The majority of fantasy stories take place in a secondary world, one different to our own. As writers, that often means we have to do a bit of fantasy worldbuilding.
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 fantasy worldbuilding guide for writers, we’ll cover some important worldbuilding questions, such as:
- Worldbuilding: where to start?
- How do you build a fantasy world?
- Why is worldbuilding important?
- What is worldbuilding in fantasy?
We’ll also go over some useful worldbuilding tools, such as Brandon Sanderson’s worldbuilding method and some key worldbuilding questions.
Plus we’ll cover specific topics like worldbuilding and religion and worldbuilding and culture.
It’s a pretty detailed fantasy worldbuilding guide, and you can navigate your way through it using the menu below.
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- Playing Creator
- How Do You Reveal A Fantasy World?
- A Minimalist Approach to Fantasy Worldbuilding
- Extra Fantasy Worldbuilding Tools and Resources
“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 fantasy worldbuilding guide for writers explores a few tools to help you build a world from scratch. You may be tempted to try and use a worldbuilding template. Instead, I’d encourage you to give it a go yourself. What you’ll read below will help you.
A Fantasy 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 fantasy 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.
Brandon Sanderson’s Worldbuilding Approach
Bestselling fantasy author 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:
- Civil rights
- 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.
Religion in fantasy often plays a big part. I have a dedicated post on the subject which you can read by clicking here.
The language used in a fantasy story also plays a big part and helps bring the world to life. This picture below always tickles me.
The point is to channel your worldbuilding into these cultural 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 worldbuilding cultures 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 Fantasy 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 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 and worldbuilding map generators available on the web. Some worldbuilding 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 nifty bit of worldbuilding software.
Ask Worldbuilding Questions
One way to help conjure a world is to ask worldbuilding questions. A worldbuilding questionnaire if you will: 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 to avoid, as tempting as it is, 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 worldbuilding questions courtesy of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
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, which will only do wonders for your fantasy worldbuilding.
Build As You Go
This is one for the pantsers!
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 consistently revert to ensure consistency and to fill in any gaps.
So far in our fantasy worldbuilding guide, we’ve covered how to go about crafting a world and we’ve looked at few sources of inspiration. Next up on our worldbuilding checklist, we’ll look at some great ways to reveal your world.
Of all the tools in this fantasy 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
One temptation for the writer is to foist upon the reader every detail of backstory before the story actually begins. We’ve been over this in a previous chapter.
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 fantasy 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 checklist, we’re going to take a critical look at this oft-discussed aspect of writing fantasy.
Next up in our fantasy 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.
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.)
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:
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.
Thank you so much for reading this fantasy 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.
Fantasy Worldbuilding 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.
Fantasy Worldbuilding 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 worldbuilding 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 worldbuilding 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.
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 another insightful article by author Tad Williams on worldbuilding http://www.fantasyliterature.com/thoughtful-thursday/thoughtful-thursday-tad-williams-talks-about-world-building/