Worldbuilding: How to Create Rich & Engaging Fiction Worlds

Posted on Jun 27, 2023

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Written by Sam Kassé

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Writing a novel requires more than good writing chops and fancy literary devices…you need solid worldbuilding in order to craft a realistic image for our readers.

Worldbuilding, or ‘world building’ as it’s sometimes referred to, is being discussed a lot, especially in association with the science-fiction and fantasy genre.

No matter what type of book you’re writing, worldbuilding should be one of the first steps you do, even before outlining your book.

In this post, we’ll walk you through how to world build in your novel with tips and questions to make sure your book is well-rounded.

This guide to worldbuilding covers:

  1. What is worldbuilding?
  2. 10 quick worldbuilding tips
  3. How to create the physical appearence of your world
  4. How to worldbuild a language
  5. Building believable inhabitants and people
  6. Craft an immersive history for your world
  7. How to worldbuild social rules and customs
  8. Building a system of belief and religion
  9. Guide for fantasy worldbuilders
  10. How to worldbuild a system of magic
  11. Worldbuilding from a sci-fi perspective
  12. Best worldbuilding books

What is worldbuilding?

A Writer Engaged In Worldbuilding While Writing His Book

Worldbuilding is the process of creating a fictional world within your novel that offers an entirely new and unique location with exotic creatures, societies, religions, and governments.

Worldbuilding gives the writer a clear understanding of what their world looks and feels like. It’s completely up to the writer what they want their world to be.

The imaginary world serves to establish where the story takes place. Its purpose as the setting of the story is to anchor the reader into the book by giving them a concrete location.

When a writer makes the decision to half-heartedly world build, it shows. The world they create lacks authenticity and leaves the reader wanting.

Worldbuilding is a chance to capture the imagination of your reader. Once the reader is immersed in your world, they will be able to suspend disbelief and fully engage with the entire story structure to enjoy a full experience.

But, how does one go about achieving this?

Worldbuilding might seem daunting, but it can be broken down into simple steps that will make the process thorough and fun.

It is important to think of how the world you are creating is going to be unique to your story ideas. However, it is just as important to keep in mind how your world will serve the plot and affect the characters. 

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10 quick worldbuilding tips

Want some quick worldbuilding advice before we delve into the topic in depth? Check these 10 worldbuilding tips out:

  1. Start broad and then narrow down, shaping a comprehensive overview of your world before diving into the minutiae.
  2. Make your world’s physical environment a key player in your story, not just a backdrop, as it influences characters’ actions and the plot.
  3. Remember to create diverse cultures within your world, each with its own unique customs, beliefs, and languages.
  4. Don’t underestimate the power of history; past events can shape your world’s present and future in significant ways.
  5. Pay attention to the social dynamics and power structures within your world, as they can drive conflict and plotlines.
  6. Be consistent with your world’s rules and laws of nature to maintain believability.
  7. Balance familiarity and novelty to make your world feel both relatable and excitingly different to readers.
  8. Use all five senses when describing your world to create a vivid and immersive experience.
  9. Always consider how your worldbuilding elements serve your story and characters, as they should enhance, not overshadow, the narrative.
  10. Remember, worldbuilding is an ongoing process; it’s okay to adjust and expand your world as your story unfolds.

How to worldbuild : step-by-step worldbuilding guide

Worldbuilding can be intimidating OR your favorite part. It can change depending on your personal preferences with writing and storytelling.

We’re here to make it better no matter which camp you fall in.

Here are some of the core areas of worldbuilding to tackle, questions to answer, and guides to help you create a rich world every reader wants to step foot in.

Step 1 – How to create the physical appearance of your world

A Map Created As Part Of Fantasy Worldbuilding Showing Mountains And Green Areas Of Land

The physical appearance of your world makes a big difference. Because you have to describe the story setting, you need to know what that looks like.

Here are some questions you can use to do this:

  • Is it a small dense area, or a vast world full of different environments?
  • How much of your world are you going to need to show in order to support the story?
  • How does the terrain influence the story?
  • What is the weather like regularly as well as when it’s severe?
  • What does the landscape look like? (Hint: this will influence transport and clothing)

Are the characters going to be concentrated in one area like a small town, or inside a labyrinth?

If so then all you need to world build is that location and focus on elements such as: is this location safe and what is the social structure within this location?

However, if the cast is going to be traveling within your world, then things get more complex, and you may need to create multiple countries or planets.

Creating multiple countries means analyzing how they will be different from each other.

Here are some questions to get this part right:

  • Where do the borders lie?
  • What are the languages spoken?
  • Are the natural resources? What are they?
  • What are the various cultures and cultural practices? 
  • If you are creating multiple planets, how do they differ from ours? Are there seasons? Is there more than one moon/sun? What life forms exist on these planets?

Knowing these details upfront can also help you shape the cultures and customs around the world itself as we have done in this world. Your worldbuilding will appear more natural this way as well.

How to worldbuild a language

A major part of worldbuilding a believable nation, race, or culture is to give them an interesting language. Think about the Goblins in Harry Potter or the Elves in Lord of the Rings.

But how do you worldbuild a language for your fiction book? Here’s how it’s done.

To create a compelling fictional language, consider these thought-provoking questions:

  • What is the phonetic structure of the language?
  • How is the language written and read?
  • Does the language have different dialects?
  • How do societal factors influence the language?
  • How has the language evolved over time?
  • What unique sounds or phonemes does the language have?
  • What are the common phrases or idioms in the language?
  • How does the language reflect the culture of its speakers?
  • How are new words and terms introduced into the language?
  • What are the common grammatical structures of the language?

Examples of Nations in Worldbuilding

The nation of Middle Earth in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” series is a masterclass in worldbuilding. Each race, from the hobbits of the Shire to the elves of Rivendell, has its own distinct culture, language, and geography, making Middle Earth a richly detailed and fully realized world.

Another exemplary example is George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, where the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros each have their own unique history, political structure, and societal norms, creating a tapestry of interconnected narratives that drive the overarching plot.

Here’s an example of how you can use the very first opening scene of your novel to introduce the worldbuilding:

Worldbuilding First Chapter Example

This example works for the world’s physical appearance for a few reasons:

  1. Right away, we get a feel for the environment: sandy, brown river
  2. We learn there are two suns
  3. We know the buildings are made of polished stone
  4. Overall, it paints a vivid picture of what this world looks like

Step 2 – Building believable inhabitants and people

Two Aliens Created During The Worldbuilding Process Sit At A Table Talking And Consuming Drinks

Think of your main cast. Since your characters drive the story, it’s important to be clear on every type of person involved from the start of the story to the end.

Answer these questions for worldbuilding your inhabitants:

  • Are they human, alien, or hybrids?
  • What is their population?
  • How did they get to be a part of this world?
  • Is there a class system among inhabitants?
  • Is the class system defined by wealth or some other factor?
  • What of gender, race, and species?
  • How do the inhabitants of the world you are building get along?
  • Are there natural alliances between particular groups?
  • Are some of the inhabitant’s oppressors towards the others?
  • What resources do the inhabitants have?

Knowing these details can not only help you shape the plot, but being able to slide in these details will make your world appear more lifelike and therefore, more entertaining for your readers.

Step 3 – Craft an immersive history for your world

History is important, it tells of how things came to be the way they are. Your fictional world, just like the real world, is going to have to have a history—and this history can often be very influential to plotting your novel. Therefore, you have to know it.

While it is not vital for you to know every minute detail in regards to the history of your world, it is crucial to know what are some of the important events of the past.

Here are a few aspects to consider:

  • Who have been the major rulers?
  • What key events took place during their reign?
  • How did their reign change the governments? 
  • How did the countries or settlements arrive at the state they are currently in?
  • Is there a recent historical event of note?
  • What are the religious and political historical events that are impactful to your plot?
  • What have been the major environmental disasters? Famine, plagues, flooding?
  • How have these impacted the land and the people?
  • Wars – what nations have been at war with each other in the past? What nations are still at war?
  • Have there been any civil wars?

This can be the most fickle and influential part of your worldbuilding ventures.

The more you know about your world’s history, the more opportunities you have for foreshadowing, plot twists, and a more comprehensive story in general.

Examples of history in worldbuilding

Historical context is expertly woven into the fabric of Frank Herbert’s “Dune.” The intricate past of the planet Arrakis and its inhabitants, coupled with the ancient prophecies and religious texts, shapes the world and motivates the characters’ actions.

Similarly, the “Foundation” series by Isaac Asimov is grounded in a deep historical context. The rise and fall of the Galactic Empire, predicated on the science of psychohistory, provides a rich background that influences the series’ events, characters, and cultures.

An author who excels at weaving history into his storyline is George R.R. Martin in his Game of Thrones series.

Worldbuilding Example - History

Step 4 – How to worldbuild social rules and customs

Every society has codes of conduct, a set pattern of behavior expected to be followed.

Having rules in place will give an understanding to character actions and reactions as well as the overall character development process. Ask yourself what the guidelines in your world are, who enforces them, and how these will affect the plot.

Here are more questions for worldbuilding your society:

  • What is the political structure of the world?
  • Who holds power, influence, or authority?
  • Is it an individual or a group?
  • Is there a ruling monarchy?
  • Or is it a form of totalitarianism, authoritarianism, or a democracy?
  • Are characters going to be breaking or bending the rules, or will they be the ones administering them?
  • Are the rules considered fair and just, or is the society at large frustrated by the rules imposed upon them?
  • How are inhabitants punished if the rules of society are broken?

This is a great starting point for crafting the mood and general vibe of your book, not to mention building your main character and others to fit these standards.

How to worldbuild a government

Creating a believable government requires an understanding of its mechanics. Here are some questions to guide you:

  • What type of government does your world have?
  • How is power distributed and checked in the government?
  • How does the government handle internal and external conflicts?
  • What laws and regulations govern the society?
  • Who are the key figures in the government?
  • What is the role of the citizens in the government?
  • How are leaders chosen or appointed?
  • How does the government affect the day-to-day life of the people?
  • What kind of public services does the government provide?
  • How does the government interact with other governments or societies?

How to worldbuild an economy

An immersive world also has a well-thought-out economy. Consider these key questions:

  • What are the main sources of wealth in your world?
  • How does trade function in your world?
  • What is the monetary system, if there is one?
  • How does the economy affect the lives of the inhabitants?
  • What are the main industries in your world?
  • How does your world handle economic crises?
  • What role does the government play in the economy?
  • How are resources distributed and controlled?
  • How does the economy impact social and class structures?
  • Are there economic inequalities, and how are they addressed?

Step 5 – Building a system of belief and religion

An Alien Religious Reader Gives A Talk To Their Followers As Part Of The Religious Worldbuilding Process

Readers and critics generally frown upon worldbuilding so unimaginative that it contains only one race of people.

Creating a society filled with inhabitants of different races means there will be a variety in the traditional practices from one particular cultural group to the other.

A well-developed world will have its national/religious holidays, dress customs, cuisine, and linguistic characteristics.

How will this affect your characters? What are the legends and fairy tales that serve as a means of entertainment or education for inhabitants?

Here are more religious and social customs worldbuilding questions:

  • What is the religious belief system?
  • What gods, if any, exist?
  • Do the gods play a tangible and active role in the world, or are they entities people believe in?
  • Are there religious services attended to at a house of worship?
  • How much does religion play into the daily life of the layperson?
  • What is considered sacred?
  • Are particular symbols revered?
  • What are some rituals or customs related to religion in your world?
  • How many inhabits believe in the religious system?
  • Are there any quarrels between different religions?
  • Are there any specific festivals or celebrations that occur?
  • Do people work all week?
  • Are there holidays?
  • Do people celebrate their birthdays?
  • How do the various social classes behave?
  • What customs to they adhere to?
  • Gender roles are how they are defined?
  • How do families, marriages, and other relationships operate?
  • How is death handled – are services held, and do loved ones mourn?
  • Is procreation done out of love or duty?
  • Do people get to choose their own partners?
  • What behaviors are generally considered to be improper or immoral?

While there are a lot of questions for this section in particular, these are some of the most important, as they have the power to shape motives, societies, and characters in full.

Even if you decide to create a society that is a monolith – where the entire cast is of the same race or religion, you still need to clearly state what the customs unique to your world are.

Examples of Religion in Worldbuilding

Religion is a powerful tool in worldbuilding, exemplified by the belief system of the Children of the Forest and the Faith of the Seven in George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. These religions impact cultural traditions, shape societal norms, and even drive the narrative at key moments.

In Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy, the Magisterium, a religious institution, exerts control over the world, influencing politics, science, and daily life, and thereby creating a compelling commentary on power and belief.

Worldbuilding for science-fiction and fantasy books

These book genres are among the most important for worldbuilding. So much so that we created an entire article about worldbuilding for fantasy, but we’ll still cover the basics below.

From the halls of Hogwarts, to the Starship Enterprise, to the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, a captivating and unique world is what sets the SFF genre apart from the other genres.

When it comes to science-fiction and writing fantasy, there are some key worldbuilding elements to consider in addition to the above.

Guide for fantasy worldbuilders

Fantasy is a genre that includes magical elements or a supernatural humanoid races/species such as elves, vampires, dwarfs, and fairies and that means it needs a set of worldbuilding criteria that differs from the above.

How to worldbuild a system of magic

Magic systems need rules, regulations, and overall, its own set of worldbuilding.

Here are some worldbuilding questions for your fantasy magic system:

  • How does the magic system operate?
  • Who is able to use it and where does it come from?
  • Are some individuals more adept at magic than others?
  • How are magic users grouped and perceived?
  • How do people hone their magic skills and become stronger?
  • What is the general attitude towards magic,
  • Are people accepting of magic, weary of it, or both?
  • Any limitations and rules of the magic?
  • What happens when these rules are broken?
  • Are there any exceptions to these set rules and how are they possible?

Supernatural Humanoids

These creatures run rampant in both science fiction and in fantasy, but we’ll touch on fantasy right now.

Here are some worldbuilding questions for supernatural humanoids in fantasy:

  • How are they received in society?
  • How ethnically and culturally diverse are they within their own species?
  • Did they evolve or migrate from somewhere?
  • Where do their powers come from?
  • Generally speaking, are they a friendly species?
  • Who or what do they worship?
  • What languages do they speak?
  • Are there any cultures or customs distinctive to what they are specifically?

Worldbuilding from a sci-fi perspective

Science-Fiction is a genre that typically deals with futuristic concepts: advanced science/technology, artificial intelligence, time travel, space exploration, and extraterrestrial life.

Because of all these elements we don’t experience in our day-to-day lives (yet, in some cases), you have to be diligent with ensuring the world makes sense.

Here’s some help with world building for science fiction.

Advanced Science and Technology

A Pilot At The Control Panel Of A Futuristic Vehicle Overlooks A Sci-Fi City As Part Of Technology Wordbuilding

Because this is the backbone of what makes a novel belong in the sci-fi genre, you should spend a great deal of time in this area.

Here are some questions to help you world build for sci-fi technology:

  • How developed is the tech?
  • How does this affect day to day living?
  • With what and how does communication work in your world?
  • What ones are used for entertainment?
  • Technology is used to travel?
  • What is weapons technology like?
  • Who can afford the technology and how does technology affect social structure?
  • Who created these technologies?
  • What are some up-and-coming technologies?
  • What technologies cause the most issues in your culture’s society?
  • Which technologies are the most helpful?

Artificial Intelligence

This is another hot and ever-growing topic in the sci-fi world. Because artificial intelligence is so significant right now, you have to remember to include it and ensure it sounds natural in your world.

Here are some questions for developing artificial intelligence in your sci-fi book:

  • Who created the artificial intelligence?
  • How does the artificial intelligence operate?
  • Are they self-aware?
  • What form do they take?
  • Are they easily identifiable?
  • How do they communicate with each other in order to complete tasks?
  • Are AI considered a lower caste? If so are they assigned roles of caretakers of the world?
  • How have humans managed to sustain supremacy over the artificial intelligence?
  • Do artificial intelligence feel the need to break out of their assigned roles?

Time Travel

Another common practice when writing a sci-fi novel is to include some sort of time travel.

While not all sci-fi novels have this concept, if yours does, it’s helpful to get clear on some details to avoid plot holes later in your writing journey.

Here are some worldbuilding questions for time travel:

  • Who can time travel?
  • What is the time travel paradigm?
  • Can people meet their past/future selves?
  • How far back/forward in time can one travel?
  • What are the repercussions of time travel?
  • Does the time traveler physically change upon returning?
  • Does time travel have effects on mental health?
  • How is time travel viewed in society?
  • What happens when the laws of time travel are abused?

Space Exploration

Many science fiction books include space exploration or travel at one point or another.

Here are some worldbuilding questions for space exploration:

  • Who was the pioneer of space exploration?
  • Is this a new undertaking, or have multiple worlds been aware of each other and living as a large community?
  • How many planets and how many solar systems does a galaxy comprise of?
  • What is the system of travel between worlds?
  • How is the language barrier between worlds solved?
  • Who regulates space travel?
  • What sort of documentation is needed for space travel?
  • Can anyone space travel or is it reserved for specific individuals?
  • What is the purpose of space exploration and travel?
  • How was space exploration made possible in your world?

Extraterrestrial life

Aliens are a natural part of space exploration so if this is in your novel, you may want to work on worldbuilding this particular bit as well.

Here are some questions for worldbuilding with extraterrestrial life:

  • How were they discovered?
  • Are they friendly or antagonistic?
  • What are their goals/motivations?
  • How does their presence affect the community?
  • What do they eat?
  • What are their weaknesses and strengths?
  • How do they communicate?
  • Does the public know of their existence?
  • How long has their presence been known for?

Best worldbuilding books

Worldbuilding can be an intimidating task, but there are a myriad of books out there that can help you master this craft. It’s completely up to you which ones you want to dive into, but here are some of our recommendations that are certain to provide you with invaluable insights:

  • “World-Building” by Stephen L. Gillett
  • “The Planet Construction Kit” by Mark Rosenfelder
  • “Creating Life” by Randy Ingermanson
  • “World Builder’s Guidebook” by Richard Baker
  • “How to Draw Fantasy Art and RPG Maps” by Jared Blando

On the flip side, the best way to learn is often through examples. There are countless novels known for their immersive worldbuilding, transporting readers into unique, believable universes.

Here are seven such fictional works that excel in creating engaging and vivid worlds:

  • “Dune” by Frank Herbert
  • “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • “A Song of Ice and Fire” series by George R.R. Martin
  • The Harry Potter” series by J.K. Rowling
  • “The Stormlight Archive” series by Brandon Sanderson
  • “The Wheel of Time” series by Robert Jordan
  • “The Malazan Book of the Fallen” series by Steven Erikson

Final steps for worldbuilding in a novel

Worldbuilding can be as simple or as complex as the author chooses. Keep in mind, even though you will be developing your world from scratch, not every single element of your world needs to be revealed to the reader. It is important to not overwhelm your audience, and avoid the dreaded info dump.

Elements of your world should be sprinkled in slowly, the details woven into your story in a manner that is enjoyable for the readers instead of dropped all at once in exposition.

Your imaginary world will naturally grow and develop as you write. When done correctly, worldbuilding can be a wonderful way to enhance your story. 

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