…is one of my favourite things about writing. It doesn’t matter if your story is set in this world, or one of your own invention, having some sort of idea about things such as the geography, inhabitants, history and technology present, is going to make it easier for the reader to step inside your imagination. Your world needs to be extensive enough to create a believable backdrop for whatever adventures you’re sending your characters on. Having your world ‘set in stone’ will also help you to be consistent throughout your book (and series, if you’re writing one).
World Building is an important part of the planning process for me because it lays the foundation for everything else that I’m going to include in my story. It’s kind of like creating a solid and structurally sound room, into which the rest of your ideas, characters and plot devices can be stored. If the world in which your story takes place is clearly defined, then it’s easier to figure out whether or not certain actions, sequences and events can logically happen there.
For example – it would have been difficult for readers to go along with the idea of Frodo and Sam googling how to get to Mordor when that kind of technology is obviously out-of-place in Middle Earth.
When sitting down to start World Building I have a list of areas, or ideas, that are essential (for me) to make notes on:
These points are general enough that you can use them to detail a fantasy world of your own creation, or have them as a starting point for describing a location in the real world. Obviously, you can add/use your own versions of these because not all of them may be relevant to what you are working on, but I’ll give a run-down of what I cover in each area, just so you get an idea of what works for me.
- Location: Where & When
- Where – Identify which world your story is set in.
- Are you using real-life, recognisable locations.
- Are you on Earth, but there are hidden sections of society or doorways into other worlds (like Harry Potter, & the Narnia series).
- Have you created a whole new world of your own (think J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth).
- When – What time period are you aiming for.
- Past – is your story set in historical times (in terms of clothes & technology etc.).
- Present – are you in the here and now.
- Future – has society and technology advanced, or are you aiming for a dystopian fiction with a mix of modern and medieval.
- Inhabitants: Who and/or What
- Who – who are the main inhabitants of your world.
- Identify the protagonist(s) of your story.
- Who are your antagonists and what is their relationship with the protagonist?
- Are you going to have a villain? ***NB ~ Remember that villains and antagonists are not necessarily the same: a villain is a bad guy, and generally seen as evil by the heroes; whereas, an antagonist is just someone who is in opposition to the hero (like the Chief Inspector in the Pink Panther: he’s constantly in opposition to Inspector Clouseau, but that doesn’t make him a bad guy).***
- What – will there be magic and/or other species?
- Magic – is it present in your world. Who uses it? What kind of magic is it. How is it looked on by the rest of society.
- Other species – will there be other human-like creatures or talking animals (think Narnia). What about mythical creatures (like dragons and unicorns).
- Society: Type, Politics, Religion, Technology, Economy & Education.
- Type – what kind of society are you writing about?
- Hunter/Gatherer – pretty self-explanatory.
- Pastoral – a nomadic lifestyle, typically revolves around tending flocks and domesticating animals.
- Agrarian – or agricultural society, organised around farming.
- Feudal – A Lord or Master owns the land and provides military protection for those living & working on it in exchange for labour.
- Industrial – think factories, machinery and mechanisation etc.
- Post-industrial – based on knowledge, information and selling of services.
- Politics – what is the political climate of the world your story is set in?
- National government – democracy; dictatorship; monarchy; or something else.
- Judiciary – are there police officers, courts and judges etc.; or some other kind of system.
- Military – is there a nationalised one; a system where towns and cities protect themselves; or something of your own invention.
- Religion – what are the moral and spiritual values of your society and how are they manifest?
- Is there a national religion.
- Are there multiple religions living harmoniously/in conflict.
- Is there no religion at all (i.e. it’s been banned/become obsolete).
- If there is some sort of religious observance, what form does this take?
- Does religion cause any conflict in your world? If so, how and why?
- Technology – what levels of technological advancements has your world made?
- More or less advanced than our world.
- A mix of technologies: modern & medieval combined.
- Futuristic super advancements where everything is completely automated.
- Economy – How wealthy is the world you’re writing about and what effect does that have on its citizens?
- Trade – how does selling and purchasing work. Are there foreign trade links. Which industry creates most of the wealth.
- Money – are you going to use an already established system or create your own.
- Class – is there a class system. How does it work?
- Standard of Living – think about housing, sanitation, hygiene levels, health care etc.
- Education – what type of systems are in place, and how well do they work/how far do they reach?
- What is the general education level of your world.
- At what age do people leave school and start working.
- Is education available to all, or only a select few (i.e. the wealthy).
- Is schooling nationalised and standardised.
- Geography: Cities/Towns, Countries and Foreign Powers
- Cities/Towns – Where specifically is your story set?
- If set in a real place, use a map to make sure you get street names and directions right.
- If set in a fantasy world, maybe draw a simple map of your own, to help you visualise the setting, and keep descriptions consistent.
- Countries – countries can be land-locked; mountainous; desert-filled; or islands etc. Again, if real, look at a map, and if fictional, consider drawing your own.
- Foreign Powers – If relevant, who are the neighbouring countries? Is your world at war: who are the key players? Maps can be useful here too.
- History: Local, National & Global
- Local – is there any local history that is relevant to your story/characters? e.g.:
- Old family feuds
- Long oppression of an evil Land Owner
- Myths and Legends
- National – a general history of your world can give context for certain crisis’.
- Is there a specific government type because of something big that happened in the past.
- Are certain laws in place for a reason. How do these affect your characters.
- Global – are there any international histories that may need mentioning?
- World Wars/conflicts with other nations.
- ‘Anything else’ that has an affect on the present.
At first glance it seems like a lot of information to get down, but as I said at the start, this is just what works for me, and not everything on here may be relevant to your project. At university I figured out that I get much better results when I thoroughly plan and organise, than if I just try writing it straight off the cuff. I find I can spin out a first draft much quicker when I know what I’m talking about.
I’m sure there are plenty of perfectly good ways to go about World Building for your story, the trick is to find the one that best suits your style. Feel free to borrow all or part of my process if you’d like, or have a look around at what works for others. Either way, make sure you take the time to build your world, even if it’s just by making a few bullet points…
…don’t forget that this is only meant to inform your writing, not replace it. Prep and planning are merely prerequisites to the main event: actually writing your book.