Readers of fantasy love to escape into a magical world, one different to our own, with endless possibilities. It’s arguably the defining feature of the genre. As writers, we love to create these fantasy worlds, but doing so isn’t easy. So in this fantasy worldbuilding guide, we’re going to explore in detail the process of building a world and how to reveal it in our stories.
We’ll also cover some important worldbuilding questions, such as:
- Where to start with worldbuilding?
- How do you build a fantasy world?
- Why is worldbuilding important?
- How do you make a believable world?
- What is worldbuilding in fantasy?
We’ll also go over some useful worldbuilding tips and tools, such as Brandon Sanderson’s worldbuilding method and some other key worldbuilding questions. We’ll also go over some worldbuilding books, a template or two, and how to draw and generate a fantasy map—a key component when it comes to building a world.
Plus we’ll cover specific topics like worldbuilding and religion and worldbuilding and culture.
It’s a pretty detailed guide, and you can navigate your way through it using the menu below.
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- How Do You Reveal A Fantasy World?
- A Minimalist Approach to Fantasy Worldbuilding
- Extra Fantasy Worldbuilding Tools and Resources
- Fantasy Worldbuilding FAQ
“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.”
Master worldbuilder, J.R.R. Tolkien
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.
Worldbuilding In Fantasy
You may have heard the word ‘worldbuilding’ before, particularly if you’re a fantasy or sci-fi writer. It refers to the skill of creating another, new world, almost as alive as our own. A world we want to escape into and sometimes, never want to leave.
A Fantasy Worldbuilding Guide: Building A World From Scratch
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.
Where To Start Worldbuilding?
This is a fair question to kick off proceedings. When it comes to fantasy worldbuilding, one issue writers can face is to feel daunted about the scale of the task before them.
Not only do fantasy writers have to create compelling characters and exciting plots, but they have to create a world for it to happen in. And if that fantasy world is lacking or has flaws and inconsistencies, it can detrimentally impact your story.
It’s important then that we approach worldbuilding in the right way. So to kick things off, we’re going to look at a few different approaches to worldbuilding. Tips you’ll hopefully find useful!
The Low Fantasy Approach
Now curiously, we’re starting with an approach to fantasy worldbuilding that borders on the minimal.
Low fantasy is a broad subgenre, encapsulating both stories that aren’t set in a secondary fantasy world and stories that are set in a fictional land but have few fantasy elements.
So, an example of the first one would by Harry Potter. Here, JK Rowling built a world within our own.
An example of a low fantasy book set in a secondary world is A Game of Thrones (book 1). Up until the point the dragons hatched, that first part of the story is pretty low fantasy, and I absolutely loved it. It’s based more on historical events than anything else.
So that’s one of the minimal approaches. Now let’s dive a little deeper.
Brandon Sanderson’s Fantasy Worldbuilding Guide
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? It could even be a post-apocalyptic world. Once you start writing and exploring your world, there’s really no saying where it will take you, and that’s the most exciting part.
For designing an imaginary world with oceans, rivers, mountains, swamplands, deserts and the like, check out my guides on cartography and geography as a whole:
The second section of this fantasy worldbuilding 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:
- Histories, like a world war
- 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. It does, however, help to have an idea of how your societies function to gain a better idea of how your characters live.
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 worldbuilder, especially when it comes to this. 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’s another fantasy worldbuilding guide to help you with naming people and places, as well as one on creating monsters.
Natural Worldbuilding – The Best Way To Build A Fantasy World
I’ve invested a lot of time and energy into studying the craft of worldbuilding. For years I’ve used Sanderson’s approach, but I found it had some limitations, namely to do with revealing a world, which is the biggest issue according to readers (see my research on the reasons why people stop reading a book).
So using the guiding principles Sanderson has set out, I added my own spin and defined a theory I call natural worldbuilding. It provides the cure for the info dump and the means by which to know the right amount of detail to reveal in your story.
I won’t go into further detail here because I have an in-depth guide you can read here.
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 before.
Fantasy Worldbuilding Map Generator And World Building Games
Next up in our fantasy worldbuilding guide is mapmaking.
If you’re struggling to make a fantasy map yourself, you could try a worldbuilding map generator.
There are plenty of excellent fantasy map generators and worldbuilding map generators available on the web. Some are free, others you have to pay for. Some are free up to a point.
As you can see in the image below, taken from Inkarnate, you can go into incredible detail with a worldbuilding map generator. It really helps bring life to the world.
Here are some of the best online worldbuilding map-generators I’ve come across:
As well as using a worldbuilding map generator, many people take to computer games to help build their world. There are some worldbuilding games that can help you in that regard. And some you’ve no doubt heard or played before.
Perhaps my favourite is The Elder Scrolls series, Skyrim in particular. With so much ability to customise characters and to go on adventures and quests, you can get a real feel for what it could be like in your world.
Worldbuilding games can provide inspiration when you feel lacking. For instance, if you’re writing a scene about a dungeon, it might help to play a game involving dungeons or set in dungeons—Oblivion and Skyrim for me. The artwork and graphic design and just the sheer creativity overall can spark ideas and gives us insights that can help us tremendously with our stories
Some popular worldbuilding games include:
- No Man’s Sky
- Civilization 5
- Age of Empires
- Total War
Trying worldbuilding games is a fun and different way to discover and learn more about your world, and one that’s well worth a go.
Create A Worldbuilding Template By Asking Questions
On we march in our worldbuilding guide. And onto one way that can be particularly helpful, and that 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. There’s many a good fantasy worldbuilding template out on the web too.
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.
Fantasy Worldbuilding Guide Books
Linked to the above, one way you can learn how to world build is to study how to do it. There are plenty of great world building books and fiction writing books that you can turn to for guidance. Here are some of them below:
- The Fantasy Fiction Formula
- A Fantasy Writers’ Handbook
- The Guide To Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction
- On Writing and Worldbuilding
There are other worldbuilding books but these are some of the best I’ve come across, purely because of the level of detail they go into. And if you wanted to go a step further beyond the odd worldbuilding guide, there are even masters degrees that you can study on worldbuilding.
You can learn more about worldbuilding in my free workshop on how to write a fantasy novel. Watch below!
Build As You Go
There are other ways of building a world. And 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.
A Summary of Worldbuilding Tips
We’ve covered quite a lot in this section, so let’s summarise.
- Begin with the physical elements of your world.
- To help you design the physical landscape, try drawing a map, using a fantasy map generator, or try playing worldbuilding games.
- Then create the cultural settings.
- To do this, ask yourself worldbuilding questions.
- Go out and explore the world around you for inspiration.
- Read books on worldbuilding approaches or history books to inspire you
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 in our guide to building a world, 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. In fact, it could be one of the most important in fantasy fiction writing as a whole.
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 worldbuilder is to foist upon the reader every detail of backstory before the story actually begins. We’ve been over this in a previous chapter. In short, we spend lots of time building a world, all we then want to do is share those wonderful details.
However, 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.
How I Revealed My World In Pariah’s Lament
One thing I didn’t expect to get comments about when I published Pariah’s Lament was my worldbuilding. In fact, half a dozen advanced reviewers cited the world as one of their favourite aspects.
So in this section, I wanted to share with you my approach to revealing a world. Because it’s here where many of us can stumble. And it’s here I’ve struggled in the past. I’ve studied worldbuilding approaches at length. In the end, I settled in the less is more camp, or close to it anyway. And when it came to Pariah’s Lament, I took a lot of care with what details were revealed and when.
For me, I love fantasy because of the escapism. I want to travel to a new world, explore new places, experience new things. I wanted to immerse readers in my fantasy world too, but I didn’t want to overdo it, to info dump. My intention was to leave them wanting more, and as the story went on, I gave them that.
Helpfully for us, those lovely book reviewers pointed out a few different things which to them, in their own words, “fleshed out the world,” and made it “real and lived in”, which is what we all aim for, I think.
One way I achieved this was through revealing small cultural details in exposition as characters moved through the world, keeping it all as natural as possible. Here are a couple of examples:
“In the center of the square, a group of young boys and girls chased a small leather ball around with sticks, a game known as lingas, and one that often ended with the sticks turned on each other.”
“War brought opportunities. Increased demand for weapons, armor, and food meant higher prices and greater profits for those who owned the supplies, and they all had their fingers in such pies.”
I hope these experiences have helped you. Now let’s take a look at an altogether unique approach to fantasy worldbuilding.
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, another excellent fantasy worldbuilder, who has much to say on the matter. Here’s a passage from an article of his:
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.
We’re not 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 worldbuilding 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 you might fight useful, from podcasts to videos.
Fantasy Worldbuilding Videos
I can’t recommend Brandon Sanderson’s lectures more highly. He truly is an excellent worldbuilder and much can be learned from him. 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.
Reddit Worldbuilding and r/worldbuilding
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/
Another Worldbuilding Guide
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 fantasy worldbuilding
And a quick Google search will help you find a few articles purporting to provide an ultimate guide to worldbuilding.
Fantasy Worldbuilding Guide – Podcast
I recently recorded an episode for my podcast with my good writing friend, JM Williams, all about fantasy worldbuilding. We discussed all of the different worldbuilding approaches and the best ways of revealing a world.
It’s one of the most popular episodes on our fantasy writing podcast so I hope you enjoy it! You can also listen on YouTube, iTunes, Acast and TuneIn.
What is worldbuilding?
Worldbuilding is the process of creating an original, secondary world, that is, one unlike our own. It may have influences or share characteristics with our own, but it is defined as the process of creating something fictitious.
How do you start worldbuilding?
1. Write down or draw a map of the physical landscape of your world
2. Define the culture of the world
3. Build a history of the world and its laws
What makes good worldbuilding?
The creation of a world which feels almost as real as our own. One that we can escape into, lose ourselves in, and for a time, wholly believe that we have visited. We achieve this through our characters—their experiences and interactions—and through the plots of our story as we weave our way through the tale.
How do I introduce a fantasy world?
Perhaps the best way to introduce a fantasy world is via the iceberg method. By this, it is meant that you reveal only the tip of the mound of details you have of your world, with the rest lurking beneath the surface. This ensures you do not overwhelm your reader with detail—also known as an info dump. Instead, small details are revealed at opportune and relevant times throughout the story.
Is worldbuilding a word?
It certainly is, though you may see it spelt world-building, or as two separate words, world building. Grammatically, the correct form would be world-building, but worldbuilding works just as well.
How do you name a fantasy place?
Fantasy names can often be too difficult to read. It’s common to see apostrophes placed into names, like Aba’lar. This can jar the flow of the story and may cause reader frustration and fatigue. It can therefore help to be guided by the principle – clarity reigns supreme. If it’s easy to read, you’re less likely you’ll get complaints from readers.
How do I make a fantasy world?
The best place to start is to split the process of worldbuilding in two—the physical settings and the cultural settings. Begin with the physical. This relates to the landscape and terrain—rivers, mountains, oceans, forests. The physical side will influence the cultural side, which relates to everything influenced by man, from laws and government to songs and food choices.
Thank you for reading this fantasy worldbuilding guide!