Updated: Jun 6, 2022
Whether you're writing sci-fi or fantasy, history or adventure, you will need to create a world that is believable, immersive and thrilling. We have brought together ten of the best world building tips to help you.
All genres of fiction require an element of world building, some more so than others. Perhaps the most obvious genres to rely on the construction of a new realm are fantasy and science fiction, but you will find elements of world building to be just as essential in an adventure story, historical fiction or a mystery.
World building is all about the reader's immersive experience and the believability and consistency of the story. It also gives us writers a chance to be as imaginative or creative as we dare!
Here we explore the importance of world building specifically in the sci-fi and fantasy genres.
1. Keep a record
Keeping a record of the various elements of your story is advisable no matter which genre you are writing in. A list of characters and their traits, a timeline of events, as well as details of locations and surroundings, can help to keep your story consistent.
When you are world building for fantasy or sci-fi, these records are indispensable. Here are some of the basics you should be keeping note of to ensure consistency in your created world:
geographic locations (including landmarks, waterways, etc.)
weather patterns (does the typical weather very depending on region?)
clans, races, social and family groups
political systems and leadership
religions, festivals and celebrations
economic concerns (trade, currency, taxation, natural resources)
animals (types, descriptions, habitats, behaviours)
magic systems (if relevant)
machinery (is machinery used or are tools and vehicles more rudimentary?)
arts, entertainment, clothing
types of AI/mechanical beings (sci-fi) and their descriptions, behaviours, roles in society
rules of time and space
alterations to the law of nature
There is much more that could be recorded but this list will get you started. You can add in additional items as your story unfolds.
2. Do your research
Research?! Surely not!
Well, this one's a bit debatable, depending on what you're writing and your approach to your story. Of course, world building is about freeing your imagination and creativity and exploring possibilities beyond our knowledge and understanding. But there is also something to be said for a little bit of research.
Let's imagine you're writing a sci-fi novel. Much of science fiction is based, if not on scientific fact, then on scientific plausibility. While artificial intelligence (AI) is already a reality in our own world, sci-fi may take this to a new level of possibility, a hyperreality bringing together fact and fiction. Stories involving AI are often rich ground for conflict and peril, key drivers of any plot.
It is also perfectly acceptable – and incredibly fun – to create technologies that have no grounding in science at all; totally imaginary devices that make plot lines and action possible.
Researching key events, theories and predictions in the world of science and technology can spark great ideas for the world of science fiction. Take Xiran Jay Zhao's Iron Widow, described as a 'historical-inspired, futuristic sci-fi mash-up', which was inspired not only by cultural elements and historical figures from across Chinese history, but also by futuristic technological possibilities.
Perhaps the most freeing genre to write is fantasy. You create your world away from the constraints of history, geography, science and the laws of nature. But there is still a place for research, or for elements of reality to be threaded into the story.
In David Farr's fantasy adventure The Book of Stolen Dreams (Inky Blog Book of the Month for April), there are very clear political and social parallels between the land of Krasnia and the world we live in, that add an extra layer of believability to the story.
Sophie Anderson's The House With Chicken Legs (an absolutely stunning, unmissable story) reimagines the legend of Baba Yaga from Slavic folklore, while bringing Anderson's own creativity and imagination to the centuries old tale; another example of research supporting fantasy.
3. Create a map
"I wisely started with a map, and made the story fit ...", said J. R. R. Tolkien.
Perhaps not the best advice from Tolkien, but I do get his point about the power of maps. One of my very favourite things to do when I start reading a new children's or YA book, is look to see if there is a map at the beginning. While I'm reading it becomes my reference point to follow the characters as they live out their adventure.
From Jonathan Stroud's map of The Seven Kingdoms, to Eve Wersocki Morris' map of Lowesdale, Helena Duggan's map of a town called Perfect, and Leigh Bardugo's map of the Grishaverse, maps have the power to carry us to magical lands and unimagined worlds.
Maps are, obviously, optional features of your fantasy or sci-fi novel, but they can add a sense of engagement and wonder. As Cressida Cowell wrote, 'a map helps to make an imaginary place real'.
A map also helps to keep the story consistent. Are your characters on a journey? Do they head east? Which lands lie in the east? Which land formations or waterways do they pass on their way there and on their way back? Consistency is key in any novel, but especially so in novels where the world is the writer's creation.
4. Know the history
Every believable world has a history, and while you shouldn't flood your narrative with backstory, the context of your world's history and its influence on the inhabitants, will add a fascinating layer of characterisation.
Does your world have a brutal history of slavery? Even if that slavery has been abolished by the time your story starts, there is a profound impact that will be felt by different characters in different ways.
Experiences of oppression, colonialism or environmental disasters will have equally profound effects on characters and can enhance storylines in many ways.
5. Think about the big and small
You've created a map so that you understand the geography of your world, from mountains and ravines to oceans and ice caps. You can picture where characters may traverse and what climates they are likely to encounter on their journey.
You've crafted the history of your world, giving you a deeper understanding of its contemporary society and geopolitical situation. You can envisage the impact that the Great Earthquake has had on the modern landscape as well as on people's fears, beliefs and superstitions.
And all of that is good because the big things matter. But so do the little things. In fact, many of the big things are for your own understanding of your world, much of which will never make it into the story itself. It is backstory, the scaffolding on which your story is structured.
The small details are more likely to feature page by page. The clothes they wear, the money they use, the food they eat. The trick is to find a way of weaving these details into the action without being overly descriptive or relying on exposition.
Instead of telling us what food is on someone's plate, describe the smells emanating from the kitchen, or a character glumly pushing around a mound of gloop on their plate as even the flies refuse to land there; observe characters harvesting crops in a nearby field or stealing fruit from a tree in a wealthy landowner's orchard.
6. Take inspiration
Creating the setting for your world is one of the most exciting parts. Imagining the landscapes, marshlands, deserts, ice regions and oceans can really bring your story to life, so why not take some inspiration from some of nature's own creations? Sites such as boredpanda.com, Pinterest.com, roughguides.com and lonelyplanet.com feature incredible photos of landscapes, people, wildlife and more to get those creative juices flowing.
Take inspiration, too, from stories that are already out there. Read Jessica Townsend's Nevermoor or Jonathan Stroud's The Outlaws Scarlett & Browne for two examples of masterful world building.
7. Don't lose the story
One of the pitfalls of world building is that it can become all-consuming. Writers can often find they have created and perfected the most wonderful worlds. They know every part of the landscape, every food that is consumed, every festival celebrated or ritual performed, the architectural style of every building ... but they haven't actually had enough time to write the story.
You must make sure you balance the two.
At the beginning, build enough of your world that you have the foundations to start your story and understand how your world may feed into the conflict and character motivations.
As your story unfolds, you can create more of the detail so that it suits the plot and character developments. Don't alter your plot just to suit the world you have built; be flexible and create your world to support your plot.
It's also possible to lose focus within the narrative, not just in the planning stages. The story and characters should take centre stage, not the details of your world. The reader is interested in plot, action, conflict and character. The world you have created should enhance each of those elements, not overshadow them. Write the details of your world so that they feel almost inconsequential.
Most importantly, be flexible. It's the story that's important. Even the most fastidious plotters will find that the story can take an unexpected turn in the actual writing of it. If you need to change your world to fit the new direction your story has taken, do it. But make sure the changes are applied consistently throughout the story. This is why keeping a record of your world is essential.
8. Avoid information dumps
You've created your world. You know how the seasons work, what weird and wonderful creatures exist there, the language the people speak, the social systems they use. You created it, you love it, and you want to tell people about it.
But don't tell your reader chunks of it all in one go. This is a type of exposition that really slows the pace of the story. Readers are looking for conflict and action. I don't necessarily mean sword fights and robot battles, but they do want the story to move on. Information dumps stop this from happening.
New worlds are best revealed a little at a time, and instead of telling your reader what it's like,
let them discover it for themselves.
Instead of spending paragraphs or pages describing the citadel where your characters live, have your characters moving around the busy marketplace infused with sights, sounds and smells, resting in the shadow of the high citadel walls as the suns pass overhead.
Instead of clunky descriptions of the limestone mountain range they are traversing, have one of your characters slip on the chalky ledge which crumbles beneath their feet, their bloodied hands covered in chalk dust as they grapple to regain their footing.
Avoiding information dumps will keep your narrative more interesting, your plot more paced, and your readers more gripped. They will thank you for it.
9. Don't be surprised
Following on from information dumps, you should probably also avoid the temptation to sound surprised by your world, but this all depends on your viewpoint character.
You may have created a totally unique, fascinating world full of twists and surprises (and hopefully you have) but if your viewpoint character has always lived in this world, they wouldn't be surprised by flying tigers and the Forest of Reverse Gravity. In fact, these things would seem pretty mundane to your character and it would be odd for it to sound astounding in the narrative.
The only times it might be okay to sound shocked or surprised is if your viewpoint character is travelling to another part of the world that they've never visited before and which brings with it new experiences (which does often happen in fantasy) or if the viewpoint character is from another world and this is a portal story.
This is one you really just need to be aware of and keep an eye on depending on your viewpoint character and the elements of your story.
10. Space out the descriptions
Another thing to avoid is shoehorning the descriptions of your world into the first few chapters of your book. Again, this would result in long passages of description that slow the pace of the story, an absolute no-no in the opening chapters of a book.
Reveal only those elements relevant to the story at that point and drip feed the rest throughout the narrative as the story progresses.
This is a great way of surprising your reader with new and delightful world elements all the way through your story, keeping it feeling fresh and jam-packed with creativity.
World building is one of the most exciting aspects of writing a fantasy or sci-fi novel, giving us the chance to fully unleash our imaginations. Take the advice above as just that – advice. There are no hard and fast rules, just guidance from tried and tested experience. Immerse yourself in the world you create, but not at the expense of story and character.
Most of all, have fun and enjoy the freedom!
Shadow and Bone - Leigh Bardugo
A Place Called Perfect - Helena Duggan
The Outlaws Scarlett & Browne - Jonathan Stroud
The Bird Singers - Eve Wersocki Morris
Iron Widow - Xiran Jay Zhao
The Book of Stolen Dreams - David Farr
The House With Chicken Legs - Sophie Anderson
Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow - Jessica Townsend
The Writers' Map - Edited by Huw Lewis-Jones