. Map-Making – Create a map for your world. A complete guide to accomplish this, including the following:
2a. Create your land masses (continents/islands) and oceans
2b. Create your biomes/ecosystems – Also add in mountain ranges, lakes and rivers. Doing this well help decide where your cities go.
2c. Create/define your countries/nations/empires
2d. Create your cities/towns/villages, etc.
2e. Add in roads between cities and important places of travel
2f. Label everything (continents, biomes, empires, cities, roads, etc.)
2g. Add navigation lines, compass and scale
2h. Fine tune, fix various problems, continue to add/build.
3. In any order you desire, begin to develop your world’s:
History – Timelines, past wars, fallen civilizations, etc.
Sociology – Sentient beings, religions, civilizations, politics, economy, etc.
Science – Technology, weaponry, or its fantasy alternative, magic
4. Zoology/Ecology – Various plants and animals in the ecosystems of your world
5. Characters – The individual people in your world that populate your nations and cities and of course your stories

Top-Down Example
from my books:

I started by creating my planet and the three moons that orbit it, as you can see from the first picture below. I decided that my planet would be close to Earth’s size (Earth’s circumference is ~ 24,900 miles, while Zenita is ~ 18,600) and have the same relative gravity. Since Zenita is orbited by three moons, two of which are quite large, the gravitational effects on the planet create strong tidal forces, unique vulcanism, and specific weather patterns, which is why my biomes are distributed slightly different than those on Earth (See IIIB. in Map-Making: A Guide).

Since I wanted to have the world virtually split in two (East and West) when I created my map, I put a mountain range between the poles. With the strong tidal forces (and unique weather patterns) in play, the Thunder Seas are plagued by lightning storms, hurricane like winds, and tsunami-sized waves (not to mention infested with chromatic dragons).

With the astronomy of my world set and my map drawn, I then began to focus on the history, sociology, magic, etc. of my world by creating races/societies who based their religion (belief systems) around the moons. This is a logical approach since these moons would be so visible in the night sky due to their size and color. I approached this by creating a number of short stories each from a particular member of a society who worshiped (or deified) one of these moons: Zeladon, Mephador, and Mephon.

II. Microscopic Scale – Bottom-Up

Obviously this is the opposite of the Top-Down approach. With the Bottom-Up approach you start with the smallest part of your world, say a single town, and then work your way up/out. Maybe you have an idea for a single city struggling against a powerful or corrupt nation. Or maybe this tiny city is the last of a treasured people, or the last citizens to wield an ancient magic. Here you might start by drawing your single city on the beginning of your world map or you may start to develop the religion, science, magic system, etc. of these people.

Bottom-Up Examples:

Here are two examples from the Cartographer’s Guild of taking a Bottom-Up approach. Follow the links to see the maps and read a little story about the people here that these two world-builders created.

1. The small swamp town of Oermog
2. The village of Whitemarsh

III. Character

This is perhaps the easiest and most common way to start building your world. All stories start with a character, a protagonist or antagonist. After all, without characters, there would be no story. As you create your character you can build your world around him/her/it.

The Character approach is very similar to the Bottom-Up approach in that you are likely to develop the things that make up a person/people, such as their history and the sociological constraints put upon them. Maybe your character is a king or an orphan, which may lead you to quickly develop your world’s economy and politics. Maybe your character is a powerful magician and you need to build the rules of your magic system in order to flesh out your character. Either way, you will likely find as you develop your character that you may be forced to come up with a number of other key factors important to building a world.

– Character-Based World-Building – Think About Your Character’s:

History – How has your character gotten where he/she is today?
Socioeconomic Status – Is your character wealthy, poor, powerful, an outcast?
Assets – Does your character have magic, superpowers, great intelligence or knowledge, a powerful scientific/technological weapon? Or if your character doesn’t have any of these things, does he/she have powerful friends who are willing–or enemies who are bound–to use their assets on your character’s behalf?
Psychology/Religion – Is your character mad or deranged, a religious zealot, a pagan, a demigod, a devil worshiper? If your character is religious, are they devoted to serving the poor, or given up all their worldly possessions, or perhaps taken a vow of silence…?
Job/Profession – While similar to socioeconomic status this can lend itself to unique talents or knowledge. Is your character a soldier, an assassin or mercenary, a priest, historian, cartographer, scientist, or nomad? Your character’s profession will have a strong influence on who they are as a person and what sort of life they may lead and story they will tell.

Character-Based Example
from my world:

Xydrikan Vyinkar is a member of the deadrisers, a society of people who worship the Spirit Moon (Mephon) and practice the taboo of cannibalism and the dark arts of raising the dead. Xydrikan is second in command within his group, the Obro Cult. Here is a little story about him that you can read here.

IV. Historical

The Historical approach has several different avenues and overlaps with a few of the other types of world-building. World-building through history can also include myths and legends. In a sense, all history is subjective, so your world’s history may involve religious myths (how the world was created and/or shaped by god(s) or some other supernatural force). You can be ambitious and come up with a vast intertwining history of your world or a single historical event to start your story, such as the fall of an empire or the destruction of a god.

– Historical-Based World-Building – Think About Your World’s:

Creation – How was the world created? Was it created? How many different creation myths are there in your world? How did these belief systems come to shape your world and affect things today? Is your world fairly new or ancient?
Government(s) – How has the history of your world shaped how countries/empires/cities interact? Has religion, race, or separate sentient species united your world in democracy, torn it apart leaving mass anarchy, or created enemies and alliances of monarchies? What sort of wars have led to this?
Timelines – What kind of major historical events have made the world what it is today? Have there been major wars or major shifts in the world’s beliefs, say in science or religion? Maybe there is some kind of natural/supernatural event that happens every so often. For example, the God Cyclico destroys the world every ten thousand years and rebuilds it anew.

Historical-Based Example
from my world:

Many years ago, when I was creating the mythology and religion for my world, I wrote several parts of a religious text which told a lot of the world’s history and how things came to be. While there are many religions in my world, Zenitonianism is the most practiced. Click Here to read a snippet from this religious text, known as the Zenitonian Tomes which, according to Zenitonianism, explains how the ban on technology and science came to be.

V. Sociological/Political/Economic

The Sociological approach to world-building has many overlaps with the Historical approach since history, after all, is shaped by people. When taking a sociological approach you are focusing on present events, not historical ones. Perhaps you want to focus on a particular nation or society. Out of this society come your characters. With this approach you can create their economy, politics, religion, science/technology, magic, etc. Anything and everything that make up this group of people. This may then lead you to create other societies that are markedly different from this civilization. In such differences  you may find the conflicts that drive your story.

Sociological Based World-Building – Think About Your Society’s:

Economy – How is the economy of your society set up? Is there a common monetary system, or is the economy based on trading and bartering? How does the economy compare/compete with other societies?
Politics – How is your society run? What type of government, if any, is there? Oligarchy, democracy, monarchy, dictatorship, anarchy, commonwealth, republic, ecclesiastical, theocracy, totalitarian, or something else? How is this form of government different from the rest of the world?
Religion/Faith – What does your society believe in? Does everyone in your society share the same belief system? Do they have a religion, or is science their god? If they’ve lost their faith, how or why? How does religion affect politics, economy, science/technology, magic? Does their religion hamper them or help them? Does it unite them or make them enemies with other nations?
Technology – Your people’s knowledge of science will have dramatic effects on how your world is shaped since technology affects language, politics, economy, and relationships with other cultures/people. How does technology and understanding of science affect your society? Try to be consistent with how your society is structured based on their technology. Research past societies to see how their technology shaped their culture. For instance, how did ancient Mesopotamians differ from ancient Greeks or Romans? How did medieval Europe differ from Renaissance Europe?  Technology, as you can tell, is very much related to history. I’d recommend reading Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. It’s a must-read for world-builders.

Sociological-Based Example
from my world:

Here is a short story about the Nama society and how they are at war with the civilized world. The democratic nations of the West follow Zenitonianism. Any society or people who do not practice this religions, are considered heathens and must be destroyed by the monks of the Holy Order as the Zentonians believe all other religions are demonic. The Nama do not believe themselves to be human, but a superior race bound to the physical world and its Goddess, the Great Mother Zola.

VI. Scientific/Technological/Magical

Although taking a Scientific or Technological approach would be quite appropriate if you’re writing sci-fi, it’s also a good place to start for any story in which technology will play a major role. With this approach, science will take center stage. Perhaps you want a host of planets connected across the universe by a vast collection of wormholes, making travel anywhere across the cosmos as easy as driving/flying your car down the block. Or perhaps the fate of worlds hinges on the development of advanced weaponry, the first to finish say a prototype “Planet Killer” that will give one world control over all others.

World building with this approach lends itself to a combination of many of the other methods. For instance, perhaps you want to start with a single character who has the ability to interface with any electronic device, or anything that has electricity, from a single wall outlet to an entire ecumenopolis connected through a vast world-wide electrical grid. Or perhaps a single technological advancement changed the course of history. What if technology advanced so far that it transformed humanity or even the universe itself?

In fantasy, science and technology is often replaced with magic. While many novels have used, and continue to use, the tried and tested magic consisting of spells read (and/or memorized) from scrolls, tomes, or books and conjured through a conduit such as a wand, stave or staff, I challenge you to move beyond this. Why do what thousands of others have done? Why should magic simply happen (Because it’s magic?)? Just as technology works through elaborate science, come up with an elaborate system of magic, a system that will set your novel apart and keep an agent from throwing your manuscript in the slough pile. Of course it is likely that you will borrow from someone who has come before you as creating something that is truly unique is astronomically rare. Be that as it may, you can still make your magic uniquely your own.

The possibilities of world-building with this method are virtually endless. If you want, your universe doesn’t even have to be our universe. It can be a universe where our scientific principles don’t apply, a universe that has different fundamental forces (fundamental interactions). What would a world be like without gravity or electromagnetism? What if there were other fundamental forces or if all four forces were one?

Technological/Magical Based World-Building – What to Think About:

Do Your Homework – People who read science fiction tend to know a fair amount of science. Taking this approach will require you to know your stuff. If there are holes in your science or technology, your readers will find them. You should also be well-read. Know what else has been written and done in your genre and also what is being done currently. This is important in sci-fi/fantasy since you don’t want to churn out “another cookie-cutter” sci-fi/fantasy novel. Do you?
Be Thorough – Science has laws, rules that can’t be broken (what goes up must come down, energy can’t be created or destroyed, etc.). Magic often doesn’t, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t (remember to think outside the box).  If you’ve done your homework and studied your subject, then make sure as you build your world you leave no stone unturned. Know exactly how your technology works.

Such things don’t have to appear on the page, but if you haven’t thought it all out, it may bleed through in your writing, and as stated before, your reader will find the holes. For many readers, part of the joy of reading this type of fiction is to not only be awed or thrilled by some new science or technology coming to life on the page, but also, as an intellectual challenge to find the flaws and pick them apart. People like to see accidents, train-wrecks. Don’t be part of one.

If magic is replacing technology in your world, you need to know how it works and what its limitations are. Do different mages/wizards have different strengths and weaknesses? Is there a difference between age, gender, or race? Can anyone learn magic, or are you born with it? Do you have more than one magic system, and if so, why?

Scientific & Magical-Based Example
from fiction:

1. Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles. A unique system of magic called Sympathy, which is a marriage of both science and magic.
2. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy. Three unique magic systems: Allomancy, Feruchemy, and Hemalurgy.

In Conclusion:

Keep Notes – Stay organized in your world-building by keeping detailed notes. I suggest making an excel document or a table of some kind with several categories in which you can summarize/explain everything from your characters/people, places in your world (cities, biomes, etc.), individual societies, monetary system including things like gems/stones, magic system(s), races, etc. Doing this will not only help you document everything you create, but also to keep things organized and easy to find.
Timeline – Keep a timeline of important dates for characters and historical events. In the real world dates are very important.
Consistency – Be consistent in your world-building to keep from contradicting things in your writing. Keeping notes will be extremely beneficial for this.
What to show/tell – As the world-builder and author you should know every little nuance of your world, but your reader shouldn’t. Too much description and info-dumping will bore them and may even cause them to skim over your writing. Your world-building should be subtle and used to tell your story. It should enrich your characters and serve to build tension, not deflate it.
Don’t be afraid or get frustrated – The amount of time you can spend world-building can be exhausting. I’ve spent many thousands of hours building my world, and it’s easy to get burnt out. If you need to take a break, do so. And don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and try new things. Read books (fiction/non-fiction), watch movies and tv for inspiration, and above all, have fun.

4 Comments to “World-Building in Fiction: A Guide”

  1. Wow, dude, that’s an impressively detailed system. Good information. I just had a friend whose manuscript was rejected by an editor because of insufficient world-building. It’s an important aspect of creating a novel, and not just for fantasy sci-fi. Great post, cheers.

  2. If only most published authors were this thorough in creating their worlds. 😉

    This guide is a must-read for authors contemplating writing in the fantasy genre.

  3. Hi,
    “World building is not an exact science”. Agree. And this exactly the reason why it’s fiction. I’ve been researching about fiction cartography so I’ll bookmark your blog. The articles are interesting. And I’m pretty serious about making my own map. 🙂


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