My favorite fantasy books are the ones with the best worldbuilding. Give me a rich world with complex cultures, lots of terrain to explore, ecology that makes sense, and a magic system that’s more well thought out than “I used my feelings/willpower/the goodness of my heart” and I will buy your books like crack. IF (and here’s the big if) your worldbuilding is presented effectively as an integral part of your story. That’s where I see a lot of fantasy writers get hung up. I’ve been writing fantasy for about 30 years now, and while I’m not a household name, I’ve learned a thing or two about effective worldbuilding.
Here are my Top 7 Worldbuilding Tips
Build What You Need
Worldbuilding is a complex process with a lot of moving pieces. There are a lot of things to keep track of both for you and your reader. One way to avoid overwhelm when working on your world is to make sure that the energy you spend on detailed creation goes into areas that you need to show in your story.
You should have a working grasp on the fundamentals of your world and basic knowledge of any elements that play a large role in the history or culture(s) that directly impacts the characters. Most other things can be suggested or implied and then left to the reader’s imagination.
I tend to know a lot more about my worlds than I show in the stories, and more often than not, I only sketch in worldbuilding details, even when I have them. I’d say about a third to a half of my worldbuilding notes are basic outlines or bulleted lists rather than a wikipedia article. I fill in more details as I need them.
Build enough so that you feel comfortable and confident to begin writing in your world, and keep a development log to track new concepts or material as they come up. Leave most of the serious effort for your second draft, because you may find that, while some details interest you, they’re not directly relevant to what you’re writing.
(Note that if a certain topic or concept comes up that you feel deeply drawn to, it’s fine to pause and work on developing it for a while, but stop when you have enough to continue where you were working on or when you realize that this is becoming a distraction-project rather than helpful. Those rabbit holes do sometimes lead to important discoveries, but you need to find a balance between following every side road and finishing a novel.)
Your World is a Character
If you like to plan and outline your stories, it can be tempting to overbuild your world. When that happens, you spend a lot of time and energy trying to pre-create and plan every aspect of it: from your physical terrain to magical creatures to cultures and politics. While there’s nothing wrong with attention to detail, you can stagnate the world and either lose interest in writing or become so afraid of “messing up” what you done that you don’t do anything.
By treating your world as a character, you leave more room for it to grow and develop as the story needs it to. Have an arc for your world that coincides with your protagonist’s and let your readers discover it organically as they enjoy the story. This frees up your mental space, gives you more time, allows for the world to change and adapt (like a real ecosystem) along with the story and in response to your needs as an author.
Create a story bible (or series bible).
A story or series Bible is a collection of reference documents that hold all of the relevant details about your world, characters, history, and any other information that you find relevant. It can hold all of the world building, your character sheets if you use them (I don’t.) History and cultural references in the real world, illustrations, or anything else that you regularly use and might need to refer to as your story goes on.
You can start by designating a notebook or a folder on your computer to hold your information. Over time, you’ll figure out how to organize it and which information you want to have access to on regular basis. I’ve tried several methods of creating a series Bible, and the one that works best for me is using Microsoft One Note.
Worldbuild around and through your characters
Your character’s needs, interests, and desires should change as your story progresses. As they travel or explore their environment, they should be learning more about the world around them. They should be encountering new people, learning about aspects of their life and society that they didn’t consider before, and gaining new skills. All of this provides opportunity for you to build your world by inference and organic encounters. This works a lot better than info dumping or writing long descriptions of everything in the physical environment.
Good Worldbuilding Is about Creating Cultures
If you’re a fantasy fan, you’ll have heard the stories about big-time authors like JRR Tolkien spending years and years on their worlds, creating languages, topography, and doing all kinds of things that helped them build epic, unforgettable fantasy sagas. It’s easy to get caught up in the details and you may find that you have reams of notes about aspects of your world but you haven’t created anything cohesive or the world still doesn’t feel “real” to you.
What’s missing is usually culture — the main, overarching aspects of culture, or culture clash, that help make all of those disparate elements and details relevant to the story. Culture building is what will ground your story so that the world feels rich and immersive.
My go-to resource for creating and developing cultures is Holly Lisle’s Create a Culture Clinic.
I’ve used this book for at least eight years, and most of what I know about the mechanics of world building and cultural creation can be traced to this book. I don’t use Ms. Lisle’s binder method, but I’ve adapted a lot of her principles and techniques to fit my limited physical space and style.
Be familiar with your genre and subgenres
Be familiar with both what is current in your genre and what are considered to be the most important/”famous” works. Every genre has different conventions and reader expectations. While you don’t have to create your books around these factors, you should be aware of them so that you can make more educated decisions about how much or how little you want to consider reader expectations or how you might market your book if it doesn’t meet the usual expectations in your genre.
If you’re writing a book that could fit in multiple genres or you aren’t sure where your book fits, then pick the most similar categories and study those.
Study people and cultures in real life
No matter how weird or different the people in your fantasy world might seem, at their core, they need to be “human” in order for your audience to form a deep connection with them. Culture and other elements of world building can be fantastical, but they should also be grounded in knowledge of reality. Study sociology, psychology, art, and science in order to learn about people and the world around them. People -watch when you’re out in public, and develop your natural skills in observation so that you can bring all of this knowledge into your writing.
Worldbuilding is one of the things that make the difference between a forgettable story and one that lives for ages–but it doesn’t have to be scary. Approach it in small steps and focus on building the areas that matter most to you or your story.
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