Here's your quick-start guide to fantasy world-building, with questions to help you create a rich, believable fantasy world. You can use these questions as prompts to help you get writing, or you can use the questions as a template for each world-building writing session you enter into.
I've even included a bonus worksheet and checklist for you to use over and over as you make fantasy worlds come to life!
An introduction to World-Building
It would be nice if we were able to take a quick course in world building, but unfortunately school's don't offer that yet (you have to go to a writing program or enroll in an online course somewhere)! So how can we self-teach world building?
The first thing to do is to look to those you want to learn from.
Pull books from your shelves of your favorite authors and interrogate their books for world-building elements. You're going to destroy this book with your highlighters and pens, but this is a practice you can't afford to not do.
When you peel apart the mechanics of one of your favorite books, you're learning from the best teacher -- someone who resonated with you and who you feel like you could really learn from.
Often, as authors, we admire other writers to point of wanting to write just like them. So if you love Tolkein, or J. R. R. Martin, or Steven King, grab a book and start learning.
Evaluate how the author shapes their world. What senses do they open with to orient the reader? Smell? Sight? Sound? Touch? Speech? What do these senses describe about the place? Do they give it a particular feeling? What can you infer from these sensory descriptions?
Make notes on this in your notebook.
Once you really understand HOW your favorite authors are crafting their works of art, and what elements they're using to develop plot, character, and the environment, you'll have a in-depth and intelligent idea of how to write your own.
For an extra boost in your writing, get my World Description Builder, which will guide you through adding vivid, sensory information to your descriptions.
Lesson 1: Decide where to start
Worlds aren't created ex nihilo from authors. Every element comes from something, whether it be inspired by or directly informed by real events, places, or people. To find your ideal starting place, try this:
Write about a place that's familiar, and change one tiny element.
For example, write about garbage collection day on your childhood street where trolls are in charge of collecting all the garbage.
Notice how making one small change can shift your entire world. Because now a whole slew of questions have been opened up from that one, small change:
Where did the trolls come from? Why do they collect the garbage? What's in the garbage that makes them better suited to collect it than humans? What do they do with the garbage once it's been collected?
Your world can broaden out of answering these questions, and pretty soon you'll be on track to create a rich, interesting environment that is at once familiar and new.
The key is to start small and work your way out, so that you don't get overloaded with chaotic elements that you find yourself having to explain so frequently that the world-building gets in the way of your story.
Harry Potter is a great example of a familiar story turned fantastical by one single element shift: witches and wizards are real.
You don't need everything to be different to be fantastical -- many of our favorite stories could happen in the 'real' world. Keeping it closer to home will make your story more believable, and you'll have more opportunity to go deeper with your story.
Lesson 2: Discover your world's infrastructure
Once you've developed a good starting point on a microcosmic level, start working out the macrocosmic details.
These are the big things like politics, language, religion, sociology, and what values the people of your world hold, all the way down to the littler things like what they eat, how they deal with waste, etc.
Now, you may not be including all of these directly in your story, but knowing, for example, how the politics of your world run (is it a totalitarian state? Communist? Are there kings and queens and serfs?) will help your world become realer, deeper, and richer.
Lesson 3: How to build worlds that feel real
Many new authors fall into a trap of creating worlds that don’t feel real. That’s largely because the little things are being ignored.
You should know how a summer day smells versus a winter day. You should know what a busy day sounds like versus a calmer day. You should know what the path looks like behind the castle.
JRR Tolkein went so far as to create an entirely new language (which only featured in a fraction of his story!) and this lent a level of “realness” to the Lord of the Rings series that can’t be denied.
When you know your world thoroughly, writing description will come effortlessly.
It will be much easier to supplant in the minds of your readers what your world looks like, smells, like, feels like, and how it works, when you give little glimmers of the little things.
Here’s an example of a rich level of description from Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, The Wind Through the Keyhole:
Two hours later, just shy of noon, they breasted a rise and halted, looking down at a wide, slow-moving river, gray as pewter beneath the overcast sky. On the northwestern bank—their side—was a barnlike building painted a green so bright it seemed to yell into the muted day. Its mouth jutted out over the water on pilings painted a similar green. Docked to two of these pilings by thick hawsers was a large raft, easily ninety feet by ninety. It was painted in alternating stripes of red and yellow. A tall wooden pole that looked like a mast jutted from the center, but there was no sign of a sail. Several wicker chairs sat in front of it, facing the shore on their side of the river. Jake was seated in one of these. Next to him was an old man in a vast straw hat, baggy green pants, and longboots. On his top half he wore a thin white garment—the kind of shirt Roland thought of as a slinkum. Jake and the old man appeared to be eating well-stuffed popkins. Roland’s mouth sprang water at the sight of them.
This excerpt includes a lot of sight cues -- we know just what the landscape looks like, and that the building and the raft that are described don’t seem out of place. Chairs are made of wicker (a very familiar, ‘real’ material). Pop-kins, which King made up, is a mouth-watering food of a sort, probably like a sandwich.
To bring this level of depth to your stories, consider using a description builder, which will give your descriptions all five senses to use during a significant scene in your story or novel. I've created one for you to use as an editable word doc, just download below!
Lesson 4: Practice
The last piece of world building advice to give you is the most important one: practice.
Once you have your world, and you’ve played around with creating infrastructure, richness, and depth, practice with it.
Think of a random person in your world and describe them. Are they a baker? a prince? a teenager? a child in school?
Then run them through a typical day -- where would they go? who would they talk to? what would they encounter? What conflicts arise? how would they feel at the end of the day?
This is a fun way to play, and it’s likely that a story will blossom out of one of these practice sessions!
A brief note on what not to do:
Under no circumstances should you forget about diversity -- no two people are alike -- no one thinks exactly the same, believes exactly the same ideas, or acts in the same way. Create your characters like real people, which means giving them different motives, different ways of interpreting the same event, and different reactions to circumstances.
We'd love to know what you think about these tips and if you have of your own to add in the comments below!