Setting up the Setting
Characters don’t interact in a vacuum. The reason some people prefer fantasy and sci-fi over contemporary fiction is because they want to get lost in a different world, so creating a compelling setting intrigues readers just as much as character actions and motivations do. Half the fun of reading Harry Potter and the Hunger Games is figuring out how the wizarding world and Panem work, and how those worlds shape Harry and Katniss.
The most important parts of worldbuilding are that a) things have to make sense within the world; and b) things stay consistent. For example, in Harry Potter’s world, wizards don’t make use of electronic devices because magic interferes with machinery and because people would use magic for things they might use electronics for. This stays consistent when wizards like Arthur Weasley are dumbfounded by muggle inventions like phones and cars. Whether phones vs. letters sent by owl are more practical and efficient doesn’t matter—readers are intrigued by how fantastical and different the wizarding world is.
If you’re writing speculative fiction of any kind, be it fantasy or sci-fi, do yourself a favor and make some kind of guidebook to your setting. That way, you have something to refer to to keep the setting consistent in all parts of the story.
Building a World From Scratch
The secret to worldbuilding is to treat it like Wikipedia. Imagine what the Wikipedia page for your fictional country would look like—it’d have all the background information like history and geography, but would also have day-to-day details like what people wear and how they associate with each other.
Here’s a general skeleton of a checklist for giving your world depth and covering all its main characteristics:
- Basic Country Information
- Relative Size:
- Etymology of name:
- Common flora:
- Major cities:
- Natural resources:
- This one is going to vary depending on the story itself. If you have a completely unique fantasy setting, examine how the people and government came to be the way they are now. If your world is set in the future, examine how today’s world became your futuristic world.
- Common historical events & eras to consider: prehistory, settlement, revolutions, government formation, wars & conflicts, technological innovations that shaped all of society (like electricity)
- Calendar & Time
- This will also vary depending on your world, but determine how dates and time are kept. Do people go off a lunar calendar? How do they determine the passing of time? Do they have months? (Keep in mind that having August or Saturday may be jarring in some fantasy settings.)
- Type of government:
- Administrative divisions (districts/states/provinces):
- Law Enforcement & Crime:
- Foreign relations:
- Citizen participation in government (voting, civil rights and liberties, etc.):
- Describe the government in terms of:
- Is it autocratic, oligarchic, or democratic?
- Level of corruption
- How much the government suppresses things like speech, religion, and the press
- How well does it actually function?
- The amount of faith everyday citizens have in their leaders
- Economy type:
- Most profitable industries:
- Other industries:
- Science & Technology:
- Water supply & sanitation:
- Common products, services, & how they’re sold (shops, markets, etc.):
- Currency or bartering system:
- People & Culture
- Species (If applicable, see For Fantasy Creatures & Non-Human Species section below:
- Ethnicities and races:
- Languages spoken:
- Family units:
- Gender roles:
- How people communicate with each other:
- Describe the people and culture in terms of:
- Visual arts:
- Diet & common foods:
- Common festivals/nationwide events:
- Religion & Beliefs:
- Deities worshipped:
- Place of worship:
- Worship leaders (priests, shamans, etc.):
- Common legends & myths:
- How religious or secular society itself is:
- Social classes:
- Social mobility:
Keep in mind, you do not have to explicitly mention all of these characteristics in the story itself, but you do have to know them well enough that they inform your writing. For example, you don’t have to state, “People here are materialistic” or “The government is corrupt and oppressive,” but you can show those by describing examples. Maybe the characters are obsessed with shopping and outward appearances. Maybe the government has cameras everywhere and detractors disappear in the night.
Your fantasy setting may also demand characteristics not mentioned above. Feel free to add or take away categories as you see fit, but just be sure your setting has established features—don’t say your story takes place in a flat desert and then mention rainforests and mountains. You can make up whatever rules you want, but you must stick to them.
Little Things That Bring Your World to Life
While treating worldbuilding like writing a Wikipedia entry will give your setting depth, it won’t necessarily make it something people can connect to. Every culture around the globe has little things that make it human—even if a fantasy world has species other than humans, having touches like the following will make readers empathize more with the new world they’ve stepped into:
- What sense of humor does your world have? What kind of jokes do the people tell? How high-brow/low-brow are people when no one else is watching?
- What are some examples of common slang? How do people from different backgrounds speak?
- How do people of different classes treat each other? How compassionate are people in general?
- What are some common taboos in conversation? What actions are considered a faux pas in everyday life? (Example: My Filipino family members have fewer qualms about burping or talking about bodily functions at the table, while my American family members would be embarrassed if someone loudly described their own farts.)
- How do people in your world treat aging? Do grandparents often live with family members, like in Eastern societies? Are people obsessed with youthful appearances, like in Western societies?
- What are common fears in your people?
- Does your culture have any folk heroes? Who do people tell stories about?
- How do the people react to innovation and change? Do they disdain technology? Has technology negatively affected personal relationships? How dependent are they on technology?
- Culture vs. counter-culture: What is common and what is considered rebellious by people in your setting? Here’s an example of culture & counter culture in the 1900s.
For Fantasy Worlds with Magic Systems
Regardless of high or low fantasy, introducing magic of any kind will complicate worldbuilding. With magic especially, you have to stay consistent and establish the rules that govern your magical system. Here are questions a well-developed magic system can answer:
- Who can use magic in your world? How do they obtain it? Are they born with it, do they grow into it, or must they acquire it?
- Where does magic come from? What is its source? Is it external, like summoning spirits? Or internal, where casters draw from their own energy?
- What kind of training is offered? Do people go to school for magic? How are they taught?
- Can magic be easily controlled or does it have a mind of its own?
- How is magic performed? Do casters use tools, rituals, incantations? How does their emotional, physical, or mental state affect their ability to use it? What limitations do they have?
- How does the use of magic affect the caster?
- Are there any defenses against magic? How are non-magical people and beings affected by magic?
- Are there different types of magic? Is the magic element-based? Does how people perform magic vary in your world, based on physical or cultural differences?
- What are they limits of magic? (Ex: It cannot bring back the dead, it cannot force love, using too much magic negatively affects the caster, etc.)
- Most importantly: How does the magic system influence the plot and characters?
For Fantasy Creatures & Non-Human Characters
Your world might have other intelligent species besides humans. For more evolved creatures that can think for themselves and communicate with humans, refer to the People & Culture section of the checklist to hammer out their main characteristics. For all creatures, make sure you establish these details:
- Physical Appearance
- What do members of this species look like? Are they tall, short, spindly, round? Sketch out what one looks like. How big are they?
- Where do they tend to live? Are they arboreal tree dwellers or dig holes in the ground? This will inform appearance, like whether they have scales or fur or why they have as many legs as they do.
- What is their diet? Carnivores and herbivores look very different.
- Is this species aggressive or timid?
- Do they prefer night or day? Are they negatively affected by certain elements of the environment?
- What does the average life cycle of a member of this species look like? How long do they live?
- How intelligent are they? Are they more primal and animalistic or more refined (think trolls vs. elves)? If they are highly intelligent, do they get along with or are disdainful of humans and other creatures?
- Interactions with Humans and Other Species
- How to they treat humans? Are they hostile or friendly? How dangerous are they to people?
- What does it take to kill a member of this species?
- How are they integrated into society? If they are of lower intelligence, are they kept as pets or hunted? If they are of higher intelligence, how are they treated by the social classes? Do they have a class of their own?
- Are there any prejudices against members of this species?
- Most importantly: How do they affect the plot and characters of the story?
Be Careful Of…
- Anachronisms. Don’t mention phones if your story takes place in a high fantasy world. Be careful of common slang phrases in our world that don’t fit elsewhere—I’m pretty sure no one in Westeros says dude and not many wizards in Harry Potter use iTunes. Stay consistent.
- Coding, especially racial coding. Fantasy and sci-fi have an ugly history with minorities and POCs. Most high fantasy tends to be Western-Europe-based with a mostly white cast of characters, and this sometimes results in tokenism or other species being unintentionally racially coded. (Example: Making evil races dark-skinned and less civilized.)
- Borrowing from existing cultures. It’s okay to have mythology inspired by certain parts of the real world. What’s not okay is appropriating other cultures or carelessly representing real people. Sometimes this is cringey. Sometimes you might cross the line into racial coding. Either way, your story will not age well.
- Info dumping and too much exposition at once. The larger, more important details of your setting, like the city or country and time where it takes place, should be established early on. Smaller day-to-day details should only come up when relevant, or you risk info dumping and slowing down pacing. For example, to establish what kinds of food people eat, have a scene take place over a meal. Just make sure the scene itself is relevant to the plot and you’re not just vomiting details to your reader.
- Letting the real world limit you. Fantasy has been around for a while, so we’ve seen the same old things over and over. Don’t rehash existing work—make your world unique. Step out of the box of Western-based fantasy worlds and try something new. Have minorities and other species be your main protagonists. Combine elements of fantasy and sci-fi. Make up new species from scratch rather than reusing elves and trolls. Why spend so much time creating a new world if you’re just going to give it the limits of the existing one?
Whew, that was 1900 words of pure worldbuilding! And this isn’t even a fully exhaustive guide. Just remember to be as clear about the characteristics of your world as a Wikipedia entry, and stay consistent, no matter how different your world is from the current one. Worldbuilding will inform both character and plot, so it’s not something to be taken lightly—but being able to escape somewhere new is half the appeal of fiction.