World-Building: a Fantasy Writer’s Primer

Published May 5, 2016 by nruhwald


In my last post, I shared why I write fantasy, now I’m going to tell you a bit about how I do it. Many writers of fantasy and even science fiction set their novels in unique worlds they have created. This process of creating these worlds is called world-building.

Apart from writing super-emotionally charged scenes at the climax of the novel, world-building is my favorite part of being a novelist. Like all creative processes though, it can be messy and a little frustrating.

Here’s what I’ve learned along the way.

Don’t Start From Scratch

There are few things more frustrating than trying to will an idea into existence. The harder you try, the less creative you’re going to be. Ideas have to grow organically.

Personally, I can’t imagine waking up one day and saying “today I’m going to come up with an idea of a new novel.” I usually have a backlog of ideas, and one of them is more insistent about existing than the others. However, ideas do have to start somewhere. For me, they usually come out of daydreams.

My latest novel, The King’s Children, began as the tragic backstory of a character I liked to daydream about. Today, neither the backstory nor the world the character inhabits bear any resemblance to my original ideas. The only thing that is remotely similar is the character’s personality, and the fact that his backstory is tragic.


So if you can’t just clench your teeth and pop out a story, what do you do? The key, as my heading suggests, is daydreaming. Telling yourself stories in your head.

Again, not something you can will yourself to do, but if you are a creative person you probably know under what circumstances ideas usually come to you.

Most of my ideas come to me either during quiet moments (like on the bus or while gardening), or during experiences. Such as going to the movies (story ideas seem to be contagious), the zoo, hiking, or traveling. Seeing or experiencing something out of the ordinary seems to spark ideas for me.

A lot of the inspiration for the setting in The King’s Children comes from the road trips my sisters and I took to the west coast of Canada and the US.

Seeing how fog banks look, hearing the ocean under different weather conditions, smelling the ocean, it all contributed details that help the reader experience the world I’ve created. These road trips also gave me a lot of time to stare out the car window and think about the story.


Daydreaming doesn’t necessarily fill in all the holes or provide the all necessary details you need to make your plot seem realistic and your world feel real. Sometimes when I’m building a new section of my story world, something will feel artificial. This is usually an indication that I’ve left an important question unanswered.

My plot for The King’s Children required the king of North Caladavan to send his daughter on a voyage that would almost certainly lead to her death. In fact, when tragic-backstory-badboy-hero idea met crazy-voyage idea, my novel was conceived. But it needed much more than that before it was ready to survive outside the womb of my mind, if you will.

The obvious question (which I completely overlooked for many drafts) was why the king would send his daughter on such a stupid voyage. My initial answer to that question, “the king said so,” was not enough.

The real question I had to answer was: in what sort of society would it make sense for a king to send his daughter to her death? Not that everyone would agree with the way things are, people almost never do in the real world.

But how was it possible?

In the course of answering that question, the country in which my story takes place gained its own history, culture, worldview, religions, cult leaders, etc etc.

I didn’t figure that out all at once, of course. But just knowing what the question was seemed to spark new ideas. At the question-discovering stage, I like to use a pen to get things out of my head and onto paper where I can look at them. Which brings me to my next point.

Write It Down

And with enough detail that you will remember what you were talking about when you wrote about it. Not only is this a memory aid, but physically writing your problems or ideas down on paper will help spawn news ones. Hopefully ideas, not problems.

However, whether you write down an idea or not, if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. That’s probably okay.

You’ll come up with a lot of ideas over the course of daydreaming. Many of them you will never use but you’ll nevertheless learn things about your story through them. Ideas are spawned like little embers. Some of them flicker and die and some of them catch fire and grow.

Naturally, this only applies to the big-picture stuff. In the course of world-building, you will want to write down the specific stuff. Like the dates of important events, and the names of places. You may even want to figure out how your world’s calendar system works and write that down too. If your years have numbers, at what point did your civilization start counting?

If you write about more than one civilization in the same world this gets more complicated because they may not keep track of dates the same way. In which case you will need to make a master timeline for yourself which incorporates both civilizations. This will only matter if you write over a long timescale, and if these different civilizations interact with each other.

One Final Point…

Most of this world-building is for the purpose of creating a living, breathing world in your head so you can show parts of it. Within the novel itself, what is “off-screen” only implicitly exists.

For instance, as you go about your day-to-day life, you don’t think about the history of your own country. Neither should your characters.

What is happening now is a product of how it got that way, so it does affect your characters even if they don’t think about it or even know about it. Knowing how your world got the way it is will help you flesh out details and bring it to life, but don’t give your readers a history lesson unless they need it. Even then, keep it short.


By the way, the image in this post is a picture I took of Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany.


3 comments on “World-Building: a Fantasy Writer’s Primer

  • World building can be really hard. I like how you mentioned a backlog of ideas, because I have one of those!

    I find it usually takes me a year or so of working at an idea and characters before I’m ready to start writing. I also get inspiration from music a lot.

    A certain line will remind me of a character and then another line from the same song will make me think of the character doing that.

    Liked by 2 people

  • I get inspired from songs a lot! I find many of my themes this way. For instance, the themes of child sacrifice in the album inspired by the first Hunger Games movie profoundly influenced my first novel, and consequently the rest of the series.

    Liked by 1 person

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