Knowing how to start worldbuilding can be tricky. With so many elements to consider, from where to put mountains and the accents of your new race of dwarves, writers can easily get lost along meandering tangents.
In this guide, we’ll take a look at easy ways to keep your focus on building what you need for your fantasy or science fiction world. We’ll consider worldbuilding questions and some books that you could turn to for further guidance and support.
Key Points On Starting Worldbuilding
Firstly, there’s no right way to create a fictional world, only the process that works best for you and that you feel most comfortable with.
What I share with you below is a method that works for me and works for other authors too, some of them bestsellers, like Brandon Sanderson.
Generally, a good place to start with worldbuilding is to create a basic concept or premise for your world, such as the setting, the dominant species, and the overall tone or theme. For example, Denise Crittendon in “Where It Rains In Color” created an all-black universe. That was her main theme.
From there, you can start to build out the details of the world, such as its geography, culture, and history.
When laying out the physical settings of your world, it can be helpful to create a map to help visualize the different locations and how they relate to one another.
And perhaps the most important point of all—be sure to keep track of the details so that you can ensure consistency throughout your story or project. Plus, it’ll save you from scrambling through notes trying to find a name and helps ensure a smoother writing process.
A Simple 3 Step Process On How To Start Building A World
Here’s a very simple breakdown of how to start the process of building a fantasy or science fiction world. The best way to think of this is to think of it like a lense that zooms deeper and deeper into the details of your world.
- Begin with your wider universe. Are there any overarching principles?
- Zoom into your world specifically. Think of the physical make up—the contintents, the oceans and seas, the mountains, the rivers.
- Zoom further into the manmade cultures of your world.
How To Start Worldbuilding – The Detailed Approach
If you want to know how to start worldbuilding, a good place to turn is the advice of professional authors.
Bestselling fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson has over the years shared fantastic worldbuilding tips and advice. He recommends splitting the process of creating your fictional world into two settings—physical and cultural.
This simple method gives you vital structure, allowing you to focus your considerations on specific things.
For example, when considering physical settings, all we’re thinking about is the likes of climate, mountains, rivers, oceans and so on. Once you have that base sorted, you can turn to the cultural settings, which is basically everything influenced by man, such as laws, rights, eating habits, fashion sense and the like.
In short, Sanderson’s method is by far the easiest way to start worldbuilding.
To make that process even easier, I’ve created a template that you can download for free by clicking the link below.
Click Here To Learn More About Worldbuilding (With Template)
What Does A Fantasy World Need?
This is a question that writers often ask themselves when faced with the challenge of creating a science fiction or fantasy world, or even in genres like literary fiction—every story needs an element of world building, or creating the setting.
The temptation is there to start developing things you might never use in the story. And while that might help you understand and immerse yourself in that world a little more, time is limited and there’s a story to write.
Your approach to worldbuilding all depends on the stage of the creating process you introduce it. For example, some authors like Adrian Tchaikovsky, begin with the world and then fit the story into it. When I interviewed Adrian, he revealed that he often has to edit and remove a lot, and most of it is detail about the world.
My personal preference is to think of the story and characters first and then fit the world around him. Or if not first, very early on in the process. For instance, sometimes I create an ill-defined world and then let the stories and characters shape it, so the worldbuilding process remains ongoing rather than something done at the outset.
I have a detailed guide on my unique approach to creating fantasy worlds, called Natural Worldbuilding, which you can read more about here.
Like Adrian says in our podcast episode, it doesn’t matter what other people do, only what works for you. Please do check out The Fantasy Writers’ Toolshed show for more tips on how to start worldbuilding.
Ask Worldbuilding Questions
A good method that many fantasy writers adopt is the process of asking worldbuilding questions.
Using prompts like this can give you structure and focus for what is one of the biggest and toughest challenges you’ll navigate.
Let’s take a look at some examples. What you can read below are just a smattering of questions provided by the Science Fiction And Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA):
On Magic Systems
- Is there anything magic cannot do?
- Is there a limit to magical power?
- How do people try to evade this limit? This can prove to be one of the more interesting fantastical elements of your story.
- Do magic wielders pay a price for their abilities, such as studying, celibacy, or an early death?
- Are miracles and magic distinct?
I also have some worldbuilding questions of my own that you may find useful:
Worldbuilding Questions On Politics
- Who are the ruling class?
- Who governs—an elected government, a monarch, a tyrant?
- What unites people politically, e.g. a sense of justice, or corrupted beliefs built on racism?
- Are people politically motivated enough to act, such as protesting or rioting?
- Has there been a world war that has influenced how politics is condcted now? For example, it could be more amicable or more hostile.
- What is the staple food item in people’s diet? If they live by rivers or the coast, fish will no doubt play a part.
- Is food easily grown? Is there a abundance of natural resources that people can rely on for food? Or does it have to be imported?
- Are there any local delicacies or favourite foods?
- Are there any famous dishes?
- What currency do people use? Or are there several types of currency?
- What are the coins like (or their equivalent) that people use?
- How do people earn their money? Think jobs, careers, professions (honest and dishonest)
- What do people like to spend their money on?
- Do people use anything in place of currency, such as paying in kind or in favors?
- What types of fabrics and materials are commonly used to create clothing in this world? Are there any unique or special materials that are only found in certain regions?
- How does the climate affect the types of clothing that are worn in different parts of the world?
- What are some of the current fashion trends in the world? How do they vary by culture or social class?
- Are there any specific fashion-related customs or traditions in this world? For example, are there certain occasions where certain types of clothing are worn?
- How does the technology level of this world affect the way clothing is made or designed? Are there any advanced technologies that are used in the fashion industry?
- Are there any restrictions or laws regarding clothing or fashion in this world?
- How does the economy of this world affect the fashion industry? Are there any luxury fashion brands or designers?
- Are there any unique accessories or jewelry worn in this world? How are they made?
- How does the status or hierarchy of people in society affects the fashion they wear?
- Are there any religious or moral implications related to fashion in this world?
Worldbuilding Questions On Religion
- What are the dominant religions in this world? Are there any polytheistic or monotheistic beliefs?
- How do the different religions in this world interact with one another? Is there religious tolerance or intolerance?
- Are there any religious or spiritual practices that are unique to this world?
- How do the religious beliefs of this world affect the political and social structures of the society?
- Are there any religious texts, holy sites, or religious artifacts that are important to the different religions of this world?
- How do the religious beliefs of this world affect the daily lives of the people? For example, are there any religious holidays or customs?
- Are there any religious leaders or figures that are important to the different religions of this world?
- Are there any religious or spiritual elements in the world that are not part of any organized religion?
- How does the technology level of this world affect religion?
- Are there any religious-based magical practices in the world? How do they differ from other types of magic?
I highly recommend checking out the list of worldbuilding questions by the SFWA. It’s far more comprehensive than what I can include here, and written by some of the finest creators of fantasy worlds around.
Read World Building Books
Something that’s helped me out more than anything else is reading world building books.
Now there’s a real variety of books that you can devour to help you research and learn methods and approaches to creating fantasy worlds.
Here’s a quick list of some of the best books I’ve read that specifically focus on worldbuilding:
- A Fantasy Writers’ Handbook
- 30 Days Of Worldbuilding
- On Writing And Worldbuilding
- The Fantasy Fiction Formula
You can also check out books about history, philosophy, psychology and sociology. I also recommend reading novels or stories set in a similar type of world to your own. This can help provoke new ideas.
Click Here For The Best Books On Worldbuilding
Tips On How To Start Worldbuilding Using A Map
Worldbuilding with a map is a great way to visualize and organize the different elements of your fantasy world. Here are some tips for beginning the fantasy worldbuilding process with a map:
- Start with the basics – Begin by sketching out the basic shape and layout of your world, including the locations of oceans, mountains, and other geographical features.
- Add in natural features – Include natural features such as forests, rivers, and other landmarks that might be important to the story or the characters.
- Add in political boundaries – Once you have the basic layout, start adding in the boundaries of different countries, kingdoms, and other political entities.
- Add in cities and towns – Place the major cities and towns in your world, and think about how they might be connected by roads or other transportation methods.
- Add in details – As you work on your map, add in more details such as mountain ranges, islands, and other geographical features.
- Consider the climate – Think about how the climate and weather patterns might affect the different regions of your world.
- Think about the history and culture – As you create your map, think about the history and culture of the different regions and how they might have been influenced by their geography.
- Revise and edit – As you work on your map, don’t be afraid to make changes and revisions as needed.
- Use different colors and symbols – Use different colors and symbols to indicate different types of terrain or other features.
- Have fun and be creative – Worldbuilding is a fun and creative process, so don’t be afraid to let your imagination run wild as you create your map.
A map is a great tool for fantasy worldbuilding and it allows you to see the big picture, but it’s important to remember that it’s not the only tool. Once you have a solid map, you can start fleshing out the details, creating characters, cultures, and stories that will fill the world you’ve created.
Get More Advice On How To Start Worldbuilding
Below, you can find more guides and resources to help you learn how to start worldbuilding:
- A complete guide on how to build a fantasy world
- How to create a fantasy map – always an important feature when it comes to making your own world, a map can guide you structure in a complex process.
- Worldbuilding and religion
- A guide to castles in fantasy
- Head here to learn about worldbuilding culture
- How much worldbuilding should you do before you start writing?
- Learn more about worldbuilding in writing here
- If you want to learn more about the high fantasy genre, head here. You can find a definition of what it is, learn about its key features and how it differs to low fantasy, and discover some examples of books in the subgenre.
- The lives of medieval lords
- Head here to find a big list of world building prompts, including ones for characters and societies
- A list of the best world building classes
- Head here to learn about the writing community, r/worldbuilding
- Download a free worldbuilding checklist here
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