One of the greatest joys in writing fiction is becoming the god of your own microcosmic universe. Storytelling means getting to create whole new worlds with their own magic, technology, culture, ecosystems, histories, and social constructs.
But building a world that feels real and immersive to the reader can be trickier than it looks. This multifaceted skill set is called worldbuilding, and it’s a huge part of genre fiction like fantasy and science fiction. You might recognize it from rich literary worlds like Game of Thrones, The Handmaid’s Tale, or Star Wars.
Let’s take a deep dive into the step-by-step process of building your imaginary world from the ground up.
What does worldbuilding mean in writing?
Worldbuilding is the step in the writing process when a writer establishes the parameters of their fictional world. This includes the sort of people who live in this world, what their day-to-day lives look like, their beliefs, and the way they’ve been shaped by their ecosystem, geography, and history. Worldbuilding is especially important to fantasy or science fiction writers.
For fantasy writers, the worldbuilding process might include things like how the magic of your fantasy world works and behaves, what sort of mythical creatures populate its society, any religions or cultural traditions that have arisen, and so forth.
In a science fiction novel, your worldbuilding details will probably include technological systems, any otherly species such as aliens or artificial intelligence, how society has framed itself around these elements, and the world’s history that has taken it to the point where your plot begins.
Detailed worldbuilding is essential in bringing the story to life for your reader. More importantly, a shoddily crafted world can sink an otherwise exquisitely plotted novel. Don’t worry—we’ll walk you through everything you need to know.
How to start building your fictional world
When you begin building your fictional universe, the first thing you need to consider is how close you want it to be to the world we know.
Is it the real world you see outside your window every day, tilted just slightly off-kilter? Or is it an entirely new world full of people and places that never were?
Let’s look at three approaches to building imaginary worlds for your story.
Real (or primary) worlds
Primary worldbuilding involves taking our familiar world and adding something new. The Harry Potter series is a good example of this; it takes place in real world locations such as King’s Cross Station in London, but presents to us a world slightly changed from the one we know.
To create this book, J.K. Rowling took the real world and enhanced it with new facets.
Most urban and contemporary fantasy, as well as the majority of science fiction novels, favour this approach.
Brand new (or secondary) worlds
Secondary worldbuilding involves creating a brand new world from scratch, with no relation to our own. This method of worldbuilding can be extraordinarily challenging, but deeply satisfying once it all comes together.
To create a secondary world you’ll need to flesh out your story’s language, landscapes, ecosystems, social and political systems, and more. Game of Thrones and The Chronicles of Narnia use this approach.
High or epic fantasy, and some science fiction, use secondary worldbuilding.
Alternate history novels can have fantastical elements, but they might also be completely realistic—except for one small thing that’s changed. Your alternate history might be set in times past, or it might be set in contemporary times where the world looks a bit different.
Alternate history worlds begin with a question: “What if?” What if Adolph Hitler had been raised by a different set of parents? What if one of the Wright brothers had died in the womb? What if the suffragette movement had ultimately failed?
This type of worldbuilding involves looking at every effect that would have spun out of this shift.
You can draw inspiration from real-world historical events for ideas.
Elements of your fictional world
Now that we understand a bit more about what worldbuilding is and the sorts of imaginary worlds you might be writing about, let’s take a closer look at each individual element that you’ll need to consider as you start writing.
Both science fiction and fantasy worlds are going to have people, in the loosest sense of the word, powering the events of your plot. What do these people look like? Are they human, humanoid, or something else entirely?
If you’re writing an alternate historical novel, has something in your story’s past caused people to evolve differently? For example, if you’re writing a post-dystopian book set in the future after some apocalyptic disaster, your world’s people may have developed a heightened sensitivity to light, alternate breathing mechanisms that allow them to process highly polluted air, or certain inhibited sensory receptors. The possibilities are endless.
If your world’s people have magical powers or special abilities, how do they work? What are their strengths and limitations? Are there different races of people? How have they established themselves in the imaginary world you’ve created?
We’ll look at more worldbuilding questions like these in our Worldbuilding Workbook later on.
If your fantasy world is different from the real world we live in, what does it look like?
Is it filled with damp, forested regions, sand swept deserts, or frigidly impassable mountains? Are there seas, rivers, lakes that stretch downward for miles and house all manner of creatures from the deep?
Even if you don’t explore every inch of it within the text of your story, it’s a good idea for you as the writer to know what your world looks like. You can even draw a map to reference as you go!
Keep in mind that all of these geographical elements will affect the way your characters behave in this world—people living in the middle of an acrid, unforgiving desert will develop different traditions, and maybe even different bodies, than people living in a bustling seaport.
In worldbuilding, examining the ecosystem takes the geography of your world one step further: how does your fictional setting behave?
What kind of plants, animals, or natural resources will your main characters encounter? If you’re making up brand new species, how did they develop from the foundation of this setting? Consider what this flora and fauna can tell us about the wider world.
What are the weather conditions like? Are there any sort of natural disasters that are prominent in your characters’ lives? Do they have four seasons the way (most of) our world does, or fewer, or more?
You can draw from real-world sources, but fact check to ensure it makes sense with the physical world you’ve created. For example, be careful not to have plants growing in your pristine rainforest that, in reality, only grow in ash-rich dry places or in the densely packed soil of busy cities.
Many fantasy writers enjoy developing entirely new languages for their characters. Tolkien’s rich Elvish languages are great examples of this; as part of his worldbuilding process, he gave his languages their own vocabulary, grammatical systems, and even written lettering.
You don’t need to develop an entire dictionary around your imaginary language, but incorporating a few words or phrases can give your magical world a whole new dimension.
Make sure that you keep those phrases consistent—recurring hard consonant or soft vowel sounds, similar suffixes and prefixes, and so on. You can look to languages from our own world for inspiration.
How do your main characters make money? Or, if it’s not a world that’s run by money (living the dream), how do they support themselves and get what they need to survive? If your protagonist’s house suddenly springs a leak and lets in all that pesky acid rain, who’s going to fix it, and what will it cost them?
During your worldbuilding, consider how your world’s natural resources are allocated, who has access to them, and how.
How does the currency of your world—whether this is a physical currency like money or magic beans, or an intangible currency like skills to be bartered—affect traits like ambition and greed?
Your fictional world should have a revolving economic system that works—at least on some level, and for some people.
Culture and religion
In science fiction and fantasy writing, the sort of traditions and spiritual practices (if any) your fictional societies have are what will create an immersive, believable world for your reader.
What is your world’s religious belief system? Do your characters believe in a god, or a pantheon of gods? How do they communicate these beliefs with their deities and with those around them?
In your worldbuilding, consider what sort of holidays, ceremonies, and superstitions might exist in your fictional world. How are they similar to those we know from our own world, and how are they different?
Think about things like birth, unions, deaths, coming-of-age rites, and the turning of the seasons. You may also think about whether there are opposing traditions and belief systems that are in conflict with one another.
How are the power and political systems laid out in your worldbuilding? What makes society value one person, or type of person, over another? Does your fictional world have royalty, political leaders, warring factions, or individual self-governed family units?
Think about what sort of laws your society follows. Are these rules considered fair, or oppressive? What are the consequences of breaking these rules—or following them? How do the disparate social classes behave, and where do your main characters fit into the class system of this broader society?
The social construction of a society or wider world is often a great starting point for discovering the core conflicts of your story.
Magical and/or technological systems
Having a detailed, well-constructed magic system or technological system is essential in creating a believable world for your story. Somewhat ironically, this is where you readers will be most discerning. When something doesn’t work, they’ll be sure to let you know—through scathing reviews on goodreads.
In fantasy worldbuilding, you may have a hard magic system, a soft magic system, or a combination of both. In sci-fi writing, you’ll probably have a system of soft science or hard science. Let’s take a closer look at each one.
Soft magic systems allow magic—or technology—to exist within the fabric of the world without needing to explain how every aspect of it works.
This doesn’t mean you should take an “anything is possible” approach (this lowers the stakes of your story rather significantly); rather, the characters take these things for granted as part of their everyday lives.
For example, imagine you’re writing a story about a character who uses an iPhone. You probably wouldn’t stop your narrative to tell the reader what an iPhone is or how exactly it works (do you know? Because I sure don’t). Your reader would be able to pick up enough information from the context clues to understand what’s happening, and they wouldn’t need all the details to be able to enjoy the story.
These types of magic systems can be freeing to write, and they’re also more realistic because your characters probably won’t be aware of every single detail themselves. However, make sure that you’re aware of the limitations and physical laws of your magic or technology, and that those limitations aren’t contradicted throughout your story.
Hard magic systems, or hard science, involve having everything meticulously laid out throughout your plot. For example, if you’re writing about a student who’s just joined a top-secret society of magicians and is learning all the necessary sigils, invocations, and magical elements needed to enact a certain work.
Hard science might be something like a physicist developing a system for time travel and walking the reader through each step of their journey.
These systems can be rewarding to write and they’ll make your detailed world seem more vivid than ever, but they are also very challenging. You’ll need to know exactly how your magic works, what is possible and what is not, how each objective is obtained, and how to keep it consistent all the way through your novel.
Be sure to keep lots of notes, even if you don’t think you’ll use all of them in your actual plot. Remember, if you make a mistake within the parameters of your established science or magic—your readers will tell you. They’ll build fan clubs for the express purpose of discussing your mistake. Don’t be that writer.
3 common worldbuilding mistakes
Speaking of mistakes, grievous errors in worldbuilding are notoriously easy to do because you’re developing such a complex, multifaceted system. Here are some of the major red flags to look for while you’re developing your fictional world.
Borrowing heavily from other stories
If you grew up reading sci-fi or fantasy fiction, chances are you’ve encountered imaginary worlds before. These are wonderful for getting your started on your writing journey; the problem is that it’s very easy to slip into setting your story in another author’s world, instead of your own.
When you’re doing your worldbuilding, make sure to add some elements that make it uniquely yours. Having your characters tromp through a world that feels suspiciously like Middle Earth may feel comforting and familiar to you, but it won’t make your novel stand out from the crowd.
Too much exposition
Be careful not to take up too much real estate in your plot with exposition. This can be particularly challenging in science fiction worlds, where you want to explain how your super cool innovative technology works and the exact steps to take in order to bioengineer an endangered species of butterfly into a cold-blooded killing machine (for example).
A well-thought out system of magic or technology is hugely important to making your worldbuilding resonate with the reader, but be careful not to lose sight of the things that matter most: your story. Your world should be there to support the character development and plot, not the other way around.
Using disparate elements
Whether you’re creating a brand new world or drawing from real life, make sure that everything you’ve included makes sense within the world you’ve created.
For example, imagine you’ve created a setting where volcanoes have achieved sentience and the people living near them have evolved to understand the language of animals. How are these two things connected? If you can’t find a reason why these elements have developed side by side, have another think about the coherency of your world.
Or maybe you’ve created a story where time travel was established some decades prior, and faeries have recently revealed themselves to humans. Is there a correlation between these two discoveries? Or did you just lie awake one night and suddenly think, “time travelling faeries!”?
You can definitely have both of these elements in your story, but you need to come up with a cohesive reason why they exist together at the same time.
Examples of vivid fictional worlds
It’s not as easy as it looks, is it? And yet, worldbuilding can be one of the most fulfilling aspects of writing. Here are a few examples of authors who have created engaging worlds.
The Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien
JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is one example of a timeless fantasy world with a rich history. The worldbuilding is often what people remember most when they think of this story.
Tolkien combined classic mythological species like elves and dwarves with his own exotic creatures like hobbits and ents. He also gave his Middle Earth distinctive cities and cultures, magical class systems, hereditary legacies, and even languages.
Book of Night, by Holly Black
Holly Black’s Book of Night is an example of a primary world—one that looks much like real life, but with certain elements shifted. Black’s worldbuilding features a complex magical system involving manipulating people’s shadows for cosmetic purposes, or for manipulation—they can even be brought to life.
The author explores how this realm of possibility would affect the wider world, leading to an underground world of illegal shadow trading.
The Stardust Thief, by Chelsea Abdullah
Inspired by The Arabian Nights, this book is a great example of how non-Western mythology can offer worlds of inspiration when crafting your settings. Abdullah’s book features corrupt sultans, sneaky jinn (what you might also know as genies), and magical, sandswept adventures.
This book takes real historical elements and blends them with Middle Eastern mythology to create something both familiar and entirely new.
The Worldbuilding Workbook
Now it’s time to put it all together and create your very own fictional world! We’ve put together an easy template with a range of worldbuilding questions to help you develop an engaging world that will sweep readers off their feet.