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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Carlton

How to Begin Fictional World-Building

Updated: May 17, 2023

World-building is the act of creating a fictional realm that serves as a playground for your characters, and a stage for your plot. If you're new to writing fiction, the idea of creating a whole new realm out of thin air can feel like a monumental task, but world-building doesn't have to be an overwhelming process. In fact, it can be a lot of fun!

In some ways, it follows the same structure as writing about an existing location. You'll want to build a foundation for your setting by mapping it out and familiarizing yourself with the area, including local stops, culture, demographics, and weather. The big difference here is that you're working with a blank canvas, which can be both intimidating and liberating!

Below is a choose-your-own-adventure style walkthrough of a few world-building exercises and tools. Dive in at your own pace, but don't feel tied to every step. Remember that this is a creative process, and you should follow your muse as you explore the world you're building.

Step One: Choose Where to Begin Your Journey

Some writers like to start on a macro level. They begin with a map or a blueprint of their realm, then explore the details of each area as they write (if this is you, jump to step three, then return to step one after your map's complete). Others start on a micro level, in which case the exercises below may prove helpful.

The Trigger Scene

I'm an intuitive writer. I start with a feeling; a single place where I can sense the beginnings of a story. Maybe it's a character standing before an open iron portcullis that leads to a new city, pushing their way through a bustling city market, wandering through the mist in an enchanted forest, or treading precariously through a chilly mountain pass. The key is to explore a scene that provokes your imagination and forms a starting point for your narrative, like the first brushstrokes of a large painting.

Don’t get caught up in perfectionism or cementing all of the details at once. Instead, explore this brand-new place through the eyes and experiences of your character. Use their senses and ask them:

  • What do you see in front of you? Explore more than just what your environment looks like. What is your character's reaction to what they see? Having them connect with their environment helps with immersion.

  • What can you feel? Is the ground beneath their feet paved, uneven, soft, or stable? Can they reach out and touch their surroundings? If so, what is the texture?

  • What is the setting's ambiance? Does it feel calm, busy, comfortable, or eerie?

  • What is the weather like? Is it warm? Windy? Wet?

  • What can you hear? Even a solitary forest has sounds, such as the rustle of a small creature or the wind howling between the branches. Really reach with your senses here.

  • What can you smell? Perhaps your character can pick up the scent of a nearby bakery or the off-putting smell of stale ale. If so, what impression does it give your character? Does it trigger or elicit a reaction?

Step Two: Get to Know the People

This is often my favorite part of world-building: getting to know people and cultures. Never neglect this exercise, especially when constructing your story's primary setting. The dialect and culture you create may very well influence your characters' development.

Ask yourself:

  • How do people dress? Does it align with the setting? For example, those who live in a snowy climate may bundle themselves in thick furs, cloaks, and other warm clothing.

  • Do they have a specific accent or dialect? Most places have their own way of speaking based on the region, native language, and origins. Age and education also play large roles in how people communicate.

  • What are their cultural values? Do they have certain customs or defined ethics? What is their primary religion, if any? These external factors often influence the way people behave.

  • What do they eat? What’s on their plate? Is food scarce and cooked for necessity or do the people in your chosen setting like to indulge? What kind of food is available in the region? Is there a particular cuisine that's popular?

  • What if there are no people? Even empty places have a story to tell. Make an effort to understand it. Explore the creatures, wildlife, or even the sheer barrenness of your chosen setting. Are there dried bones that linger in the sand; a nod to what was, but is no more?

Step Three: Map It Out

Whether your world is small or expansive, you’ll want to keep track of it. Even if this is just a sketch on a loose sheet of paper, know the size of your setting in relation to the surrounding area. You can save this and leave room for growth as your characters explore the realm you’ve built.

Not an artist? That's okay! There are tons of free tools available online to help create a tangible map of your world.

Free Tools for Map Creation

  • World Anvil's Interactive Map: This is a fantastic tool for both writing and RPG world-building. If you're looking for a thorough, guided journey to world-building, Anvil's platform will take you by the hand and walk you through it. There are some paid features here, but you'll find plenty of free elements to get the job done well.

  • Azgaar's Fantasy Map Generator: Are you just looking for a straightforward world map? This tool will help you create a continental illustration of your world. It's not the most intuitive platform, but you can learn how to use it easily enough by experimenting with its wide array of layout options and presets.

  • Watabou's Medieval Fantasy City Map Generator: Looking to get more granular? Create a detailed map of your city with this free tool.

Remember, when it comes to world-building, you don’t have to construct an entire world all at once. Your world can grow with your story. The objective is to be able to envision it to the degree that you and your reader can feel like they're in it. After all, you cannot share a world you cannot see yourself.

Happy writing!

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