World Building For Dummies


So you want to make a [movie/ novel/ video game/ concept album]?

Pause for audience to nod/ scream in joyous affirmation/ shrug, realise they’re in the wrong conference and walk out.

That’s the spirit! Well, I’m betting that you’re thinking it would be super fun to create an entire fictional world in which to base your [aforementioned creative enterprise], am I right?

Pause again. Maybe some audience interaction; have some banter with the guy who’s clearly filling his pockets from the buffet, that sort of thing.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, you have come to the right place.

Unveil flipchart. Allow audience to bask in its glory.

Let’s run down the basic dos and don’ts of worldbuilding, for your informational excellence.

  • DO try to make it make sense.

This is surely the very first step in any budding venture of imagination. Whatever you choose to include, which can be as utterly preposterous as you like (think Discworld, which features some of the most ludicrous characters, locations and mythologies ever conceived), make sure that it has a good reason to be there. Make sure that its existence is justified by the rest of the world it exists in. If you simply can’t make that work, maybe it’s a good idea that you could re-purpose to a different world later on.

  • DON’T overcomplicate things.

It’s going to be tempting to start cataloguing every tiny feature of every individual person, plant and pebble that exists in your new world. And that’s fine, sort of. The thing is, it’s important to realise which details are important and which just don’t need to be included. Give your audience some credit; let them use their imagination to fill in some of the blanks. It’ll save you a lot of trouble. You can always drop in a couple of these details to set the scene, but keep some of it to yourself to preserve the mystique.

  • DO think about how it all became the way it is.

Your invented world is probably not going to be the same as the real world. Otherwise it wouldn’t exactly be an invented world, would it? The points that make your universe different from reality are the interesting ones, since it’s sort of a given that you don’t need to explicitly state that your fictional world follows the same laws of physics; make sure that the details that make your created world unique have come from somewhere and don’t just exist without rhyme or reason. You don’t need a full-on creation story, but it can be helpful to come up with some brief sketches of how this universe came to exist, or where it separated from our own. If nothing else, a bit of background work on the history of your world (in particular the years shortly before the story you want to tell in it begins) can pay dividends, and help explain to the audience why it is that your world is the way it is.

  • DON’T include needless exposition.

So you came up with an awesome bestiary of every flora and fauna that lives in each region of your fantasy continent? Awesome! Those will definitely come in handy, and you can scatter them about to your heart’s content to make your world feel full, but remember that you probably aren’t aiming to create something appropriating a real-world biology textbook. Your audience won’t thank you for dumping in an unbroken stream of paragraphs cataloguing the entire zoological makeup of your world. Keep those details on hand and use them sparingly and appropriately.

  • DO follow implications to their conclusions.

If you’ve come up with a fancy magic system – and more power to you, ‘cos that isn’t easy to do – then it can be easy to go ‘BRILLIANT, DONE’ and just stick the thing wholesale into a world that doesn’t account for its existence. For example, if your magic system contains a spell that allows its wielders to create food and water from nowhere, you can’t just wedge it into a setting that features a perpetually-starving slum class. You need to think about how the existence of this kind of magic would affect the world around it. Perhaps the best thinker-through of magical implications is Brandon Sanderson, whose Cosmere novels feature multiple worlds which are all designed around the way their magic works.

Think about it like this: our world is now completely dependent on electricity. We’ve built the world around this resource. If another world has a similar sort of power or energy, it’s going to have developed its infrastructure using that as a base. In essence, you want to consider what magic could be used for, from boiling water to building castles, and make sure that the world in which that magic exists remembers that that magic exists. If anyone can create money out of thin air, people are going to do that, and it’ll screw with the economy. Things won’t just stay stable.

  • DON’T have something be a certain way ‘just because’.

Following on from the previous point, I hope it’s becoming clear that changing a fundamental system in a world is going to have consequences. On a sort of inverse, that means that things are also consequences of previous things, so you need to ensure that anything which exists in your world has a justification or cause. Don’t just go sticking in robot elephants because you think they’d be cool unless your world actually has the science and/ or magic to have created them and justified their existence.

  • DO consider what makes your world unique on the most basic level.

At the end of the day, you’re creating this world because you want a universe that’s special, unique, different from the real world. So spend time focusing on the points that make it special and unique. That’s not to say that you need to write an encyclopaedia on the subject, just that you need to be aware of the way your world works so that your story can work in it. I mean, what would be the point of setting a story that could work perfectly well in the real world in some jacked-up post-apocalyptic gritty fantasy land? Your story should depend on the world around it in order to work, because real life depends on the real world!

Next time: we’ll look at some good examples of world-building, and some bad ones. Should be fun.


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