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Worldbuilding: How to Create a Believable World for Your Fiction Characters

by | Apr 13, 2021

A lot goes into creating a fantasy world — or a world for any story, regardless of genre. 

Every world needs its own distinct feel, whether it’s a microcosm of the one we already know, a distant past, a far-out future or a magical alternate world altogether. From Middle-earth, to Tatooine, to the scandalous world Bridgerton’s Regency London, it’s the author’s job is to make the world feel real and relevant to what’s happening with the characters and plot.

But what makes a fictional world feel real? There are a lot of different tools and approaches available to authors to help you in this important process.

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What is world building?

When writing any story, one of the top jobs — and greatest challenges — the author takes on is to create a world that feels realistic and multi-dimensional.

Much more than a backdrop for the action, the story’s world is a crucial foundation to everything that takes place. What are the values in this world? What’s the structure of daily life look like? Who has privilege, and who’s left behind? What’s the economic system? What’s got value and what doesn’t? 

Whether it’s directly related to the plot of your story or not, these are the types of big questions that will round out your story’s world. You might be surprised at the ways these important dynamics emerge in subtle but important ways throughout the story.

How to start world building

There is no right or wrong way to create a world for your story. In fact, there are a lot of examples of incredible authors, all of whom go about the world building process in very different ways.

Here are a few examples:

E. Schwab: The author of “The Invisible Live of Addie LaRue” and other speculative genre fiction famously says she loves to write stories about outsiders — but to know who the outsiders of a fictional world are, one must start by understanding who its insiders are, and why. In this way, Schwab wisely starts to unfold her world from a characters-first perspective, starting with its most central values. To learn more about her process, start with this video. 

Margaret Atwood: The multi-award-winning author of “The Handmaid’s Tale” has said she starts her world building by thinking about how her character eats breakfast. What type of kitchen does the character have? Do they prepare their own food or does someone else? Where does their food come from? This process offers her a way to start peeking into the world’s economy and social structures, one step at a time. She shares how she builds out her world from this single moment of the day in this Fast Company article.

Chuck Wendig: Whereas many authors set aside time to map out their worlds before they begin writing, not all do! The author of “Wanderers” prefers to start tackling his stories from the characters and plot, and then revisits the draft to fill out the world building as needed. As he puts it, “the world serves the story, the story doesn’t serve the world.” He offers this and more great world building advice in this blog post.

Reading about other authors’ methods and talking to them about their process when you have opportunity is a great way to add to your own world building toolbox. But, as they say, your mileage may vary! Just because your favorite author does their world building a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s the right way for you to do it.

Give different methods a try, then don’t be afraid to stick with what works for you. In the end, all that matters is that the result is a world that brings the story to life for your readers.

8 tips for creative world building

If creating an entire world feels like a daunting challenge, here are some steps to get you started.

1. Study other authors at work in your genre

It’s important to read widely within the genre you write. As you do so, make a study of the ways other authors bring their worlds to life on the page.

How can you bring these lessons to your own writing?

2. Mix and match different worlds

If you need inspiration to get started, draw inspiration from the worlds you already know — whether those be fictional or real!

Then, use these elements as building blocks and start making it your own.

3. Draw a map of your story’s world

The geography of your world can be as important as the culture — and the two may even inform each other.

You don’t have to be an artist to develop a quick sketch that can help you navigate how the world comes together.

4. Consider what kinds of flora and fauna live in your world

What do the trees and other plants look like? Are some native to certain areas or only grow under certain conditions? What types of creatures exist there?

For worlds more like our own, this may require some careful research; but for more fantastical worlds, this can be an opportunity to set loose your wildest creativity. 

5. Outline your world’s background

How did your world become the way it is at the story’s start?

What is the government like? What about its financial systems? Are there different cultures intermingling? Are there fads or styles within this society?

6. Use all your senses

When we’re out in the real world, we experience it through our senses: sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. Your world will come to life for readers when you let them do the same in your fictional world.

If your character wanders through a market, what spices and herbs might mingle in the air? If your character is on a spaceship, what does the food taste like? If your character spends her weekends in the local coffee shop, how does her favorite table feel? These kinds of details within a world can help to make it feel more multidimensional and real.

A lot of writers fall into the trap of relying on just a few of the senses, like sight and touch. But as you revise your manuscript, look for opportunities to round out these details with the other senses, too. You don’t need to touch on all five senses for every aspect of your world (that would get tiresome pretty quickly) but added in at opportune moments, they can take a world that’s fine and turn it into something remarkable and memorable.

7. Reflect your world’s values

In the real world, values and bias are embedded so deeply we hardly even think about it in daily life — consider the ways in which the world is built for right-handed people, or, some of the phrases we still use from our history. Then of course, there are the complex consequences of racism, sexism other serious issues that continue to plague our society. For better or for worse, these all have connections to what’s really valued in our world. 

So what is valued in your fictional world? Who holds power and influence? Who doesn’t? How are these values reinforced? These small touches can demonstrate important things about your story’s world without having to hit pause and explain it all.

8. Explore thematic elements

Every story has a theme. Your world building should support a deeper exploration of those elements. Look for opportunities for the greater world of your story to reflect, build, and deepen these big questions.

For example, in “The Hunger Games,” the story isn’t only about Katniss. It’s also about power dynamics, control and what it takes to survive. As the series goes on, it also wrestles with themes of trauma and the costs of war and freedom. These themes are reinforced by the details of the story’s world from where we start with Katniss in District 12, to the Capitol, to their fight in the rebellion.

These are only a few examples of ways to explore your world and make it more multidimensional. With these and other exercises, you may surprise yourself with the ideas you come up with, and how complex your world becomes. The more you’re able to consider all aspects of your story’s world, the more dynamic and life-like it will feel to readers. 

Bench in a purple park, text about creating a believable world

World building tools & resources

There are myriad tools and resources for world building available to help you build your skills and flesh out your story. Here are a few excellent places to start:

  • Brandon Sanderson’s BYU lecture series – This leading fantasy author is renowned for his complex fantasy worlds. In this six-part series for students at Brigham Young University, two of his lectures are dedicated to world building. They offer a wealth of information on building compelling worlds, as well as a peek behind the curtain of how a master (and bestseller) gets it done.
  • World Building Reddit – This subreddit is an active community of creatives for all sorts of speculative fiction and world-building endeavors, from authors to gamemasters and more. It’s a great source for insights, support and inspiration within a community of like-minded creators from across the expanses of the Internet.
  • World building software – Did you know there’s software designed to help you through the world building process? In fact, this great list from ProWritingAid lists multiple you can choose from, depending on your creative style.
  • World building templates – Many have created their own versions of templates, questions and prompts to help authors build out their worlds—there’s something out there for everyone! But it can also be a deluge that’s hard to navigate. I like this organized list of points to consider from Amelia Weins on the Science Fiction Writers Association’s blog, which prioritizes considerations for diversity.
  • Tracking tools for world building – Maintaining consistency within your story’s world is crucial for making it feel real. So how will you remember on page 227 the color of the wallpaper in a shop your character is revisiting from chapter two? There are tools for that. This article breaks down a few ways to approach it (full disclosure, written by this author).

How to reveal your world to readers

 Once you’ve built your world, you now must introduce it to your readers through your story. The best rule of thumb for sharing key details about your story’s world is to reveal it as it becomes needed.

While certain classic fantasy authors are notorious for their extensive detours into elaborate detours into backstory (looking at you, Tolkien), most readers respond better to brief glimpses into backstory, revealed as naturally as possible, as it becomes important to the plot and character’s development.

You may even find that full threads of your world’s history or culture never make it into the manuscript at all — and that’s okay! It was still well worth the effort if it helped you to create a world rich enough for readers to inhabit. You can even set these nuggets aside for use in a sequel, or as a special treat for newsletter subscribers. 

Further, look for opportunities for your world building work double time as characterization. What is your protagonist’s relationship to their world? How does this influence their feelings toward the world’s systems? Do they have special memories or associations with certain foods, places, or rituals? For better or for worse, this will color their perspective and how they move through the story’s world. This should be evident in the way world is described through the character’s perspective.

 Your world is, in many ways, a character as dynamic as your protagonist and supporting cast. It should shift and evolve as the story develops, too! “Game of Thrones” offers an excellent example of this: as winter draws near, so too does the looming threat of the white walkers. The world itself is a ticking clock on the story as it unfolds, and impacts everything taking place across its vast set of characters.

The greatest fictional worlds tell us about ourselves

 The world you create doesn’t just tell readers about your story, characters and the adventures you send them on. It also reveals important things about the real world, too — whether it resembles this one closely, or appears vastly different on its surface. Every story offers not just an escape, but also a mirror. 

How do you see the world? What do you have to say about it? What troubles you about it? Even if you don’t set out with the intent to take on these major questions, as an author, your take on these big questions is sure to seep into every aspect of your world. 

The more thought and imagination you’re able to offer to bring your world to life, the more clearly these messages and themes will reach your readers.

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This is an updated version of a story that was previously published. We update our posts as often as possible to ensure they’re useful for our readers.

Photo via Vitalii Bashkatov/ Shutterstock