The majority of fantasy stories take place in a secondary world, one different to our own. It’s a desire to explore these unique and original worlds that draw readers to the fantasy genre, so for many fantasy writers, the process of worldbuilding is an important one. In this worldbuilding guide, we’ll cover some important worldbuilding questions like where to start, how to build a world from scratch, how to name people and places and, where to put the likes of rivers, mountains and deserts.
This worldbuilding guide will also show you some useful worldbuilding tools which you can employ to reveal your fantastical worlds in ways that don’t numb the minds of readers.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
i. Playing Creator
“I propose to speak about fairy-stories, though I am aware that this is a rash adventure. Faërie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold.”
The world in which a story is set is important to any tale, particularly when it comes to fantasy. We read these kinds of stories to escape to new and unexplored worlds filled with possibilities, mysteries, and oddities. This chapter in our worldbuilding guide explores a few tools to help you build a world from scratch.
A worldbuilding guide—how do you build a world?
Let’s just say it’s going to take a little longer than seven days.
It’s easy to become caught up in the worldbuilding process. For some, it consumes all of their attention, to the extent that they do a Tolkien and for years do nothing but detail everything down to the smells of each made-up flower. For others, the world is a stage upon which the story takes place, with the world immediately around the characters the only parts that are revealed, an approach we’ll look at in more detail in the chapter that follows.
Generally, a story takes place either in the world we know and live in, or an entirely fictitious world, known as a ‘secondary world.’ As the focus here is on fantasy, it’s the creation of the latter we’ll explore.
A worldbuilding guide: Sanderson’s approach
Brandon Sanderson has his own worldbuilding guide which I’ve personally found very useful. It focuses on two things: physical settings and cultural settings.
Physical settings encompass the things that exist if humans—or whatever species your characters are—did not exist. So, for example, the terrain, flora, fauna, weather, cosmology, geology, laws of physics.
In one of Sanderson’s own books, Mistborn: The Final Empire, the world is plagued by ash falls and dense mists which descend each night. Consider too Terry Pratchett and his Discworld books, which involves a world constructed on the back of a giant turtle floating through space. If you’re struggling to think of things, experiment with removing yourself from the physical world. What if the sky was green and the grass blue? For designing a world with oceans, rivers, mountains, swamplands, deserts and the like, check out my guides on cartography:
The second section of this guide also has a bunch of resources to help inspire you too.
This covers things influenced by man, or things that can be physically manipulated or changed, such as laws, politics, religion, government, language, structures, landmarks, philosophies, foods, music, fashion, folklore, weapons, technology, clothing, histories, rights, jobs, medicines … the list could go on.
It would be impossible to write a book of readable length if you covered every one of these things, and these are but a handful. The trick, it seems, is to pick a few and explore those in detail, perhaps bringing in other related settings in less detail.
The point is to channel your world-building into these settings, which in turn will open up doors to other aspects of the world. Piece by piece you’re revealing all those wonderful details you spent weeks and months conjuring.
George R.R. Martin is an expert when it comes to this approach. He writes his own songs and poems, goes into great detail about the food the characters eat, like the ‘bowl of brown’ in Flea Bottom. Some of his most iconic scenes are those at feasts and balls with vivid descriptions of songs and meals. It’s his use of songs and food that brings in histories and other facts about his world and he does it wonderfully.
If at all possible, Sanderson recommends seeking conflicts between the different cultural settings you choose to explore. It cannot be understated how crucial creating conflict is, and if you can intertwine conflict with your world-building you’re on the right path. For example, the clash between religion and science and jobs and technology. Having a character that cares passionately about a setting also provides a vehicle for revealing much about it, such as a character that loves to cook, like Talon in Raymond Feist’s Riftwar Cycle.
Again, have fun with cultural settings. Let your mind run free. Remove the shackles of reality. Anything is possible in a world of your own creation. Here are some guides to help you with naming people and places and creating monsters!
Draw a map
Even if, like me, you have the drawing ability of a goat, it really does help to sketch a map of your world, continent, region or city. Places will become grounded in your mind, giving you a more authoritative voice when you speak about them. It allows you to add crucial specificity, something that will enhance your story no end.
This is an approach I adopted when constructing the world of my debut novel, Pariah’s Lament. With the story being set in a shared universe, I was given a blank map and told to populate it with everything from rivers, mountains, forests, cities, towns and so on. I made use of the coastlines and outlying islands, and included great sea forts built into coastal cliffs. It was good fun, and it helped ground me in the story.
Your map doesn’t have to be a work of art. That all comes at the end when the writing is done. A crude outline of things is all you need. I’ve drawn one on the inside wall of my shed. There are plenty of excellent fantasy map generators available on the web. Some map generators are free, others you have to pay for. Some are free up to a point. The best fantasy map generator that I’ve come across is https://inkarnate.com/. You’ll while away hours on this fella.
One way to help conjure a world is to ask questions: who, what, where, when, how. What type of magic exists in the world? How does someone gain the power to use it? Are there different kinds of abilities and spells? Is there a limit as to how much magic one person can use?
Such questions are invaluable. And try not to, as is tempting, to settle for the first thing that pops into your head. Push yourself to think of different options and possibilities. Keep asking ‘what if?’ And if you can’t think of an answer, worry not. Move on. Your subconscious will be working away on that, and one day the answer will, with a bit of luck, come to you. You’ll know it when you get it.
Here’s a very helpful list of world-building questions courtesy of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. http://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/
Explore and research
One of the best ways to come up with ideas for your world is to get out into the real world and explore. There’s nothing more powerful than actually seeing rolling hills and mountains, walking through forests and fields or busy city streets, hearing the noises of factories, the smells of the beach or a harbour. It allows you to write with experience.
Research is important to gain a greater understanding of how something works. If rivers form a big part of your story, learn how they work, the different types of river, how tributaries and meanders are formed, and so on. Again this gives your voice more authority and gives you the tools to describe things with confidence and conviction.
Build as you go
If you’re feeling impatient and don’t fancy doing any of the above, by all means, build as you go along. Write your story, see where it takes you. You may reach a point where your character needs to go to a new city. You can then ask yourself questions. How do they get there? What towns do they stop at along the way? What kind of city is it they’re going to? A thriving metropolis or a besieged ruin? What’s the population size? What’s the economy built upon? The downside with this approach is you’ll probably have to revert to ensure consistency and to fill in any gaps.
ii. A Worldbuilding Guide to Finding Inspiration
Next up in our worldbuilding guide, some resources to help inspire your worlds.
In September I spent two weeks travelling around Ireland. I’ve visited plenty of times before, but I’ve never explored. I went with the intention of trying to see anything and everything I could. I barely scratched the surface.
Exploration is a tremendous source of inspiration for writing, and for the fantasy writer, inspiration for world-building. It’s easier to describe wind-swept landscapes when they lie before you, when you can feel the tendrils of the wind tearing at your hood and creeping through your clothes. In Ireland I found a place rich with history, a land masking so much more beneath its surface.
Here are a few things I found particularly inspiring. I hope they help you and your writing too.
Castles and Keeps
My Irish family hail from a county called Waterford, a place founded in the early 900s by Vikings. It’s the oldest city in Ireland, boasts the oldest tower (which you can see me in and around above), and possibly the oldest privy (unconfirmed). Oliver Cromwell tried to take this little city back in ye day and failed. There’s a cannonball from that very siege still lodged in the exterior wall.
In one picture you can see a pretty sizeable hearth, a key feature in most medieval castles and keeps. What better way to beat away the Irish chill?
One thing that struck me about this particular tower was how difficult it was to navigate the stairway. Just one, confined and winding sets of steps leading up and down. The steps varied in size. It wasn’t bad craftsmanship. In fact, to the contrary. It’s an example of a masterfully subtle defence. When things reach that stage of the siege, any advantage, even down to oddly sized steps, is worth its weight in gold.
One of the best medieval castles I got a chance to visit was Cahir Castle, Co. Tipperary. It’s so well-preserved it’s featured in dozens of films, such as Excalibur, as well as TV show The Tudors. It still has a working portcullis gate, which you can see above. A pretty simple design when you think of it, but so effective when it came to battle.
All around the gate are towers looking out over the bailey, and in the walls of those towers are slivers of windows for archers to rain deathly darts upon any attackers, as you can see me demonstrating above.
The castle’s moat is a cunning feature. The castle is built beside the River Suir. Trenches have been dug right around the castle and join the river to permanently fill it with water.
This castle had a pretty remarkable banquet hall, complete with the giant antlers of an elk. Other than the privy, it would have been the most used room in the castle. The place where the lord and his family ate their meals, socialised, hosted guests, and held court.
All over Ireland, you can find ruined towers standing in fields of grazing sheep or cows. Here are a couple of said towers. The first, top left, was built during the Napoleonic wars to watch the south coast of Ireland, so a relatively new keep compared to the 12th century round tower below it.
The Napoleonic watchtower has three stories, including the roof, and possessed thick walls, high parapets and narrow windows for loosing arrows. Some things never change, even 600 years on.
The round tower is a pretty incredible building. 900 years old and still standing as stout and solid as ever. As the description above says, it was built by monks as a refuge from raiding Vikings. It’s best defensive feature is the door being 4m off the ground. Once the last monk was in, the ladder was pulled up. Good luck trying to get through that.
Landscapes and Caves
You’ll find some of the most stunning scenery in the world in Ireland. Untouched wilderness, shaped by the brutality of the elements. Can you imagine your troupe of characters making their way down this overgrown road? What about your protagonist aboard a ship in those stormy seas?
Here’s a cracking example of the stages of rivers, carving their way through glacial valleys and trickling downhill to fill lakes or feed seas.
Lough Derg, the lake pictured bottom right, is a very curious place. It’s one of Ireland’s biggest lakes and scattered throughout you’ll find little islands. One of them is called ‘Holy Island’ and is home to a monastery of monks.
With the classic Irish rain battering us, we sought cover underground and visited a quite remarkable place: Mitchelstown Caves. Discovered accidentally in the 1800s by a farmer, this series of caves were formed by a pre-Ice Age river that carved through the limestone rock. The stalagmites and stalactites have formed over millions of years. A perfect setting for scenes in fantasy stories.
One of the most breathtaking places I got to see was the Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare. The cliffs stretch 5km, the path along it meandering, rising and falling as the waves below smash into the rock to shape it. Beyond those cliffs is the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean.
In a place so rich with history, the archaeology on offer is pretty sweet. All of the images above date back to the Vikings. Well-forged to say the least. I’m a particular fan of the design of the axe head, bottom left.
Archery featured heavily in the Middle Ages. Pictured bottom right are several arrowheads dating back to the 12th century. I even got a chance to have a hold of a replica crossbow. Never done that before. Heavy bastards, is what I’ve learned.
If like me, you love a bit of worldbuilding, you may find these other articles complement this worldbuilding guide.
iii. Revealing a World
So far in our worldbuilding guide, we’ve covered how to go about crafting a world and we’ve looked at few sources of inspiration. Next up in our worldbuilding guide we’ll look at some great ways to reveal your world.
Of all the tools in this worldbuilding guide, I think this could be the most important. Many readers complain about info dumps in books. Writers often turn to worldbuilding guides like this for answers. I know I did. But often I wound up more confused than satisfied. That was until I discovered the iceberg.
The philosophy of the iceberg is to reveal a little of your world while holding back much more, just like with an iceberg we merely see its tip, while beneath the water the bulk of its mass lingers. In essence, we’re showing the reader the view through the keyhole, teasing them so they want to beat down the door and see everything else. You may be wondering why go to the effort of all that detail? Through experience, you don’t often know which direction your story takes so to have that bank of information ready to use makes those changes a lot easier and fluid.
How do you achieve this?
- By dropping hints. Show a little, then a little more, gradually removing the shroud surrounding your world.
- Brandon Sanderson uses the term ‘maid and butler dialogue’. This means that characters should discuss things they know about, but the reader does not. The reader is something of an observer and it’s up to them to learn what they can from the conversation.
- Another way of using dialogue is to drop in references to the wider world. For instance, if your fantasy world is called Nagoya, a character could say: “What in Nagoya are you talking about?”
- Or you could use metaphors or similes with things from your world, like the tallest peak in the land could be named Devil’s Rock, and a character could say: “He’s as bloody tall as Devil’s Rock.”
- Another way to reveal details is to feature a character that’s unfamiliar with the world around them. New sights, smells, sounds. They’re exploring with the reader, and then you can reveal the glorious details you long to share, like how each and every bloody flower smells.
- Try not to info dump! By this, I mean spewing onto the page every little detail that pops into your head. We’re all guilty of it. The reader doesn’t want to know the history of a city’s sewage system unless it’s pertinent to the tale.
- Watch out for repetition. When revealing a world it can be easy to labour points or refer to things more than once. Constant editing and critiques from trusted sources can help fix this.
There’s a right time to share
The best way, according to Sanderson, is to be sparse with detail during the first few chapters, keeping the focus on the characters and generating empathy toward them. Reward the reader with little details as you go along, and later on, when everyone’s comfortable and engaged with the characters and plot, open the door to the wider world.
We’re motoring through this worldbuilding guide. To recap, we’ve looked at ways of crafting a world, sources of inspiration for a world, and how to reveal the dreaded info dump. To complete this worldbuilding guide, we’re going to take a critical look at this oft-discussed aspect of writing fantasy.
iv. A Minimalist Approach
Next up in our worldbuilding guide, we’re taking a critical look at this area of the fantasy genre. Many writers can fall into the trap of over-indulging in their worlds. This has led to something of a backlash against the grand and lengthy descriptions that have almost become synonymous with the fantasy genre.
Not long ago I took part in a Reddit Ask Me Anything session (AMA) and somebody put this statement to me:
“Modern fantasy seeks smallness, in view, in scope, in characters. Readers want a quick twenty-page epic, preferably in a single house.”
That made me wonder. And panic too. Do readers want small worlds now? What about all this time and effort I’ve invested in creating this world?
Before I go any further, a clarification point. A minimalistic approach refers to the level at which you reveal your world. You still have to world-build, you’re just giving the reader a peep-hole view, showing them what is necessary for the purposes of the story.
I looked into this approach some more and came across Patrick Rothfuss who has much to say on the matter. Here’s a passage from an article of his:
“But when you’re writing fantasy, especially secondary-world fantasy (By which I mean fantasy where the story takes place in a world other than our own) the reader doesn’t know anything about your world. They don’t know the cultures, religions, magic, or cities. The reader doesn’t know anything about the myths and legends of the world.
Now a lot of times, this is one of the major selling points of the book. A big payoff of secondary-world fantasy is the thrill of exploration. We get to see new countries, fantastic creatures, odd cultures, curious magics, etc etc.
And, honestly, this is one of the big perks of being a fantasy writer. We get to build castles in the sky, then show them off to people.
So here’s how it goes wrong.
- You create something for your fantasy world: a creature, a culture, a myth, whatever.
- You’re proud of your creation. You’re excited about it. You love it with a fierce love.
- You need to describe this thing to your reader, because if they don’t understand how it works, your story won’t make sense.
(3b. Remember, the story is the real reason people are there. Story is everything. Story is god.)
- So you start to explain how folks in the Shire celebrate their birthdays. (This is important because one of the first major events of the book is a birthday party.) You talk about how hobbits give presents away at their parties instead of receiving them. (This is important because it ties into why Bilbo is going to hand over the ring to Frodo.)
Then you start talking about how some of these presents get passed back and forth, party after party. And how those items are actually called mathoms, and how there’s actually a museum full of mathoms at Michel Delving, which is in the Westfarthing of the shire… You see what happens? It’s easy for an author to get so caught up in the details of the world they created, that they go off the rails and give us more than is really necessary for the story…”
This invariably leads us to the notorious info-dump. We’ve all been guilty of it. Even the greats like Tolkien, though in his defence he wrote in a different era. And I’ll be the first to hold my hand up. The first draft of my first chapter was 12,000 words long and most of those words were dreary passages of info-dumping.
Perhaps this is where this minimalistic approach has come from, as a backlash against authors indulging too much in world-building, in info-dumping their readers’ poor brains to bits. I’ve been reading a lot of upcoming authors of late, helping them with reviews and edits, and it’s a persistent problem I encounter. One book I recently read had a prologue setting out the history of the world and story, then in chapter 1 the story began and I was somewhat engaged. Then came chapter 2 and another massive info-dump. It lost me.
Are readers getting fed up with big, epic worlds?
Maybe. I think it all depends on the type of story you’re trying to tell and the type of reader you’re looking to attract. In a high fantasy story, for example, some degree of world-building is inevitable as characters quest to save the world or whatever. In newer types of fantasy, such as contemporary or urban, the focus seems to be less on the world and more on characters and plot.
I don’t think it’s something we can just dismiss as a trend though. Rather it ought to be regarded as a warning that readers are getting fed up with being info-dumped, that more time, care, and ingenuity needs to be invested when it comes to showing our worlds.
So what do we writers do? As Rothfuss said:
“What makes this such a horrible problem is that “too much” is largely a matter of taste. Some readers really *do* want to read all the details of the ancient Shi-Ang dynasty, and how their government relied upon the use of telepathy crystals. Other readers just want you to hurry up and get to the part where the Lesbian Unicorn Sisterhood initiates apprentice Ayllisia into the secrets of the Eternal Kiss.
It’s also a matter of style. Some writers are better at making exposition engaging than others. Some worlds are more alien than others, requiring more explanation.
My personal philosophy is to err on the side of caution. Given the choice, I’d prefer to give too little description and leave you wanting more, rather than give a lot and risk you being bored.”
Don’t you just hate it when there’s no straightforward answer? All you can do is bear in mind the advice like Rothfuss’s, as well as helpful techniques such as the iceberg.
It boils down to the story you’re trying to tell and what the reader expects from that type of story. But be warned: the days of the info-dump, it seems, are over.
We’re reaching the end of this worldbuilding guide. To recap, we’ve looked at ways of building a world, finding inspiration, ways of revealing a world, and some critical considerations. This worldbuilding guide isn’t quite finished, yet though.
v. Extra worldbuilding guide tools and resources
Thank you so much for reading this worldbuilding guide. I hope you’ve picked up a few useful bits of information or had your worldbuilding questions answered. Below, I’ve included some further world-building tools which you may find useful, and if you have any other questions not covered in this guide, why not drop me an email?
Here are a few extras to the worldbuilding guide you might fight useful, from podcasts to videos.
Worldbuilding guide podcast
I recorded an hour-long podcast with my good friend JM Williams on this very subject, with a particular focus on ways of revealing a world. You can listen to it by clicking here, or by using the player below.
Worldbuilding guide videos
A while back I had the pleasure of chatting with Jesper Schmidt of Fane of Fantasy. We spoke about minimalist world-building, where this approach has come from, and what it means for fantasy moving forwards.
We also had a chat about the best methods I’ve come across to help reveal a world such as the iceberg, and how the best writers reveal their worlds, including Tolkien, Sanderson, and G.R.R.M.
If you can understand my Scouse accent (I did my best to speak slowly), you may find a few helpful bits of info!
I can’t recommend Brandon Sanderson’s lectures more highly. They’re all free on YouTube, and there’s a terrific one on world-building, which you can watch below. In it, he explains a lot of the concepts above, and his own approach to world-building.
Here’s a free and informative webinar on world-building with the editor of ‘The Martian’, Michael Rowley: https://blog.reedsy.com/live/worldbuilding-tips-editor-martian/
There’s a subreddit dedicated entirely to world-building called r/worldbuilding, or Reddit Worldbuilding to some. Here you can post your ideas, discuss possibilities and get all-important feedback. https://www.reddit.com/r/worldbuilding/
More worldbuilding guides
Sociology in Fantasy World-Building by B.K. Bass – It’s something I don’t see very often—sociology discussed in a world-building context. If we’re to create immersive worlds, we need to know and understand how those worlds developed, how they’re structured and how they function.
“You can use concepts of sociology to tie your characters to your setting, thereby establishing the glue that will bind the people of your fantasy world to the world itself … Creating a believable society in which they live can help to not only enrich the setting, but also provide a more genuine backstory for all of our characters.”
This article by B.K. Bass provides an in-depth and thoughtful look at world-building with theories of sociology in mind. It explores how sociology can be influenced by the likes of geography, economics, resources, cosmology, religion, government, cities, and vice versa. Excellent post!
Here’s an insightful article by author Tad Williams on world-building http://www.fantasyliterature.com/thoughtful-thursday/thoughtful-thursday-tad-williams-talks-about-world-building/
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