As the title suggests, I am still wailing AND developing the setting of my fantasy novel. Therefore, I am doing the immense task of worldbuilding.
if you have been following my blog for a while… yes, this is a new and much-improved version of the worldbuilding post I did before. shh.
how to understand and develop your fantasy world
I tend to use a question and answer method for worldbuilding. I find it less intimidating and like how it allows you to think about multiple specific aspects.
Obviously, it is crucial to remember you do not need to answer all the questions. This activity is NOT for fun, but it is essential to cover the basics and more if relevant to the plot.
For instance… soil quality might not be anything for some plots, but it could be necessary for other stories. If your book is about a gardener trying to grow the best garden in their kingdom, the soil will be relevant. Or it can be for a contextual reason, for example, a conflict that has stirred because of inequalities through food availability and areas which suffer the most may be down to poor soil etc.
The questions are just to get you thinking, and you need only answer the suitable ones.
This is a very long post, so I do apologise, but it is just the nature of the content. I hope it can be helpful to some people.
There are a lot of resources on “worldbuilding 101″… a lot. When researching what to do, it feels like you have a thousand jobs to do, and then you read something else which adds on another couple of jobs. It is overwhelming (one of my favourite words to describe writing), and you never feel like you are doing enough.
Plus, the thing about worldbuilding is you could go on for years and still not know every detail. You could develop millions of species, write hundreds of laws and establish thousands of villages. Let us not forget how history is basically endless if you let it be. You need to know when to start and when to stop. Pick what you need to know wisely.
THE CHECKLIST FOR MY METHOD…
i set out each point as a different document/folder to help structure my planning
- the visual aspects (use photos in this document)
- understanding your societies & cultures
THE VISUAL ASPECTS
step one: DECIDE THE INSPIRATION
Start off easy. What place and/or period are you using for inspiration? Most writers go off a historic landscape, e.g. Ancient Rome or Ancient Arab.
There we go. Step one is done. *experience a feeling of satisfaction from minimal work*
step two: ESTABLISH THE LAND
Understanding the physical terrain/features is the foundation for your world, so it is the perfect starter block. This is predominantly a research step since you’re probably shaping your land based on a specific location.
where is your world based (country, island etc.)? what is the terrain like? what are common sites to see? what are the natural formations (remember to think about how they naturally occur as to why they would be in specific locations rather than just popping up)? (e.g. waterfalls will occur when there is a vertical drop, with bands of less resistant and resistant rock, typically in the upper course of a river) does it suffer from natural disasters? how do natural disasters affect the land and its inhabitants (the development as well)? what are the most populated areas (cities etc.)? how big are the cities, villages etc.? how do the inhabitants interact with the land (do they nourish or deplete it?)? What are the aesthetics (e.g. New York=taxis)? what common colours are in the environment? what scale of land is going to be featured in your story? (e.g. global scale, a country, one city) how many different areas are going to be included? how do the areas differ from each other? (temperature, terrain, resources, social norms)? finally, what are the names of places, lands, cities etc.?
worldbuilding book rec N°1: The city of brass by s. a. chakraborty
…for a book with rich landscape and culture. This was seriously an atmospheric read.
💡 TIP 💡
When naming places, often it comes from ancient languages. Think about symbolism. How do the names fit the purpose or mood of the book?
for these questions, it seems easier in my mind to consider how they compare to earth... what size is the land? (mass, density, gravity) what is the atmosphere like? what percentage of land vs water is there? are different countries close together? what is the makeup of the land (think about a map)? is everywhere habitable/lived on? How many suns or moons? what are the star constellations look like? any significant visible ones? when are they visible? the weather.... describe the climate? How does it change between day and night? How do the sun(s)/moon(s) affect winds and tides? does your world experience seasons? (think of the axis and orbit of the sun) what are the seasons like, and how long do they last?
what is the natural flora like? what type of trees are there? what is the soil quality like (does it vary in different locations)? what flowers are common? (any legend surrounding them) is there any unnatural or modified flora around? are there any types of plants with magical qualities (whether appearance or side effects on people)? any poisonous plants? what do inhabitants do in barren lands?
step three: FURNISH THE LAND
Time to add the man-made visual items onto the land. Once again, a research-heavy step but you can begin to add more and more distinct features to your world.
construction: what materials are they made of? how are the materials transported? who builds them? appearance: what does the common house (living space) look like? what are they like inside (what items do they contain?)? how many rooms are inside? how do the poor and rich houses differ? what facilities are found inside? do they incorporate space in their house in relation to religion? how do old and new buildings differ in appearance? what buildings would be found in cities/main villages etc.? what do shops/markets look like? are there any eatery places? what do they look like, and how accessible are they? think about temples, palaces, streets, and entertainment places too. what decorations would be found around cities/village centres? any statues, carvings, reliefs, rugs, tiles, gold, plants etc.
what is the common transportation system (foot, horse, carriage, car, ship)? what do they look like? how are they kept running (i.e. petrol and mechanics for cars)? who is most likely to use transport? how common are transportation devices? does it cost money or anything else? how much? is there public transport? is there emergency transportation? what are the roads like? is the landscape accommodating to transportation? how do cities adapt to transport methods (main roads, built canals?)? are they any navigational signs to show the way? are there stops for long journeys? what is the common travel length? what are the common reasons why transport is necessary (transfer goods, personal business, pleasure (travel))? what are the common locations (what cities are the most accessible?)?
how is water received/removed? how is water sanitised? is there electricity? if so, what is the system like? if not, what do they use instead? is there a sewage system? if not, what do they use? how is trash sorted/removed/handled? are the utilities common or only for the rich etc.? do utilities cost anything? does magic influence any of these systems? how do they keep places and systems clean? What items do they use for cleaning? what is the typical hygiene understanding or level? how does the agricultural system work? it is mostly individual farms or a large corporation? how many natural resources are there? how are they obtained? how does this affect the wealth of the country?
how are items made (e.g. furniture, vehicles)? is technology readily available? what type of technology? how is it made? how accessible is it? how is the technology maintained? when did the technology come into this world? how did it influence things (i.e. care for land, weaponry, speed of development, social differences)? how does magic affect it? what type of technology does your world prioritise, e.g. entertainment, agriculture, transport, communication? Why and how does this affect your world/economy?
step four: WHO IS ON THE LAND?
Now it is time to add some life to your portraits.
what animals exist in your world? do magical/mythological creatures exist? what are the relationships between magic and non-magic creatures? what are the relationships between animals and humans? how is hunting regarded? Any endangered species (anything done to protect them)? are there any common pets? are there any feared animals, predators or legends? what animals are the most or least valued (why?)? what type of habitats do the animals need (where will certain species be found and what time of day)?
💡 TIP 💡
If you’re curating new species, a great place to start is by looking at what skills and abilities you want each one to have, which depends on their habitat. Animals are products of their environment. Think… how intense is the light? how does night differ from the day? what is the temperature? how much water is available (what type of water)? what is the ground? what are the colours of the environment? where is shelter? what are the seasons? is it an open space? what other species live there? what is the hunting hierarchy? what plants are around? etc.
From these factors, you can build believable species. e.g. how do species handle hot environments? what do they eat? where do they sleep? how to protect themselves? Real-life examples can be so helpful. Sloths 🦥 have long claws for climbing trees. Scale-Foot gastropods (snail) 🐌 basically build themselves an iron armour to survive in hydrothermal vents (they are soo cool). Flamingos 🦩have long legs to stop water from touching their feathers so they can fly away from danger.
do humans exist? (do they have magic (developed in a later section)?) do mythical people exist (i.e. elves, dwarves, gods)? Describe their general abilities. do they exist alongside each other? how do they interact? how would it affect social structure? do inhabitants differ depending on location? what would each of their daily lives look like? consider the genealogies of people and how this affects society.
how does clothing change for different places (different climates)? what are the typical items of clothing? is underwear available? how do they fit? are they comfortable? what are common clothing colours? how are the different colours achieved? who is responsible for making the clothing? what are the unusual garments that are still worn? what materials are used? how are the materials gathered? does clothing differ between groups (i.e. genders, jobs, wealth, age, religions, social groups (e.g. goths, jocks))? what do clothes cost? what about accessories (jewellery, hats, headbands or hair accessories, make up)? are any of these daily or ceremonial usage? can you get piercings or tattoos? how would hair be styled? what hairstyles are popular? what is the armour, if any? what are the common weapons? do weapons differ in different countries? (how would this affect war strategies?) what are they made from? who makes them? are they strong? do they break easily? can you get repairs? how has weaponry changed over time? how does magic affect the weapons?
UNDERSTANDING YOUR SOCIETIES & CULTURES
step five: DEVELOP THE INHABITANTS
Develop the different inhabitants. To understand the norms and social structure of your world. This is important to make your inhabitants believable and distinct. Remember to prioritise the questions relevant to your plot.
languages: how many different languages exist? are different languages commonly taught? is being bilingual/multilingual common? is there a dominant language/gloabl lingua franca? do any languages share a common origin? are they any extinct languages? do different languages get different responses (i.e. french is seen as romantic)? speech: how has speech changed over time (translate old documents etc.)? what are the native speakers' abbreviations? what are the common grammar mistakes? what are the common phrases? (‘oh my god’, ‘loser’ (insults), ‘excited’, ‘sh*t’, ‘what?’) what is the sense of humour of the place? what are the popular/common jokes (i.e. knock, knock, a widely mocked person, sarcasm, who is often at the expense of the joke)? are there any taboo subjects that people shouldn't speak about (punishable?)? can the same object have different names by different groups (i.e. the batch debate in the UK... bap, batch, roll, bun.) what gestures do people use? what are their greetings? what are their manners like (how are they shown)?
💡 TIP 💡
To give your book an individual mode of speech, you can draw off local myths, religion, and media culture to create phrases and invent your own idioms.
what is the most powerful group? what are the feared group/s? what groups are oppressed? are there any conflicts between certain groups? what are the causes of these conflicts? have the differences always existed, and do they still exist? are any groups physically separated from each other? differences to consider: magic (magic valued or not), sex (male-dominated etc.), sexuality (LGBTQ+), race, money, religion (more on this later), age (old seen as a drain on society, youth seen as stupid etc.), disabilities/illnesses. how are all these accommodated/treated? what matters are different on a social level (i.e. differences in social classes could be lifestyle, interests, views and wealth)? views: what is the most important thing to serve in your world (family, god, your clan, royalty)? how is public intimacy regarded? what are the beauty standards of your world? what is seen as beautiful (i.e. eyes)? what body parts are seen as scandalous? what is considered standard intelligence? what stereotypes exist for different groups (age, different cities), e.g. young people are lazy? what is the age when people are considered 'old'? how do the rich display their wealth? what are common insecurities? do certain colours mean differnt things? what are the views on war? what views would be deemed controversial in your world? What is considered the worst crime to commit? does slavery currently exist? if so, where does it exist? how long has it existed? if slavery doesn’t exist, has it ever existed? if it was abolished, what did it take? (links to history) how long did slavery exist?
worldbuilding book rec N°2: The jasmine throne by tasha suri
……for a book with an in-depth exploration of social politics, especially concerning how women are treated.
is education valued or looked down on by society? who goes to school? is it limited to one group of people? is it compulsory? is there a requirement to get access? what do they learn? where are the schools located? how many schools are there? are there boarding schools? do they have holidays? how many children do they accommodate? how long are the pupils in the education system? how are they grouped in classes (age, ability, subject)? how long are the school days? are all the resources provided for students (or up to parents)? is there a uniform? what is the examination process, if any? can they retake? how many stages are there (primary, secondary, university)? what are the benefits of children succeeding? are there various standards of schooling in different places?
does the world have more small or big corporations/businesses? are certain classes not allowed to own property or businesses? why is that? what kind of jobs are there? what are the desired jobs? what jobs are looked down on? what are the high-level jobs, middle-level jobs, and low-level jobs? What are the most undervalued jobs, and who works them? how are labourers treated? are there any work unions? if so, what are the general opinions about unions? how do people train for jobs? what is the job application process? Do people get holidays? Is there a military setup? how are people enlisted (necessary by a certain age, optional)? how are business records kept? what is your tax system? if one doesn't exist, why is that, and what are the impacts?
does money exist? what is the currency? does it differ in different countries (have different values?)? what is your money made of? what does money look like? how is it made? how is it kept safe? do banks (or alternatives) exist in your world? how are the banks run? who is in charge of them (gov't, wealthy)? are records kept for individual people? are there records for the amount of money in a city etc.? how do people typically receive it (hand to hand transactions)? how does credit operate in your world? if no currency, is there an alternate barter/trade system in place (or both)?
what is the carrier system (i.e. word of mouth, pigeon, phone etc.)? how many different forms? if letters, what are they made of? if ink is used, how is the ink gotten? are there different colours? what do they use to write with? how is the utensil made? is there a postage system? if so, is it reliable? who pays for it? how quick is it? any emergency methods?
what type of government exists? (monarchy, oligarchy, dictatorship, democracy) how are people in power chosen? how much power do individual leaders (kings) have? what is the difference between governing bodies in different countries/areas? are they any large scale alliances between countries? how are these alliances maintained? are political relationships strained or peaceful? what are the local governments like (i.e. city mayors, local MPs etc.)? how do they report to the main governing body? is the leadership system seen in a positive or negative light? are they actually good or bad (or both)? who benefits from the system the most (and who the least)? is it corrupt (give the details in how and why)? how are members of the political system selected? what are the rulers' names (king, empress, shah)? what laws are there? how do the laws vary among different countries/cities? how are the laws made? how are the laws enforced? what is the sentencing system, and how are criminals punished? are criminals likely to be immediately crucified or innocent until proven guilty? how are people in power monitored against crimes? do prisons exist? if so, who runs the prisons? how do they affect each prison? what rights do citizens have? how do rights/citizenship vary among cities/countries/people? any there any censorship laws? how are wars fought? what are the different approaches across different countries? If there is a military, what is its hierarchy structure? is the military looked upon favourably?
worldbuilding book rec N°3: jade city by fonda lee
...for a book involving intricate politics from laws, leadership structures, national & international relations, and more.
how is time measured? (e.g. watch, sundials) what does the calendar year look like, i.e. how many days are in a year? what do they call their months? what do they use for measuring distances? how do they measure weight?
what are the common illnesses? how does it affect daily life? who is most likely to be afflicted (and why)? what are the deadly diseases? what do people believe illnesses & diseases mean in your world (e.g. the gods are mad at you, miasma theory)? what is the healthcare system like? is it funded? are there doctors (what are they called)? how equipped are they? how is the equipment made? what do they use for bandages/stitches if they have them? how skilled are the doctors? where are the healthcare centres? how are they organised? are they available in most areas (including small villages)? how does treatment vary between the wealthy and poor? how does society handle disabilities and mental illnesses? how does magic affect healthcare? can healing be instantaneous? if so, how did this affect healthcare development? is magical healthcare seen as superior to normal healthcare, or is it shunned more? do they believe in medicine or tend to lead towards religious approaches? are people currently experimenting within the medical field? what natural drugs used? is there any form of birth control? how do they handle periods? is pregnancy high risk (i.e. high infant mortality rate, risks for mother)?
what are the common structures (e.g. nuclear, bean pole, reconstituted, same-sex, single parent)? does marriage (or a similar process) exist? are divorces available as well? how is family diversity treated (e.g. stigma against divorced or unmarried people)? is one type of family more dominant in specific areas/society? (i.e. single least common in poorer areas as two salaries are preferable)? in terms of family planning, does the government prefer more children or less? are adoptions/abortions available? do they provide incentives for these? what are the gender roles in families, if any (i.e. breadwinner)? when are kids expected to move out? Once moved on, are families expected to live near each other/what role do they play in each other's lives? Are people close to their extended family?
what is the core religion in your world (if there is one)? what are the smaller religions present in your world? For each religion, consider: what are the beliefs in the religion? what are things that are disrespectful to religious beliefs? what are the rituals/practises involved? are there any religious buildings (e.g. temples)? who are the religious people (e.g. priests, soothsayers)? how respected are the religious beliefs in society? how does religion affect the individual (i.e. what values do they promote?)? how many different religions are there? how do they interact? what are the beliefs and rituals of the different religions? how do they treat birth, marriage (or similar event, if any) and death? any ceremonies (what are they like)? what do people believe happens when you die? how do the different religions react to one another? how common is religion? if religion is not dominant in society, what are the alternatives? philosophies? science and technology? laws? how do religions interact with science and/or the political system? do they work tonight? do they clash in ideals? is one respected more than the other? has religious belief grown or declined over time? are there any cults/sects etc.?
what holidays are celebrated in your world? any celebrations that are not common but still celebrated by certain groups? why are they celebrated (religion, historical significance, seasonal)? how are they celebrated? does everyone have days off (if not everyone, who is allowed off)? do they celebrate birthdays? how are they celebrated? when do inhabitants "come of age"? is there a ceremony? do they exchange gifts? if so, what would they be?
what activities do kids do? is there a 'nightlife' as such? if so, what does it entail? (what makes it different from day activities?) what activities are done for pleasure (art, games, gambling, drinking, poetry, sports *great post about sports here* etc.)? how often do people take time for recreational activity? does it involve money? how much? what is the difference between the rich and poor activities? what are the common toys/gifts, if any? what role does music play in society? what musical instruments are there, if any (what are they made from)? what do people sing? are there nursery rhymes? are there old songs that everyone knows (maybe a tale about an old warrior/king)? is there any film or theatre? do they have famous people from the arts? where are all these activities held (e.g. theatre)? Are there special training areas too? are there competitions and awards for certain activities (e.g. sports)?
worldbuilding book rec N°4: caster by elsie chapman
...for a book set around a well-developed magical fighting competition. You can see how powerful of a role recreational activities can have.
are there books? what are they made from? are books common (can everyone read)? what are they often about (stories, non-fiction, religion, laws, history)? what are the popular ones? do they have 'classics'? do the books deteriorate over time? what language are they written? do other formats exist as well (e.g. screenplays, religious texts)?
what do the inhabitants eat? any common foods (the staples of the diet)? what are the classic or universally loved foods/meals? what are the common drinks? how are the drinks made? what are used for dishes, cups and cutlery? how are they made? does everyone use them? how many meals in one day? how is each meal different? what times are they eaten? does everyone eat together (servants?)? where does everyone eat (tables, floor)? how advanced are the recipes/cooking skills? how is food transported? what are the different diets (allergies, vegetarian, healthy diets for warriors etc.)? how does diet differ in different places, e.g. ocean cities eat mostly seafood? How does diet differ between the rich and poor?
step six: UNDERSTAND THE HISTORY
Time to develop your past. Have a strong awareness of your world’s history but don’t go over the top either. It will be endless if you let it. It is also good to remember parts of history will come to you when writing. It is okay to not know everything before you start. Nevertheless, it is a vital step as I’m pretty some kind of history will be affecting your plot.
what are the major eras? Can you split time into chunks (periodisation)? (e.g. BC, stone age etc.) what is considered the rise of civilisation? (vary between locations) when did the key societies form, and how have they changed up to the present day? was this change easy, slow or in-process? (the age of the society will affect this) what are the major cultures throughout the past? what are the key historical events that most people would know? what have been the major wars and conflicts? what are the significant events in history? what have been the biggest movements? what are the most prominent disasters in the past (i.e. widespread disease, natural disasters, genocide)? who have been the major leaders of the past? (are any seen as truly evil or true heroes?) what have been the major alliances? what have been the major differences? what have been the most revolutionary moves forward, and how did they happen? what have been the significant regressions and stepbacks? what are the recent events in history? emphasise the events that directly impact your characters & plot. e.g. new policies/laws, change in leadership, economic insecurity, mass murder.
commentary on history
are there any patterns in the past? how has history influenced the present day (increased fear, political structures, labour laws)? what are the changes amongst people from past to present (i.e. clothes, buildings, norms, procreation, jokes, language, interests, labour)? are any of these changes visible in present-day (e.g. old vs new Edinburgh)? how did development (and the rate of it) affect everything else? what historical sites exist in the present day, and are they valued (e.g. heritage sites)? are there any differences between what people believed happened to what actually happened in the past? (things becoming distorted or misinterpreted all the time. this would be a great way to add nuanced layers if relevant to the plot) how and why did those differences in facts come about?
worldbuilding book rec N°5: the poppy war by r. f. kuang
…for a book with a complex history (inspired from real life) and a masterful military plot.
💡 TIP 💡
The knowledge of history will vary among different people in society… Educated people know historical events and facts. The level of understanding will vary even among them, each only fully knowing specific parts. Most people are only aware of the basics, aka the biggest events. If you want to take it further, give people different recollections of the past and their effect on the present.
step seven: DEVELOP THE MAGIC
Know your magic. Your magic system will typically be unique to your book, so it’s always a good idea to know the ins and outs. It is more believable and entertaining this way.
how long has magic existed? how is the magic accessed (any tools needed? wand or is it hand movement, mind, speech)?how was it created (or was it always present)? is it universal (if not, how is it selected (random, genetic)? when do beings get magic (under specific circumstances, born with it, have to train (how are they taught it?))? how long does it take for people to 'master their magic'? how does age affect magical ability? what is seen as basic/beginner magic? do people each have specific forms of magical ability (e.g. one has invisibility, someone else has flight)? what magic is seen as the most powerful/dangerous? what magic is more likely to be seen as a joke? how will emotions affect their magic (e.g. control, intensity)? are there differences amongst the magical community in terms of power strength? do the differences depend on genes, personality, random selection, or training? are different people or creatures better at specific types of magic? what are the limits of using magic (mental drain, physical exhaustion)? what weakens the magic? how do they recover if they suffer burnout or weakened power etc.? what is the magic unable to do? can people lose their magic? what would happen if magic was performed incorrectly (failure, accident)? are there ways for non-magical folk to access magic? if so, what would be the consequences?
does everyone know about it? what are the laws concerning the powers/magic? how is magic treated as a whole by society? do they encourage it or condone it? what are the punishments for misuse, if any? is it or the people feared? are magical people oppressed (or do they oppress unmagical folk)? is magic respected? does society look down on magical or non-magical beings? how does it influence the development of society? e.g. sped up medical discoveries. How does magical ability affect careers/families? how does magic affect everyday tasks? can magic be stored or transferred to something/somewhere else?
worldbuilding book rec N°6: sorcerer to the crown by zen cho
…for a book with an intricately developed magic system, both in political/social rules and vastness.
💡 TIP 💡
Include vivid contrast to make places/moments stand out to the reader. And, remember, don’t just include large scale detail. The smaller ones are sometimes the most powerful and help build a more in-depth image.
- It is going to be character central time!
- Specifically developing the villains, gods and main characters
- Then the end of planning nears! 🎊🎊