Building Better Worlds

January 19, 2010 at 5:34 am (Setting) (, , , , , , , , )

Yes – the title of the post is a quote from Aliens about the terraforming process used to create a new world to live on.

I mentioned last week that I would be talking about world building in a bit of detail so here goes.

One of the prerequisites when writing high fantasy is that there is a totally different world and usually that world is completely separate from the ‘real’ world (though because we live in the real world and are writing for a real world audience it kind of helps to give enough similarities that people can understand what they are reading).

There are many different approached to world building and everyone does it their own way.  Some people start with a clear vision of what the world looks like and draw it and then break it down into its individual pieces, other people start with a theme (such as medieval) and build the world out from there.  One person I spoke to once mentioned that the world in their story came from a dress she really wanted to wear and she built a world around her ideal fashion.  The point is, you start wherever you are comfortable starting.  If you are like me, you tend to start with a character and then build the world around where that character may have come from.

A couple of points about worlds.  There needs to be logic to them.  If nothing else there should be geographic logic.  Yes, you can sometimes get away with magical landscapes and where things float in midair and the like but you need to consistently apply whatever rules and logic you’ve decided on and you need to make sure you somehow make it acceptable to the reader. Otherwise they aren’t going to believe your world and if you are writing high fantasy your reader has to believe in the world you’ve created – at least for the duration of their reading.  Also, draw a map, even if it is only a rough sketch on a napkin while drinking coffee.  You don’t want to be heading east to the river one minute and then end up in the desert.  It doesn’t matter whether that map ends up in the book or not but you need it so that you can check for continuity errors in your story.

Other than the geography there are three things I like to think about when planning worlds.  Politics, religion and economics.  Whenever you study a society, whether it be a modern day society or an ancient civilisation, these three things are always prominent in your learning.  What political structure existed?  What religion or religions were practiced?  How prolific were they? How influential were they? Did they trade?  Were they self sufficient?  Was there currency or did they barter? How do all of these things affect day to day living?

My theory is that once I have the geography roughly mapped out, the political structure decided, religious beliefs created and a working economic system (or multiple ones if I am dealing with more than one part of the world), I have a more or less workable and believable foundation for a world once I fill in the finer details.  Those finer details would be things like fashion, food, architecture, occupations, modes of transportation, weaponry, etc, etc, etc.  You know, minor details that can cripple the entire story on the spot.

So – what do you think about when building your world?  When reading what can make or break a world?  I would love to know how other people approach this.



  1. Fiona Skye said,

    Again, thank you so much for tackling this question. Your advice is going to be so helpful as I begin to create my world. You’ve brought up points that I would *never* have thought to address!

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I’m looking forward to hearing what you come up with – the world definitely needs more fantasy in it. I think some people would disagree with me but that’s alright.

  2. Barb said,

    At the beginning I just wrote stories. Then I started drawing maps. Then I decided I liked the setting, and started creating alternative universes. Thus, through the years, Silvery Earth was born. Enlightening was The Rivan Codex, or David Eddings way of creating worlds, and How to write sci-fi and fantasy by Orson Scott Card. After reading those two, I even started doing ID sheets for countries and races. And now I have even a calendar of historical events, as kingdoms come and go on most of the planet.
    I guess each world-creator has his or her own tricks, but the two aforementioned books are very useful for world creation, I highly recommend them. As Uncle Orson says, it might take years to create a world…
    Keep writing!

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Good advice – thanks for sharing as I’m sure this will be helpful.

  3. Margot Kinberg said,

    Cassandra – I think in the sense of creating one’s own world, one has more “license” as a fantasy writer. But, as you say, even the most fantasy-like world has to have some logic – some rules. Tolkein’s did. Rowling’s does. A world where there is no structure isn’t engaging.

    For those of us who write in other genres, creating worlds presents the challenge of also making it authentic. For instance, if one’s novel is set in Melbourne, London, New York or Seoul, the world one creates has to be enough like real life there that raeders can believe the story could happen. Not always easy…

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      True, it is really hard to convince someone who lives in a town that you are really setting the story there.

  4. thegourmez said,

    Thanks for posting this. I’ve been working on my world for ages now and still discover, as I write more of my novel, that there’s nooks, crannies, and traditions I never thought up before! I will definitely check out the books recommended by Barb, too. Even if you have your world thought out, there’s probably something you forgot to consider.

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  6. Jemi Fraser said,

    I so agree with your point on logic. Each setting/world has to work on its own internal logic. Good post 🙂

  7. Little Scribbler said,

    Great post. I’ll definitely be reading this when I (eventually) get around to planning my YA fantasy novel!

  8. tsuchigari said,

    When building a world I refer to ancient history. Medieval cities and towns had a definite structure and system of authority that when modified work for one region on my map.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Good idea – basing your world on something similar. It saves a lot of time and effort if someone has done most of the hard planning for you.

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