1. jedellion

    jedellion Member

    Jan 17, 2013
    Likes Received:
    somewhere near Manchester UK

    World Building 101 - Part 1

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by jedellion, Jan 20, 2013.

    World Building 101

    By Paul (Jedellion) Mather
    Many writers, especially those involved in the field of speculative fiction, also known as science fiction and fantasy, often need to construct elaborate and believable worlds; some with more success than others.

    Over the course of this article, I would like to introduce you to the process of world building; a field that is part science and part art.

    I am an avid reader and writer of fantasy and science fiction, and a long standing creator of fantasy worlds for role-playing games. I believe I have some experience and knowledge that may be of use to other aspiring writers in the field.A few years ago I completed my degree assignment which was to design a World-Building database application. One day I may even get around to writing a front end and letting people have copies, you never know.

    What is world building?

    World building is the process of developing resources and materials to help a writer stay consistent within his own imaginary world. The process of working out the details of a world can, in itself, spawn numerous story ideas. Undoubtedly the best reason to systematically world-build is the level of detail and richness that it can add to your text. Knowing where everything is, what it might look like, and how it might affect your characters, greatly enhances your ability to write detailed, colourful descriptions in your text.

    Where to start?

    There are two schools of thought regarding starting a new world building project. Macro-to-micro, or ‘Top down’ and, yes you guessed it, micro-to-macro, or ‘bottom up.’

    Top down.

    In this method, the designer works out an overview of the world in very general terms. Like an artist, they paint broad brushstrokes and no detail. Everything at this stage is essentially strategic. Then, like the layers of an onion, they add more and more detail, eventually working on the nitty-gritty.

    This method tends to produce very integrated worlds that mesh together well. But it takes a huge amount of work before you ever get to a point where the information is useful in your writing.

    Bottom up.

    The opposite method is the bottom up approach. As you might expect, the world-builder initially focuses on one small area, and only a few elements in that area, such as a small town or village. This area is developed in detail. People, places, flora, fauna, politics, climate are all considered. This will inform and assist in adding to the surroundings, expanding outwards as required. Detail becomes vaguer the further from the focus you are. Later, if more distant locations are needed, they are, in their turn, developed

    The benefits of this approach are that the writer can immediately access and utilise the information in a useful way. But the builder has to be very careful that inconsistencies do not creep in.

    Did I say two methods?

    Well I might have been fibbing as there is at least one more, but it is very much a hybrid. This method is a sort of ‘top-down and back up again’ approach.

    Firstly, a broad outline is created in the top down manner, then the builder jumps down to one location and develops that as in the bottom up approach.

    This is very much the best of both worlds, thought it still takes some time to develop enough to begin writing.

    Find your own path.

    Of course, you may find you work out a method which takes elements of the above approaches and adapts them to suit your style. There is no ‘proper’ method, just approaches which established authors have used over the years and shared with other writers.

    For instance, Orson Scott Card, multiple Hugo and Nebula award winning author, likes maps, as do I. I was very interested to note in his book ‘How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy’ that he, like me, often begins with a map. The novel ‘Hart’s Hope’ entirely derives its world, plot, characters and magical systems from the design of a map of a city. It is well worth a look for anyone interested in fantasy world building. (see bibliography)

    Example – Cratoria
    Here is a quick sketch I did in about 2 minutes in my jotter pad.


    The basic idea is that the continent was formed by some kind of massive collision and is essentially, a huge impact crater.

    As I was drawing, decisions already were bring established by this top down concept.

    The fact it is a crater means mountain ranges will run as a backbone along the outer ring.

    There will be a central mass caused by the ‘splash’ and droplets will form outside the splash area.

    This established the basic geography. I decided to run trees alongside the mountain ranges. Rivers flow from high to low, so I joined up rivers to the mountains wherever there was a suitable ‘cut in’ in the coastline.

    I placed a settlement straight away on the central island, and decided that would be the capital.

    Okay so some basic information has been gathered. And immediately ideas are beginning to flow.

    What is the relationship between the outer coastline and the inner? I think it might be tolerant, but there is some tension. Insiders get the best wood, the best crops, raise sturdier cattle. Outsiders are rustic, hardy, experience tougher weather and raids from the outlanders.

    Who are the outlanders? The outer islands? Perhaps other continents. Maybe their identity and location is part of the mystery in this book.

    And so on. You can see how quickly a story can develop just by trying to justify what has been drawn. This is top down through and through, though at some point I would probably start focusing on particular places and going bottom-up.


    So there we go. I have shown you a simple and basic introduction to world building. Not everyone does it. But it is a tried and trusted method used by some of the greats.
    Probably the greatest world builder was J.R.R. Tolkein. ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ are the products of hundreds of hours of painstaking world building. In fact there are many more books on Middle Earth publish by Tolkein and his son Christopher, which are essentially published notes and histories on the world and not stories as such. This depth of history and detail pervades every aspect of Lord of the Rings and contributes heavily to the huge success it had as a trilogy.

    So, why not give it a go. Have fun, go wild and let your imagination loose. I would be happy to discuss anything to do with this fascination topic. See you in the forums.


    A World builder’s checklist

    Land masses
    Inland water
    Mountain ranges
    Cold regions

    Mineral resources
    - Iron/bronze etc
    - Precious metals
    - Specials (Mithril anyone?)
    Building materials

    Establish hot, cold and temperate zones

    Birds etc
    Magical/special creatures
    Water based life

    Trees and shrubs
    General plants

    Types such as nomads, city builders, tribal, migratory, hunter gatherer
    Population. Hundreds? Thousands, Millions?
    Beliefs, lifestyle
    Nature – good, evil, neutral

    How widespread are the various cultures/species etc?
    On many land masses, or local to one area?

    Where are the main towns and cities?
    Other forms of settlements such as tribal gathering places

    Language and naming
    What are the main languages?
    Who speaks what, and where?
    What are the naming patters for various cultures?

    Political systems
    For each culture, what form does government take?

    Is there religion? If so is it:
    - Monotheistic (One deity)
    - Pantheistic (the belief that all reality is essentially divine)
    - Henotheism (worship one god out of many)
    - Polytheism (many gods, each in charge of one area, such as fire, nature, love, justice.)

    How is the worship organised?
    - Priesthood
    - Shamans
    - none

    Does magic exist?
    Who practices it?
    Can anyone do it, or just certain people?
    Does it need:
    - Spell components (props)
    - Spell books?
    - Scrolls?
    - Staves and or wands?
    - Familiars?
    - Spoken words?
    - Gestures?

    Where does it come from?
    - The gods?
    - Inside the person
    - Nature
    - Some magical material or focus?
    - All of the above?
    - None of the above?

    Is there a price?
    - Fatigue?
    - Discomfort?
    - Consumption of resources?

    What technological level is society?
    - Stone age?
    - Bronze age?
    - Iron age?
    - Classical (Roman/Greek)
    - Medieval
    - Tudor
    - Renaissance
    - Early modern
    - Later modern
    - Futuristic
    - Far future

    What key technologies are important?
    - Space travel
    - Computers
    - Robots
    - Communication

    This is just a starting point and your worlds may require variations on these themes.


    How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy [Paperback]
    Orson Scott Card (Author)
  2. Salamander

    Salamander Member

    Jan 18, 2013
    Likes Received:
    Interesting framework. I must say that I prefer top-down better. It is much easier for me to find clever excuses for why I did something after the fact, and often that wriggling to conform to my own rules reveals threads of the plot I had never anticipated, almost like it had a life of its own.
  3. creative_nothings

    creative_nothings Member

    Feb 16, 2013
    Likes Received:
    Anchorage, AK
    I find a hybrid method works well for me. Draw a basic map and let the ideas flow from there, then move in to a more localized area. I also like to write short stories to help describe certain areas of my worlds and the cultures of that area like the Dwarves of Sunderfall or the Elves of Quel'thera. Great article!
  4. RaeRae

    RaeRae Member

    May 21, 2012
    Likes Received:
    Beaverton, Oregon
    I start right in from exact location and go out from there. Building worlds takes a lot out of me and I find this works best for me. The first few times I tried creating the world at the beginning, I ran into snags with description and what not. But, I do like that you broke it down and greatly appreciate it. I may try again since I figured out one way, just throw it in reverse.
  5. GhostWolfe

    GhostWolfe Member

    Feb 19, 2013
    Likes Received:
    Brisbane, Australia
    I tend to just build to what I need. Which, unfortunately, leads to frequent bouts of wiki-distraction as I pause to research "how shoes are made" or "what's that bit on a sword called again? (it's a ricasso, by the way)" or "name that shade of green".

Share This Page