Worldbuilding refers to authors crafting a fictional world in which their story takes place. This is most popular in sci-fi and fantasy books, but you can worldbuild in any fiction genre.
Good worldbuilding engrosses a reader in the world of the story, making them want to keep turning the pages.
Bad worldbuilding distracts the reader and decreases author credibility.
I wanted to compile the best tips and tricks for worldbuilding, along with examples and templates. I think this is super important for writers, especially self-published authors, to master.
- How to write good worldbuilding
- Why worldbuilding is important
- 15 actionable tips for building fictional worlds
- Examples of good world building
- Useful templates for creating a fictional world
Links in this article may earn me a small commission if you use them to purchase a product. This is at no extra cost to you. It helps me continue writing these handy articles that everyone can read for free!
Table of contents
What is worldbuilding?
Worldbuilding in a story is when you create an imaginary world or universe for the sake of storytelling. Interesting and coherent worldbuilding is an essential step of fiction writing, particularly in the fantasy and sci-fi genres.
What is good world building? Good worldbuilding tells a compelling story with well-developed characters, all while setting the events in an imaginary world intriguingly different from the real world. Good worldbuilding is concise and closely related to the plot, characters, and central themes.
Depending on your subgenre, readers will expect more or less worldbuilding. For example, an epic fantasy novel should contain more worldbuilding than an urban fantasy genre book, a World War II video game, or a sci-fi short story.
Why is world building important?
World building is essential because:
- It’s fun for you as the author and for your readers
- Effective worldbuilding will enhance any narrative, including its plot and characters
- Good worldbuilding establishes important expectations about the era, customs, laws, etc.
- A lot of readers need to be able to visualize your world to completely engage in a book
Worldbuilding is a must in science fiction and fantasy fiction because readers expect it. They will be disappointed if the fictional world is underdeveloped.
Of course, every genre of fiction can employ an effective worldbuilding process to improve storytelling.
For instance, in a non-magical plot taking place in a small New Hampshire town, worldbuilding might include features such as:
- The social structure at the county school
- Mentioning the only grocery store in town
- Talking about the humorously tiny park
- Detailing town history
- Gossipping about townsfolk
This article will focus on sci-fi and fantasy world building, but all authors could benefit from improving their worldbuilding skills.
Check out my video on my favorite sci-fi books:
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1. Draw from real-life cultures.
This is a great starting point for sci-fi and fantasy writers. To maintain realism and logic within your world, you may want to draw inspiration from real-life cultures and societies.
This may include:
- Creating geography similar to real-world geography
- Keeping the tech level similar to one point in real-world history
- Giving your religions a real-world flavor
- Using real-world events to inspire your world’s backstory
- Establishing international relationships similar to in the real world
Let’s take it a step further. You could make your world very similar to real life with 1-3 significant difference(s). This is especially applicable to alternative histories.
A great example of borrowing from real-life cultures is A Song of Ice and Fire, the basis of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Author George R.R. Martin drew inspiration from the United Kingdom (Westeros), ancient Rome (Valyria), Greek city-states (9 free cities), the Mongolian Empire (Dothraki), Africa (Sothoryos), Asia (Yi Ti), and so much more.
This not only gave Martin’s world a real-life flavor that arguably raised the stakes of the central conflict because it feels more like the real world to readers. This also ensured that Martin’s world history, geography, international relations, etc., were realistic.
2. Invent strange customs that hook your reader.
When you invent strange customs that differ from the real world, a reader naturally remembers that peculiar custom. Use these interesting differences to hook your reader.
A great way to hook your readers with this piece of worldbuilding is by establishing similarities to the real world in your first chapter, only to introduce a bizarre quirk in your fictional society at the end of the first chapter. This is a great hook that makes your readers want to keep reading.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter is full of strange customs that set magical beings apart from Muggles. Off the top of my head, I can think of 8 examples of strange customs that hook the reader:
- The fact that there’s a magic school, even for magical beings who don’t know they’re magical
- Parseltongue, the mysterious language of Salazar Slytherin
- Not saying Voldemort’s name
- A magical world parallel to the real world, like Diagon Alley or St. Mungo’s
- Classes such as Potions and Defense Against the Dark Arts
- Arthur Weasley’s flying car
- House elves and how to free them
- Owls as messengers
You are probably thinking of a dozen more right now.
3. Craft a religion and consider how it affects society.
You can craft a religion for your fictional world, but consider how it affects society.
Ask yourself these worldbuilding questions about your fictional religion:
- Do a majority of citizens follow this religion?
- How do people treat “atheists” or followers of different religions?
- Has this religion influenced the government/laws?
- Will religious officials hold a high position in social circles?
- Are religious officials full of crap, completely genuine, or somewhere in between?
- Is this religion tolerant of other faiths, or does it justify force against heathens?
- How does this religion contribute to character arcs and central themes?
If your religion does not affect your main plot, I recommend ignoring it — perhaps mentioning it 2-3 times in the text.
Also, it’s good to realize that a story with 3 interrelated religions will connect to the reader better than a world with 50 detailed religions. Stick to what is important to your characters and theme.
Beware — if you create a religion similar to a real-world religion, the reader will automatically assume you are making a statement on the downsides or benefits of the real-life religion. Most authors like to stay away from controversy, but some may welcome it.
Here are 3 excellent religion worldbuilding templates you can use:
- Fantasy Religion Questionnaire by TheMusesSong
- Worldbuilding: Fantasy Religion Design Guide
- Creating Religions & Belief Systems
4. Construct a magic system.
This is a big one. Constructing a solid magic system, particularly for fantasy but also applicable to sci-fi, is the most critical worldbuilding element for a surprising amount of readers. Make sure you construct a magic system that is satisfying and makes sense within your world.
“Magic doesn’t make sense,” I hear you say, “so I can do whatever I want with my magic.” Please, do not use your magic system to introduce a deus ex machina (god from the machine). That is when unestablished magic saves the day in the last moment.
If what saves the day is not set up beforehand, it is not a twist — it is a letdown.
There is a spectrum of magic systems, and most fictional worlds fall pretty close to one end or the other.
- At one end of this spectrum are hard magic systems. This is where the rules of magic are well-defined, as are the limitations and the cost of the magic.
- At the other end of the spectrum are soft magic systems. This is where readers (and maybe even the characters) don’t know the rules, limitations, or cost of magic.
Either a soft or hard magic system is acceptable. Both have their advantages.
If you use a hard magic system, I recommend maintaining some mystery, even if readers understand most of how magic works. Also, make the cost or limitation of the hard magic high-stakes. For instance, if a character can resurrect whomever they like, make that cost them someone else’s life.
If you use a soft magic system, I recommend setting up how the mystical, unexplained magic will save the day during the climax. Otherwise, readers will feel like you, as the writer, cheated.
For instance, hint that the day-saving magic is possible early on when the character is first discovering the soft magic.
The Lord of the Rings is a great example of a soft magic system. Not only is the story told from the point of view of non-magical beings, but Middle Earth’s magic is also very undefined.
Readers do not understand J.R.R. Tolkien’s magic system’s rules, making it more mysterious and wondrous.
Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series shows us how to pull off a hard magic system. Sanderson actually popularized the terms “hard and soft magic systems” after finding that his hard magic system full of defined rules and restrictions wasn’t the only way writers wrote magic.
Season 1 of The Legend of Korra (the sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender) does a great job of showing the societal consequences of its magic system. Some people are born with magical bending abilities, and some aren’t.
It’s random. Once the world enters the Industrial Era, non-magical people in this world use electronics to fight against benders.
5. Decide which occupations this society most values.
This is a clever worldbuilding tip I heard a few years ago, but people don’t often talk about it. Decide which occupations this society most values.
This helps you figure out what jobs to give your characters, depending on how much power or stature you want to give a character.
If your fictional society values farmers, make the protagonist long for the life of a farmer. If they do not value farmers at all, make your main character a farmer who wants to break free of the oppressive caste system.
I recommend giving your antagonist a more valued occupation than your protagonist to create both an inherent conflict and an underdog status for your hero. Readers root for underdogs.
6. Figure out how their laws differ from the real world.
When you’re worldbuilding, figure out how this new world’s laws differ from the real world.
Ask yourself what laws, customs, and legal processes could be significant to your story and characters.
A disturbing yet gripping example is George Orwell’s 1984. Orwell created a whole set of laws that differed from most real-world governments.
Although pundits often comment on how this government or taking on the terrifying big brother aspects of 1984’s government, I promise you it’s a (slight) exaggeration.
In 1984, the Party has created a system that cannot be taken down. No rebellion can arise to topple the Party because of its myriad “laws” that prevent opposition.
7. Give every significant location memorable geography.
Give each significant setting in your story some memorable geography. Even if it’s just a sentence or a paragraph of description, unique rock formations, natural resources, strange flora and fauna, or unique architecture can really stick in readers’ memories.
Describing memorable geography associated with a significant location is shorthand for that location being important. Readers subconsciously understand that the author is spending extra sentences describing the setting because this location is significant.
Don’t abuse this shorthand. If you spend a lot of time describing a location that ends up being insignificant, you will lose credibility with readers. They will begin to mistrust you as the author to only share information necessary to the plot, characters, and central themes.
Robert Jordan does this in Eye of the World, the first book of the Wheel of Time series. He goes into such rich detail that every major location in his fantastical world sticks in readers’ memories long after they put down the book.
There are a bunch of fantastic resources out there for creating your own fantasy or sci-fi map. I think inkarnate.com is probably the coolest free service for making a fictional map.
8. Write down a detailed history of your fictional world.
Mainly for your benefit, write down a detailed history of your fictional world. This can be a single page or 20 pages — whatever you think up.
Recent historical events are especially helpful to write down.
You’re probably not going to use all or most of this history. In fact, I recommend you don’t.
However, readers can tell when you’re making stuff up as you go along or if you don’t have any details about your world’s history outside what you’ve directly mentioned.
Don’t begin your book with a prologue where you describe the entire history of your world. No one likes that, and you will lose readers.
Also, make sure your book occurs in the most exciting place in time. If your world history is more interesting than current events in your story, consider setting your account entirely in the past.
In execution, it’s all about using subtext to create a world that feels lived-in.
Check out this world building template specifically meant for fictional world history.
9. Hint at worldbuilding details during dialogue.
When you hint at world building details within character dialogue, it creates a mini-mystery that makes readers ask what they’re not saying or what else there is to learn. Well-written dialogue is also a natural method to reveal worldbuilding significant to the characters.
Don’t make the dialogue unnatural. If it helps, read the dialogue aloud or have someone read it for you to hear how natural it sounds. You could even visit fromtexttospeech.com or other transcription services to hear a computer read it back to you.
Read my article on How to Format Dialogue.
10. Consider if a change in culture could drive your story.
If you’re putting so much time and effort into your worldbuilding, consider if a culture change could drive your story.
Don’t be afraid to make your culture worse by the end of the story if it contributes to your central theme.
Perhaps your fictional world could feature unjust aspects that your main characters are trying to overcome.
For example, Katniss Everdeen’s allies in Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games are trying to topple the status quo, the government, and the last 75 years of culture.
Because the society of Panem is unjust, readers are invested in both the worldbuilding and the struggle to overcome the unjust society.
11. Determine the world’s technology level.
It’s essential to determine your fictional world’s technology level. Readers who invest in your world and your characters will notice anachronisms.
Gunpowder has been around for a while, but you may not want firearms in your fantasy story of knights and dragons. It’s probably wise to align your world’s technological advancements with real-life eras.
For fantasy books, it’s typical to line up your imaginary world with a specific era in real-world history, most often the high middle ages in Europe (1100-1300).
However, non-Eurocentric fantasies are growing in popularity, so you may want to consider other eras from other regions here on Earth.
Check out this list of fantasy books not inspired by European culture.
12. Start with your characters.
Readers care about characters above all. Instead of creating your fictional world from a void, think of how the worldbuilding affects the character arc of your protagonist/antagonist.
Start with your character development. Only focus on worldbuilding that directly relates to your major characters. Don’t waste time on aspects of your world that will not influence the plot, character development, or central themes. Great worldbuilding influences all three.
Feel free to use this character profile template.
For example, there’s a lot of expanded material in the Star Wars universe. However, in the Star Wars movies (especially the first three), George Lucas only focuses on the pieces of worldbuilding (galaxy-building?) that directly affect the main characters.
Here’s a handy video on how to bring your characters to life:
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13. Avoid idioms from the real world.
If you’re telling a story that doesn’t take place in the real world, avoid idioms and figures of speech that developed out of real-life culture. These fictional people are probably not speaking English or any real-world language, so they would not use our idioms.
For instance, I remember my surprise when a beta reader revealed to me the etymology of the word “milquetoast.” It originated from a 20th-century comic strip. So I had to take it out of my fantasy book.
Check out this list of idioms and figures of speech in the English language to decide whether your fictional characters would say them or not.
Create new idioms and figures of speech. You may think of several fantasies where characters shout, “Oh, gods!” as a curse because of polytheism. Or, idioms may refer to historical figures from your fictional world.
I think of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series where characters say, “Galaxy!” as if it’s a curse. Early on in the Foundation’s history, scientists convinced people that the Galactic Spirit is a deity who makes technology work.
14. Only use 10% of your world building.
Like an iceberg, you should only use 10% of your world-building while implying the other 90%.
First of all, don’t overload your readers with information that won’t directly affect your major characters.
On the other hand, it’s good to subtly imply that there’s a bunch of world building that you as the author are withholding. The reader will either wonder about the rest of the world (mysteries are the best motivations to turn the page) or thank you, the author, for sparing them unnecessary information (building your credibility).
I know — you spent a very long time crafting your fictional world. However, no one will want to read about it if it doesn’t directly relate to your principal character arcs.
Brandon Sanderson says that after you create your world, choose 2-4 worldbuilding elements to explore in your story and leave the rest to subtext and background.
This not only improves the effectiveness of your storytelling because readers are more likely to cling onto 2-4 important elements rather than 10-20 worldbuilding elements. It also allows you to write more books because only choosing 2-4 elements reduces your time writing each book.
15. Don’t over plan if it delays the book.
Please do not over plan the worldbuilding of your story if it delays you writing the book. The ultimate goal is to write a (good) book. If worldbuilding gets in the way, then it isn’t serving your overall goals.
If you haven’t completely finished building your fictional world by the time you start writing, that's okay! You can continue to develop your world after you’ve begun writing.
Are you more confident about worldbuilding?
With these 15 tips and tricks, you should be a more confident worldbuilder. As long as you don’t bore the reader or delay writing a good book, there are a thousand ways to pull off compelling worldbuilding.
Let me know in the comments below what you found most inspiring or most helpful in your writing process.
Check out these other resources for writers looking to increase their author success:
- Video Marketing for Authors
- Secret to Choosing Amazon Book Categories
- How to Format a Book
- Best Book Writing Software
- Best Software to Outline Your Book
- Book Cover Design Mastery Guide
- How to Write Faster
Now go out and build a world that readers are excited to get lost in!