Updated: Jul 29, 2020
As a fantasy and science fiction reader, there’s nothing I like better than sinking headfirst into a vivid world of pure fiction. From Narnia to Game of Thrones, 1984 to Ready Player One, many a fantasy world has captivated, suspended my disbelief and made the places within the pages feel real.
As a writer, I'm often in awe at the level of detail the authors of these worlds have gone to. That awe led to my own study and attempts at world building. Here are few tips I've found:
1. Add a map
When I travel, I like to know I am. It stems not just from a practical point of view, but from some deep-rooted instinct to know where this foreign place is in relation to home. Knowing where I am in the world grounds me, it allows me to orientate myself to navigate this strange new place. Sea to the east; hills to the north; forest to the west and so on.
It’s the same with novels—most notably, fantasy and science fiction.
A map can help anchor readers (writers too) in the world. It is especially useful if characters are journeying through a secondary world, that is, a world that is not Earth (or at least not the Earth we know). Moreover, it quickly establishes what kind of world we’re exploring, from the names to the terrain and climate—it really is worth a 1000 words!
To give an example, here’s one of the early maps I created for The Rarkyn’s Familiar. It’s changed a lot since, but it laid the ground for the first draft.
Map making tips for writers
Bigger is better: Create your world bigger than you need it. This helps add a sense of scale and gives you room to play if you intend to turn the story into a series.
Scale: What is the scale? You don’t necessarily need to mark it down, but consider how long it will take your characters to travel from A to B. Characters travelling 1000 miles on foot in the space of two weeks is probably not realistic.
Terrain and climates: Earth has a varied landscape, from swamp to searing desert, tides to trade winds, your second world(s) should too (even if you only explore a small part of it in the story).
It doesn’t need to be a work of art: As writers, we deal with words. Sketch what you can and worry about the finesse later. If you can’t draw, here’s a list of useful online map making tools that may help.
2. Consider people and culture
Who lives in your world? Does your story revolve around one type of people or culture—The Handmaid’s Tale, Ender’s Game—or are there multiple races such as hobbits, elves, orcs as in Lord of the Rings? What do these people(s) look like, dress like, sound like? What do they eat? Where do they live? How have they adapted to their environment?
Fleshing out the cultures of your world adds depth, even if these details never make it onto the page.
A few handy resources
Big List of World Building Resources: It really is big and it covers just about everything you can think of. Astronomy, ecology, religion, politics, language, law. Like I said, it’s big.
Behind the Name: If you’re on the hunt for meaningful names from various cultures, histories and mythologies, this is a good place to start. You can also search names by theme (from names that have ‘green’ meanings to floral, avian and famous figures).
English to Old Norse Dictionary: If you fancy on basing a society’s language on Old Norse, this is a useful resource to have on hand.
German History in Documents and Images: From the layout of a late medieval village to historical maps, and documents illustrating everyday life, this is an excellent resource for writers with stories set against a medieval backdrop.
Law in the ancient world: A concise summary of the judicial systems in Mesopotamia, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome and Ancient China.
3. Set up a social structure
Who holds power in your world—and more importantly why? Is a kingdom, a federation of states, or a Roman-esk oligarchy? History can offer a wealth of inspiration. From the democracy of Ancient Greece to Feudal Japan and the Khanate of Genghis Khan, there are numerous social structures that you can adapt and build on.
If your structure is akin to a network, who steers the swarm? Who influences the masses? Delving into the psychology of following and influencer marketing could be useful here.
Consider also how power is gained in your world. Does birth determine the ruling class? Or is it magical ability, or wealth? Does your society allow people to rise and fall in status, or is it regimented? Think about society’s underdogs too, what makes them lower-class?
Structures to think about
Governance structure: How is your world ruled?
Socio-economic structure: Who leads, who serves? What determines poor from powerful?
Family structure: Who heads the family? Do parents raise their children or does the society?
Gender structure: Patriarchy or matriarchy?
Foreign relations: If you have more than one country/society, how does it fit in the grand scheme? Is it a lackey of a greater world power, or leading a rebellion of allied states against them?
4. Build a history
What is the history of your land and people in your story—and how does it impact the events that unfold between your pages? Like characters, societies and cultures need backstories too. Conflict—be it physical, emotional, social—doesn’t spring out of nowhere, they are molded by what has come before.
If your story features the exploits of a rebellious faction seeking to overthrow a dictator (think Star Wars), how did that faction come to be? What events caused it to form? Why are they fighting?
Events to consider
Has the status quo changed recently? Is it set to change?
Are any past events still affecting the current landscape, such as: war, persecution, natural disaster, social reform, change of leadership, economic crash.
5. The impact of technology and/or magic
If your world has magic or advanced technology, consider the implications it might have on the points covered above. Has it impacted the social structure of that society? What part has it played in history?
Humans are an indigenous species. We invent, bastardise and build on the technology we have, so what’s to say that won’t happen in your fictional society? How might technological or magical evolution change your society and its power structure?
Considerations to explore
Social: how does it influence behaviour and social hierarchy?
Religious: Is magic associated with the divine, is it part of everyday life, or is it seen as blasphemy?
Warfare and espionage: How has technology and/or magic influenced the way your society wages war or defends against it.
Economics: Is the technology or magic scarce? What is it worth? Is it traded? Can ordinary people afford it, or is it limit to the upper echelons of society?
6. Think about units of measurement
If your story is set in a secondary world, how does time pass? Is it twenty-four hour days like Earth, or is it eight or forty-eight? Does society operate on the seven-day week as we do?
Trudi Canavan, for example, uses “cycles” to describe the passing of time in her series Millennium's Rule. Canavan’s series world hops a lot and features worlds with different solar years—the length of time for a planet to orbit its sun. Because of this, her characters operate in cycles (roughly equivalent to an Earth year). This provides consistent timekeeping, regardless of where the setting is.
Units to consider
Time: From the passing of moments to days, weeks and years.
Calendar: how many months to a year? Or is the year divided into seasons?
Distance/length: Inches, feet and miles; centimetres, metres and kilometres; fingers, hands and spans.
Weight/mass: Grams and kilograms; ounces and pounds; the Chinese jin; Dutch ons; or perhaps more ancient units of mass such as the grain, shekel or talent.
Volume: Liters, gallons.
Area: Square metres, acres, hectares.
Read more: 5 ancient systems for measuring distance
World building is a challenge—albeit a fun one. There’s no hard and fast rule on how to get it right; what works for one writer, might not for another. For me, the joy comes from seeing my creations spring up on the page. It’s wanderlust without the long-haul flight.