Worldbuilding for Creatives - Introduction
Updated: Jan 5
The idea of creating and imagining your own world – it’s what brought me to writing fiction and later to role-playing games. Perhaps it’s similar for you, or perhaps you’re fascinated with language, with understanding how cultures develop. Maybe you are particularly interested in building magic systems and seeing how stories evolve. Maybe you want to write a novel and don’t know where to start.
Worldbuilding is the art of developing an atlas of a fictional world. Your world can be as simple or as sophisticated as you need it to be. Your “atlas” can contain whatever you think it needs in order to suit your purposes. It is finished when you decide it is finished (for some, the answer may be never!)
While typically we think of worldbuilding being associated with fantasy and science fiction, in fact, worldbuilding is important to even contemporary or historical stories and settings. If you’re writing a contemporary crime novel, for example, it can be helpful to know local and regional laws, how important criminal organizations are structured, slang used by characters in the story, and all manner of details that will help bring your story to life. All of this is worldbuilding.
Who builds worlds and why? Any number of people! But this question matters because it will inform how you approach worldbuilding.
Authors: If you are writing a novel, a series, or even a collection of stories in a shared world, you will want to define the important details about your world. But what’s important? For that, you need to understand what your story is about. If you are writing a fantasy novel about the rise of a dragon-king, the history and evolution of dragons may be extremely relevant. Conversely, the history of a wizarding school on another continent is probably not something you need to spend a great deal of time on.
When determining your hooks, start with the following questions:
With the broadest of brush strokes, what will the story to be about?
Who is the protagonist? Who or what is the antagonist?
What is the scale? Is it local, regional, global?
Role-players: For tabletop role-playing game (TTRPG) enthusiasts and game masters, the purpose of role-playing is somewhat similar to authors but brings with it some unique challenges and opportunities. While the author seeks to develop a world in which to set their story, the role-player seeks to develop a world in which others can set their stories.
For role-players, you will start with a different set of questions to develop your hooks:
What kind of game am I running? Is it transhuman sci-fi? A fantasy/horror mashup? Comedic adventure?
What will the campaign be about?
Is there a central axis of tension? For example, a war between kingdoms, an epic struggle between order and chaos, or a galactic conflict between empire and rebels?
Hobbyists: If you’re a hobbyist, you build worlds for the sheer joy of it. You have no other end-goal, except the world itself. This is perfectly fine! You don’t need to be a role-player or an author to enjoy worldbuilding.
Worldbuilding simply because you want to provides more freedom and flexibility since you’re not constrained by the same requirements of authors and role-players. That said, this freedom can be paralyzing, so it’s still worth starting with a few questions to develop your hooks and to provide an entry point to worldbuilding.
What do I especially love about worldbuilding? Developing languages, cultures, and histories? Maybe it’s speculative evolution and imagining extraordinary flora and fauna? Or perhaps it’s unique planets and geologies?
How constrained will you be by what is “scientifically plausible?” Are you trying to create a world that could exist in the physical laws of our universe? Is it a universe with different laws? Or is a universe where physical laws are less important than how something feels to you? There’s no right answer – there’s only the answer that is right for your world.
There are others who may be interested in worldbuilding as well: game designers, model enthusiasts, wargamers, artists, comic book writers and illustrators, and more. In each case, consider two or three questions to start out with to develop your hooks.
This is the first in a series of articles that can help you create fascinating, novel, and sophisticated worlds, whether you are an author, gamer, filmmaker, or just love the idea of creating a world of your own. I'll accompany future articles in this series with PDF templates you can use to help with your own worldbuilding.
There are many excellent courses and resources available on worldbuilding. This series of blog posts will provide you some basic tips and general guidance on worldbuilding, but I encourage you to spend some time reading articles, watching some videos, listening to podcasts, and reading other books on the topic.
A quick Internet search on worldbuilding will uncover a wealth of resources. Some of my personal favorites include Brandon Sanderson’s YouTube videos, Patricia C. Wrede’s “Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions,” the World Anvil Worldbuilding Podcast, and the /r/Worldbuilding subreddit. In addition to general worldbuilding guidance from these and other resources, consider studying resources on topics of particular interest to you and your world. Food and cuisine, metallurgy, geology, astrophysics, biology, constructed languages, and any number of other scientific and cultural topics can provide you with ample fodder for fleshing out and developing your world in interesting ways.
What Do You Think?
What are your recommended resources for worldbuilding? Do you have specific tools you use? Share your best resources for worldbuilding in the comments below.