A Guide to World-Building

Whenever I’ve written fantasy or sci-fi, the world-building element of the story has been the bane of my life. World-building somehow manages to be one of the most exciting parts of writing in these genres, as you can let your imagination run away with itself, while also being incredibly difficult at the same time.

The term ‘world-building’ refers to constructing your imaginary world, and writing about it in such a way that your reader feels like it is real. When you pick up a Harry Potter book, or dip into Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings series, you feel like you really have been transported to Hogwarts or Middle-Earth. This is because we believe in these places; we know enough detail about them to feel like they are real.

Anyone who has written fantasy or sci-fi will know that this is easier said than done. You might have a great idea for a dystopian universe, which makes complete sense in your head, but when you try to put it down on paper you realise you need to answer a lot of questions. Things like: where do people get their food from? Who is growing this food? How do people pay for the food? And on and on, until you wish you were writing something set on planet Earth instead.

There are lots of things which can help you develop your world until it is as realistic as J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world. Some people like to create maps, others might find mood-boards more helpful. Personally, I think the best approach is to figure out a framework of your world before you start writing. That way, you won’t get distracted when you are writing, and you can always come back later when you’re editing to add in extra details or change things.

Here are some questions I would recommend answering when you are quite early on in your draft (let yourself be imaginative in your answers, and know you don’t need to have a thorough answer for each – a rough idea will do);

  • Work out the rules of the world – what is the world’s equivalent to the 10 commandments? Note: every societal system has rules. Even if on the surface it seems like the only rule is ‘there are no rules’.

  • What clothes to people wear? What do different garments indicate about the people wearing them? Does clothing reflect class, occupation, or something else?

  • Is there a hierarchy of people or institutions at play in this world?

  • Is there an education system? How does it work?

  • Do they use money or a trade/barter system? What are the coins like?

  • What language is spoken? Do they use slang? Is there a specific dialect? What swear words do they use?

  • What do the buildings look like? How were they built?

  • What are the boundaries of the world – are you writing about a whole planet, or is your world confined to one city? One town? One street?

  • Are there people living outside of your world (for example, outside the city boundary)? What do they think about it?

  • How technologically advanced is your world? Do they have electricity? What do they use their resources to make?

  • Can people read and write?

  • Who are the social outcasts in this place?

  • Which people are well-respected in this world?

  • What happens when people get ill? Is there a medical system? What illnesses are most common?

  • Have there been any notable conflicts in this world’s history?

You can carry on with this exercise until you feel happy that you have a good knowledge of the world you are writing about, but hopefully these questions are a good starting point. You don’t necessarily need to include all of your answers in your story, but these details will naturally feed into your writing and help your reader believe in your world.