Build It and They Will Come: How to Create a Fictional World
Worldbuilding is the subtle backbone of your story. It won’t make or break your novel like the characters or plot might, but it’s necessary for building a believable setting that your readers will embrace. If they’re distracted by inconsistencies in your setting then they might have a hard time focusing on the story. And we don't want that.
There are also certain readers (namely epic fantasy types) who live for worldbuilding and want to know as many details as possible about your made-up world. You might hear people refer to books written in alternate realities as “second world” settings as opposed to ones that mirror our reality here on planet Earth.
Worldbuilding isn’t just for those writing fantasy or sci-fi, though. Even if your book is set in a contemporary world, you need to ensure the rules and principles of your world are followed.
This can be especially important in a contemporary setting because they’re often based on real places. And you better believe that if you get the street intersection wrong at a random corner in Denver, someone from Denver is going to call you out on it.
There are three general types of worldbuilders:
- The kind that spend months and even years constructing every facet of their world from agriculture, to politics, to history before they ever write a word.
- The kind that gives very little to no thought to it beyond a vague notion in their head and then builds the world to suit their story. (Hi, this is me.)
- And lastly, the kind that falls somewhere in between those extremes.
Whatever method works for you, you’ll still want to ensure you’re covering a few basics to ensure consistency.
In this article, we’ll cover:
- Questions to ask yourself about your world
- Tips for effective worldbuilding
Questions to Ask Yourself About Your World
Below is a list of questions to get you started on building your world. Grab a notebook, write the question at the top of the page, and start jotting down bullet points to help define your answers. If you’re a Dabble user, you can use Notes in the pre-generated Worldbuilding folder to do this so all that rich detail you created is there at your fingertips when you go to draft and edit your novel.
What’s your starting point?
Start by defining your world in the broadest strokes. Will it be based on a real-world setting? Or are you starting completely from scratch? What general characteristics will it have? Is it set in the future or the past? Or maybe its timeline has no bearing whatsoever on the world as we know it.
What’s the tone of your world?
Are you writing a gritty mafia romance set in a fast-paced underworld? Are you writing a fun and fluffy cozy fantasy where things are generally peaceful? Do you want your world to be part of the plot? Is something happening within it that drives your characters to act?
Design your world so that it matches the tone of your novel. This allows your readers to fully immerse themselves into the story.
What are the rules of your world?
This is an important one. If your setting is real life, then you’re going to have to obey real-life rules unless you can give the reader a very good reason why you’ve chosen not to. Nothing pulls a reader from a story faster than someone saying to themselves, “Yeah, that’s not possible.”
If your setting is made up, you still need rules. Does the sun only rise on the fourth day of the month? Do witches have magic that no one else can access? Are vampires allergic to moonlight instead of sunlight? Once you establish a rule in your world, you need to follow through on it. Deviations from those rules need clear reasons why.
What cultures make up your world?
If you’re writing a contemporary story, this is probably fairly straight forward. If it’s set in modern day New York, then your cultures are the same ones that make up modern day New York. However, if you’re writing an alternate world, then you’re likely defining cultures to suit your purposes.
If you’re creating your world, this can be a bit trickier. If it’s fantasy, you might have races of elves, dwarves, and orcs. If it’s sci-fi, then maybe you’ve got some kind of robot race or aliens to contend with. Or maybe you’re going to make up your own races entirely.
It’s important to note here that if you’re going to draw real-world inspiration to create fantasy races, then do so very carefully. Especially if those races are based on Black, Indigenous or People of Color. Fiction is littered with harmful, stereotypical depictions of non-white cultures where the writer failed to do the most basic homework. Don’t be that person. And pay a sensitivity reader if you have even the slightest doubt. Do it anyway–because you don’t know what you don’t know.
What is the history of your world?
Here’s where you can get very in depth if you want, creating all kinds of backstories and legends and tales that make up your setting. Sometimes this information will be pertinent to your plot and sometimes it’s just inspiration for yourself. You can also just touch the surface and decide as much as you need to make your story cohesive. But give some thought to how your world began or how past wars or shifts in the political landscape might affect the current reality of your world.
If you’re using a real-life setting, then you’ll need to dig in and do some research so you get the pertinent facts right.
What are the structures of your world?
There are some basic things you might want to consider that include things like:
The political landscape – Is your world a monarchy? A democracy? Who are the rulers or leaders? How are they chosen or deposed?
Gods and religion – Does your world have one religion? Or many? Or none at all? Are there gods that people bow to or whose names they invoke? How big a part does religion play in the lives of your characters?
Food and agriculture - Where does food come from in your world? Are there farmers? Is yours a city setting and they use a market? Is food easy or hard to come by? What about fresh water?
Weather – What kind of climate are you dealing with? Is it always cold or hot? More moderate with shifts of seasons? Does it snow or rain a lot? Maybe it’s really windy all the time?
Geography – Is your terrain mountainous or composed of fields ideal for growing crops? Is it a valley or sitting on a floodplain? Is your setting urban or rural? Or maybe it’s just the middle of the jungle with no reference to anything else at all.
Trade and resources – What kind of resources can be found in your setting? Gold? Jewels? What powers economic trade in your world? Does it feed your world or are you destitute? Is your character involved with it?
Transportation – How do people get around? Are you a horse-using culture? Are there proper roads? Or just paths through trees? Maybe your people use dragons to traverse the countryside.
Tips for Building Your World
Looking at the questions above, that’s a lot of things to consider. If you’re having trouble coming up with some of the answers, try some of these tips for getting inspired and getting deeper into your setting:
Do a Walkthrough
Live life as your main character for a day. What do they wear? What do they eat and drink during the day? What chores do they do? Do they have a job? A family to care for? What is their house like? What is their neighborhood like?
Make it a regular, mundane day and take note of all the things you want to remember when you’re writing your story.
One of my absolute favorite world-building techniques is to go on Pinterest and sift through the thousands of stunning photos. Start by entering a vague description like “castle tree” and let it take you on a wild ride. The rabbit hole is deep, my friend.
I love to build boards specific to each book where I can save everything I find and refer back to it when I need a bit of a nudge while I’m writing.
Use Real Life
Similarly, consider reading historical books or watching documentaries about other places and time periods. But don’t forget to be mindful of how you depict certain cultures that aren’t ones you’re familiar with. But drawing inspiration from real life can help give your world richer details.
Draw a Map
Even if you don’t have any art skills, get out a big piece of paper and a pencil and draw a map of your world. What are the city names? Are there mountains? Rivers? Do you have roads between villages? Are there castles or walls to cross? Is it an island or a piece of a larger land mass? Does anything exist beyond the map? Or will you do what a lot of fantasy authors do and pretend that’s it? (It’s okay, no judgment. I do it, too.)
Create a Language
Maybe it’s just a few words or maybe you want to go all out and generate an entire language for your world, but deciding on a few key phrases can help shape your world. If you’re feeling ambitious, we’ve got an entire article on how to develop your own constructed language or ConLang. Good luck.
When you’re describing your world in your book, resist the urge to share all of this wonderful information you’ve gathered. While you might be incredibly tempted to describe exactly how irrigation techniques in your world work, unless it’s relevant to your story, your audience doesn’t need to know. Save that for your blog or bonus content down the line. Ensure the details you share enhance your plot or have some purpose for being there.
Also, try to resist pouring paragraphs of description into your prose. Sprinkle bits and pieces of your world throughout the narrative and, whenever possible, try to have one of your characters interacting with it instead of just telling your reader what’s there.
For example, instead of telling us there were seven soup spoons on the table (let’s pretend this is very plot relevant), have your character sitting at the table, dubiously eyeing said soup spoons and wondering which one on earth they’re supposed to use.
As you can see, there are so many things you can include to ensure your world is rich and inviting. Whether you’re the kind of writer who likes to set everything in place before you start drafting or you’re the kind of writer who prefers to worldbuild on the fly, Dabble helps keep all those notes organized. Not only that, they’re easily accessible in the sidebar, where you can refer to them while you’re writing so all those amazing details are right at your fingertips.
The best part is you can try Dabble free for 14 days and see how it can help you write your best novel.
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