Worldbuilding: the Master Guide (with Template)
“Worldbuilding” is a term you’ll hear from a lot of writers — especially when you’re talking about the science fiction and fantasy genres. Great authors can create a living, breathing environment for their stories, invite readers into another world, and make us homesick for a place we’ve never been.
But for new (or not so new) authors, the challenge that worldbuilding presents might be overwhelming. So we turned to an expert for tips: Reedsy professional Michael Rowley was the UK editor for The Martian, Andy Weir’s bestselling novel. In this post, he shares his best advice on how to worldbuild a believable and convincing universe.
Michael recently hosted a live chat on the very topic of worldbuilding. You can re-watch his video below, skip to a summary on the following topics, or jump straight to download our free 20-page worldbuilding guide.
Planning your world
There are two basic types of authors when it comes to worldbuilding: those who plan and those who make it up as they go along. Planners sit down and work all the details out beforehand, determining the geography and history of their world before starting the first draft. The other kind of writer is often described as a “pantser” who “flies by the seat of their pants.”
Naturally, each approach has its advantages and pitfalls.
Planning and outlining your world can help give you a solid ground from the get-go. When you already know where your cities are, what kind of people and creatures your protagonist might meet on their travels, and how your world works, you'll have an easier time focusing on your actual story.
The danger of planning is over-planning: a common problem where writers become so engrossed in worldbuilding that they constantly find reasons to delay writing the book itself. Have you ever told yourself that you'd definitely do some writing, just after you tidy the kitchen or hoover the bedroom? Over-planning is the same thing, but with creating character bios and crypto-cartography in place of domestic chores.
Writing yourself into a hole
Writers who prefer not to make copious notes beforehand will often start with an idea or a character and simply get on with the business of writing. Without the need to slavishly stick to a detailed plan, 'pantsers' often find it easier to squeeze out their first draft. The downside is that your revision process will take longer, requiring a lot more work to deal with continuity issues at the end.
There’s no right or wrong way to go about worldbuilding. That said, it’s important to figure out which method works best for you, so that you can come out on the other end with a story on your hands.
Does your story take place in our world?
Broadly speaking, your book will either take place in our world or belong to what’s called “second world” fantasy. That’s another way of saying that it’s an entirely fictional place. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar cycle are classic examples of “second world” fantasy: those writers have the freedom to do whatever they want with their books, untethered by historical paths or rules.
If you’re writing “second world” fantasy, you, the worldbuilder, have the responsibility of giving your location a sense of history and geography. Every aspect of your world requires attention:
- What are the characters like in this world?
- Are there more than one sentient species?
- Do they all speak the same language?
- Is this a planet just like Earth? Or a desert planet of some sort?
- Does magic exist?
- What’s the technology like?
Within “real world” fantasy, you’re going to have two broad subgenres: alternate history fantasy (which we’ll get into later) and historical fantasy.
“Real world” fantasy requires just as much preparation. You’re constrained by historical specifics, technology, and politics. It might require a decent chunk of research. For historical fantasies, while some amount of historical license is accepted (and encouraged), your readers will notice something’s wrong if your book has Atilla the Hun kidnapping Florence Nightingale without the help of a time machine.
Creating a map
Lots of fantasy readers like referring to a physical map whenever the characters are going somewhere new. Maps not always necessary, but they’re useful for defining a sense of distance and space — and they can help you visualize your world as you’re building it.
Building your own histories
Civilizations are defined by their history. That might be a very broad statement — but it contains a kernel of truth. Writers should have a solid grasp on the history of their world, regardless of genre.
So how can you go about this?
Steal from the past
The line between historical fiction and fantasy is somewhat blurred, and with good reason. A good fantasy world will have a history that’s every bit as interesting as the one we have here on Earth Prime.
Your inspiration can come from anywhere. Going back to A Game of Thrones, Martin famously patterned his book's central conflict after The War of the Roses. Using a veiled version of English history as his starting point, Martin then fills in the rest of his rich history with dragons, mad kings, and ice zombies.
Anticipate blanks in the timeline
Let’s say you’re dealing with a futuristic version of our reality: there’s still plenty of work to be done. You need to have some idea of what’s happened between now and the time when you set your book.
Start by speculating on developments in technology and society. Then, crucially, figure out how these changes have affected the characters and cultures in your book.
Write an alternate history
Many “alternate history” books stem from a single “what if” question. Think of a single point of divergence: a moment in history that shifted ever-so-slightly, leading to changes that ripple forward through time.
In Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, the point of divergence comes with the assassination of President Franklin Roosevelt in the early 1930s. It results in a continuation of the Great Depression and American isolationism, allowing Germany and Japan to win World War II. The book then answers the question: “What would 1960s America be like if the Allies lost the war?”
Or, to cite another example from popular culture: “What would happen if a bully from 1950s Hill Valley received a Sports Almanac bought by a teenage time traveller named Marty McFly?”
Developing believable cultures
In science fiction and fantasy, it’s common to see writers adapt cultural archetypes from history or existing mythology — be it Arthurian, Norse or Aboriginal. It’s a good practice to avoid cliché and stereotype: don’t just copy-and-paste existing cultures into your second world fantasy. Use them as a jumping-off point but quickly make them your own and have fun creating something new.
Speculate about how a culture might realistically change over time. Take an Icelandic generation ship, for instance — a spacecraft designed to travel to new worlds over the course of generations. If we were to rejoin this ship centuries later, how will the Icelandic culture have changed? Will certain parts of their society have become more dominant, thanks to technology? Or might the culture have reverted to the old Norse religions (or some misremembered version of them)?
Mind your language
Languages can be an interesting and exciting avenue of worldbuilding. The spoken word is a reflection of the cultures that spawned them, and the evolution of the language will often indicate some societal change. For example, the youths in Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange speak a dialect called “Nadsat” which mixes Russian and English words. That choice alone implies a lot about the dystopian world of the book, suggesting a future where Soviet culture had spread further West.
Most of us probably end up thinking Tolkien’s Elvish languages or enthusiastic fans barking to each other in Klingon. But language is something that applies to books across the board. Your decisions here will affect how the story develops and can make the difference to whether your book is believable.
How much science should go into science fiction?
Ah, now we arrive at a question for the ages. Obviously, science and technology loom large in science fiction — but that doesn’t mean you need a Ph.D. before you start with your worldbuilding. Let’s look at both sides of the SF spectrum.
This is a brand of writing with a particular basis in technological fact. Best known for his screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke is one of the greatest pioneers in this field. The important point is this: if you choose to write about technical science and technology, you should get your facts rights. Many fans of the genre will likely know more about science than you do. If you get the details wrong, they will call you out on it.
You can always seek advice: the internet is a wellspring of information. If you’re shy about contacting people, Wikipedia is not a terrible place to start your research.
Dammit, I’m a writer — not a physicist!
If you’re not exactly science-minded but still want to write in the genre, you can always take the lead from writers like the late Iain M. Banks. His beloved science fiction novels are about The Culture, a post-scarcity society where all work is automated, and the citizens leave all the big decisions to a benevolent A.I.
Banks’ universe is full of science fiction tropes like droids and spaceships — but he doesn’t really explain how any of it works. It makes perfect sense from a storytelling perspective: novels set in modern day rarely explain how iPads work. To us, they’re simply a function of everyday living. Banks makes a conscious decision to focus on story and character and he proves that you don’t need to know much science to write great science fiction.
Play your ‘get out of jail free’ card
You’d rather not ignore the science? Well, this is still fiction we’re talking about, so there’s an option to make a “whatever” device that relies on fake science that no reader needs to understand.
Ursula Le Guin created the “ansible” in her Hainish cycle of books which is a device that allows instantaneous communication between systems of planets. There’s no particular basis in real-world science, but readers have accepted it largely because it aids the story. Since she first introduced it in1962’s Rocannon’s World, the ansible has become a staple of science fiction, with many other authors like Orson Scott Card using it in their books as well.
So, sure, the science is fuzzy at best in some science fiction novels — but sometimes fans don’t mind. If you’re looking for inspiration, Wikipedia has a pretty decent entry on FTL travel.
Technology in fantasy
You can’t escape science and technology, even in fantasy fiction. Depending on how advanced your world is, there may be black powder weapons like bombs and cannons. There could be steam-powered machines or devices powered by magic. If you decide to introduce any of these into your world, they will require consistency and sound internal logic.
Speaking of magic…
As with science, magic in fantasy should have firm rules and boundaries (or a ‘system’) — whether it’s in our world or any other. If you had an ‘anything goes’ approach to magic, your characters’ actions will cease to have consequences: you can bring anyone back from the dead, time can be reversed, your hero can escape from danger just by ‘magic.’
To start, take inspiration from the books you love and see how their magic systems work. The sorcerers in David Eddings’ Belgariad manifest their willpower through a system he calls ‘The Will and the Word’. It doesn’t require any potions or scrolls, but there are rules and limits: resurrecting the dead, for example, is forbidden.
If magic is widespread, how do people learn how to use it? Trudi Canavan’s Black Magician trilogy has a Magician’s Guild, where people work their way up through a structured hierarchy. Wizards in Harry Potter attend boarding school and end up with soul-crushing jobs in magical middle-management. By imagining how magic would function practically in your world, your book will become all the more believable and relatable.
Also, consider what it means to have magic. What are the consequences on both your world and the people using it? Maybe it takes a physical toll on the user. If your protagonist is the world’s only sorcerer, would that make him or her an instant celebrity? Remember your ‘cause and effect’ and you won’t go far wrong.
Do we need to know how the magic is made?
As with science fiction, you can choose not to explain how magic works and allow it to retain some of its mystery. After all, as soon as you explain all of magic’s secrets, it almost ceases to be magic.
TEMPLATE: the Ultimate Worldbuilding Guide
To get you started on the basics of worldbuilding, we’ve created a template for your use. This 20-page downloadable guide will come as a fillable PDF file. Simply save it onto your computer and start typing in the text boxes to begin fleshing out your world.
As you set about worldbuilding in earnest, here are some additional pointers to keep in mind.
Take lots of notes
Any time you make observations that you think may inform your story or world, write it down because — without exception — you will forget a good idea at some point in your writing life. Many writers still carry around a notepad, but there are also great options like Scrivener or Evernote that let you sync notes between your phone, tablet, and computer.
Start with a story, not a world
Readers love a vivid world — but without a compelling story and characters, your book will never come alive. Keeping this in mind, make the world compliment the story and not the other way around. Use your worldbuilding process to help the plot and the characters and to bring out the best from your ideas.
Think about conflict
The basis of all drama is conflict, so try out elements of local or global conflict in your world. Even if you’re writing about a perfect society, there almost certainly will be a hidden undercurrent of tension that will form the spine of your narrative.
The most important tip is this: take in as many books as you can. Enjoy the stories, but remain critical: analyze what you’re reading and form an idea of what’s working in your marketplace.
Makes sure you read quality books and try to venture outside your genre whenever you can — you never know where you’ll find inspiration for a new character or a fantastic narrative device. For more specific resources on worldbuilding, give these a read:
- Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff Vandermeer
- Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction by Lisa Tuttle
- The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones
What is your approach to worldbuilding? Do you plan ahead, or do you prefer to make it up as you go? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below.