How to Create a Fantasy World Without Getting Lost in There
If you’re asking how to create a fantasy world, you probably already know you’re looking at a pretty big job.
This is especially true if you’re writing a second world fantasy where you have to create every single aspect of the world from scratch. Even truer if your ambition is to be the next Tolkien.
Yes, you’ve got a lot to hash out, from history and language to creatures and cosmos. And since the only limit is your vast imagination, it can be very easy to get lost on far flung shores…
…to become that writer who spends eight years worldbuilding and zero minutes writing an actual novel.
I don’t want that for you. You’ve got a brilliant fantasy novel in you and the world needs that book.
So, in the interest of making sure your fantasy world makes it beyond your worldbuilding bible and into the hands of readers, I present you with this simple guide to creating a fantasy world.
This won’t cover every possible consideration, but it will help you stay focused on the key considerations that matter most. I’ll also share some tips for finding inspiration and suggestions for keeping your best ideas organized.
Ready? Let’s get fantastical.
A Word on Inspiration
Before we dive into the step-by-step of how to create a fantasy world, let’s talk about inspiration.
You might enter this process already bursting with ideas and ride the flow of creative genius all the way to your first draft. More likely, you are an actual human person and will get stuck from time to time. When that happens, don’t panic. Inspiration is everywhere.
You can research the geography of far-away countries or the terrain of other planets as you craft your landscapes. You can adapt the flora and fauna of your fantasy world from real-life wonders like the aye-aye or corpse flower.
History can tell you what political or economic structures would fuel your central conflict.
And of course, you can always return to the fantasy worlds that drew you into the genre. What do you love about those worlds? How can you make that magic your own?
The whole entire world is always right here, ready to fuel your imagination. Use it whenever you need to as you plan, write, and revise your novel.
But be aware that even fantasy worlds are interpreted through a real world lens. If you’re inspired by other cultures, be mindful of how you use that inspiration.
Are you perpetuating stereotypes? Reimagining real-life communities as a fantasy race that feels less than human? Hijacking the lore or traditions of real cultures without understanding their context?
Consider working with a cultural consultant if you plan to borrow from a real-world culture. And read articles like this one to learn more about how made-up realities can perpetuate stereotypes in our own world.
Now, let’s dive in. Here's how to build a fantasy world.
Step 1: Start With Story
Let me introduce step one by saying that I actually believe the best way to start a creative project is to lean into whatever inspired you.
If you’re jazzed to start dreaming up a history for the extraterrestrial civilization you spontaneously imagined on your commute, do it! Follow the stoke and claim the vision.
That said, this list has to start somewhere, and story should be your number one consideration throughout this process. It doesn’t matter how fascinating and thrilling your pretend world is if it’s just meaningless fluff around your story.
As you begin creating a fantasy world, try to at least know:
- Your tone and subgenre (Is this high fantasy? Urban fantasy? Are you going for a whimsical, optimistic tone like in My Neighbor Totoro? Or something more like Game of Thrones?)
- Potential themes or conflicts you’d like to explore (Do you want a rebellion? A love story? Are you saying something about religion or personal responsibility?)
If you want to flesh out your story more or start developing characters before you start building the world, great! But it’s totally fine to let your world inspire your story and your story inspire your world simultaneously.
Just give yourself a vague sense of where you're headed so you don’t get caught up on details that aren’t relevant to your story.
Worldbuilding can go deep. It’s easy to get lost. Go in with a map, even if it’s only a few lines drawn on a bar napkin.
Step 2: Build the Physical World
Again, you can do these in whatever order allows you to figure out what you need to figure out. But if you’re not sure what to do when you have your little napkin map in hand, start with the physical setting.
When I say physical, I mean things like:
The terrain of your fantasy world influences the way your characters work, recreate, travel, build, and more. Landscape can create physical barriers, define limitations, and create challenges.
What boundaries exist within your fantasy world? Are they physical or political? Are there neighboring lands? A lot of worldbuilders create a physical map, either for their own purposes or to share with readers.
This detail influences more than you might expect, from the way your characters dress to the elements they face on a journey. Climate can also be a meaningful tool if you’re telling a “fish out of water” story. Do you have a character who isn’t accustomed to this climate? Maybe this climate is even dangerous for them.
Flora and Fauna
This includes the plants and creatures that make up your world. Flora and fauna contribute to the visual setting and help set a tone, but they can also present threats (like predators or poison) and provide opportunities (like companionship, food, and medicine.)
Looking at your terrain, climate, flora, and fauna, you start to get a sense of what resources are available to your characters. Also consider things like gems and precious metals.
The cosmos manages to embody both the spiritual and the scientific—faith and the pursuit of understanding. What role, if any, could the cosmos play in your story?
If you’re asking how to create a fantasy world, you probably plan to toss a little magic in there. But you need a system. What are the rules of magic? Who holds what power? Where does the power come from? What are the limitations?
I recommend checking out Sanderson’s Laws of Magic as you hash this out for yourself.
Once you’ve established the physical setting of your world, you’re ready to explore the cultural aspects.
Step 3: Dig Into the Cultural Setting
If you go into the process of building a fantasy world with a strong sense of story, you may find you want to start with your cultural setting. While your physical world should influence the story, your cultural setting is likely to have a more obvious effect on conflict and character.
The cultural setting includes things like:
How deep you go on history depends on what type of novel you’re writing. Would your story benefit from an overview of how power has shifted in this world over thousands of years? Do you need to establish how an alliance or conflict began? Are there any historical figures your characters revere, and what do those figures represent in the culture?
The matter of religion tends to be as huge in fantasy as it is in life. What is the dominant religion of your fantasy world? Consider how that religion influences power, money, family, values, taboos… all the big stuff.
What language or languages are spoken in this world? If there are multiple languages, clarify who speaks what and why. (You might have to do another dive on history.) Also consider whether you want to create a conlang (constructed language). We happen to have a handy guide for that.
This includes formal ceremonies, rites of passage, and holidays. It also includes the kinds of traditions that feel so commonplace we don’t even think of them. What rituals are part of the grief process? How do your characters handle birth? What do they do first thing in the morning?
Social, Economic, and Political Structures
Themes of power are huge in the fantasy genre (and in actual life), so it’s a good idea to get a handle on what power looks like in your world. Define who has the power, how they got it, how they maintain it, and what it would take to steal it from them.
Ask the same questions about those who don’t hold power.
Food, Fashion, and Entertainment
What about the fun stuff? How do people dress in your fantasy world? What do they eat? What do they do for fun? Who’s famous? Are there sports? What kind of sports?
We’re really just scratching the surface with this list, but it should give you a good start.
Step 4: Tighten the Threads Between Setting and Narrative
Once you’ve developed some ideas you’re excited about, see if you can get a better grip on your story. At this point, try to establish:
- Your protagonist
- Their character arc
- The big external conflict
- Your protagonist’s internal conflict
- The theme of your novel
- A general sense of how the story begins and ends
If you’re ready to plot your novel, even better. But if you’re not there yet, sit down with this general information in front of you and look back at the world you just created.
How can you use the elements of your fantasy world to develop this story? Are there any elements that could be changed to serve your story better?
There are endless ways in which your story and setting could influence one another. But here are some questions to get the wheels turning:
- What kind of character would be uncomfortable or unsafe in this world? (Or what could you change about the world to make it less safe for your protagonist?)
- Does anyone need to make a journey? How could you use the physical setting to make the trip harder… or more awe-inspiring?
- Where does your protagonist land on the spectrum of power? What does it cost them to be in that position? What would it cost them to lose that position?
- Same question but about the antagonist.
- What tradition or location is most sacred to the inhabitants of your world? What would it mean to set a battle or fight scene in that event or location?
- Who controls natural resources?
- Is there a resource not available in your protagonist’s town/territory/nation that could solve this society’s biggest problem? What would it take to procure that resource?
- Does your protagonist have any special powers? If so, do they know how to harness them? What are their limitations?
Keep asking questions. As you do, both your story and your world will slowly come into focus.
Step 5: Explore the World Through Your Characters’ Eyes
How do your characters see the world you’ve built? Imagine wandering this world as your protagonist.
This exercise serves three important functions.
First, it helps you create a clearer, more vivid image of the world in your mind.
Second, it helps you create a sense of the “day to day.” What does it really look like to live here? When does your protagonist eat and how do they get their food? Who do they interact with? How do they travel, communicate, and make purchases?
Third, this visualization solidifies the connection between this character’s setting and their story. Is this your protagonist’s normal world? Or are they discovering it alongside your reader?
What do they love or hate about this world? When they look around, do they see possibilities or limitations? Wonders or threats?
For a well-rounded view of both your setting and your story, I recommend repeating this exercise for different characters.
This brings us to the final and fluffiest step for how to create a fantasy world.
Step 0: Have Fun
Might as well, right? There’s a lot of fun to be had. I mean, you can imagine anything—anything!—and make it real for your readers using only words (and maybe a map). In that way, fantasy worldbuilding is its own kind of magic system.
And if you get stuck, remember that Dabble’s got your back.
And use Dabble Story Notes to organize and store all the details of your fantasy world. I love this strategy because it keeps those essential details right at your fingertips as you write. Can’t remember who ruled Akanakacopia during the Second Age of Devastation? One click and it’s right there.
If you don’t already use Dabble to draft your novels, don’t sweat it. You can try Story Notes and all the Premium Features for free for fourteen days. You don’t even have to enter a credit card to get access. Just click here, start your free trial, and get to worldbuilding.
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