Before I start, I should point
out that I am neither a professional nor an expert on the subject of
Sure, I’ve been doing this for quite some time, and I’ve
definitely accumulated some useful knowledge regarding the subject as a whole,
but I’ve never and will never claim to state that I know everything there is to
know about world-building. Knowledge is never-ending, and we’ll continue to
learn new things every day for the rest of our lives.
I do definitely think of myself as a world-builder, and I do believe that I possess a sufficient pool of knowledge for building believable or interesting worlds. I started building worlds when I was twelve years old, if not earlier. Obviously some of you will disagree with what I’ll share here, and that’s fine.
But I do believe that my points in this series will be relevant to you.
I’d also like to make the point that there are many different types of world-builders, and it isn’t really a unique or singular profession; if one could even dare call it a sustainable profession on its own. In a sense all people who create things are world-builders, as often enough what they create can be surrounded by stories and meanings. Every person’s thoughts and mind is an endless library of worlds; all of which are relatively unique and different.
Because of this variety, everyone has their own way of thinking when it comes to building worlds, and in this short series I intend to share my own thoughts and methods on the subject of world-building. These won’t be tutorials, but rather some pointers for would-be world-builders, much like guidance lines. However, it’s important to realize that there isn’t really a definite way of world-building, as it’s entirely up to you as to how you want your world to be and how you want to build it. It’s up to you whether you want to take my words as gospel, or perhaps build upon them yourself by implementing your own methods with mine.
Regardless, here’s my thoughts on the subject.
So where does one begin?
I find this is the trickiest part of any world-building project. It’s easy to come up with various ideas, such as what nations you’d like to see, what the general setting is or what kind of people inhabit your world. You could have a very detailed idea of how magic works, or your mind is filled with various gods and their powers, or heroic characters of your world’s history. You could have a large number of ideas but nowhere to begin, which, in the end, might just end up confusing you and creates a situation where you can’t decide on where your starting point should be.
Carl Sagan said "If you wish to create an apple-pie from scratch, you must first create the universe." While it wasn't said to directly address world-building, I think it is a fitting quote for the subject.
It’s quite difficult, from my
experience, to figure out where to start the whole business. That is, of
course, if you want to build a world more or less from scratch, and not just
jump straight into the heart of it. It’s all entirely up to what you plan to do
with this world of yours, whether it’s for a series of stories you’re writing
or a video game you’re making.
It’s important, I think, to realize that you don’t need to know everything about your world. You don’t need to know all the different plants of your world, how a random city was founded and built, or how many ants there are in a particular forest. Be general about your world; often vague and unspecific, or at least when you first begin. You can expand on these ideas later, if they’re core for your particular story or reasoning. What’s important at the early stage is to focus on what your world is in a larger, broader picture. It’s not the details that are important here, but the general idea.
It’s also quite useful to know
that you don’t have to build a world that makes sense. It’s your world, and the
sense you want it to make is what you make it, essentially. You’re (most
likely) not building Earth 2.0, but a world of your own imagination.
Imagination is your strongest ally, as you can develop some very fantastical or
complex worlds just from thoughts alone.
Having said all this, it is, indeed, also helpful if you know a little about how other worlds present themselves or work, or some facts on Earth’s history and development. But it’s not essential, and it should never really have to be.
But you should really look at what kind of world you are building, and
try to find a name that's fitting to that world. Fantasy worlds always
have some weird-sounding names like Aegonia or Tyrcadia, whilst
futuristic worlds often take names like Theodora or Athena. Essentially it's all up to you, and you can give any number of reasons for whatever name you choose.
Should also be noted that you can, indeed, use names that have been used before. Specifically I mean names that already exist in the real world, like one of my worlds, which I named Pandora. Of course, you should try to be sensible here and moderate in your choices. Have a reason ready for why you chose to name your world London or Edward Bottomsocks. Be careful when using names that already exist, because chances are your world will often be confused with that other world, or at least so if the two compared worlds share the same type of genre.
You can just come up with a name to begin with, and change it later if you wish. It’s not all set in stone quite yet.
What type of setting are you
There are tons of settings known, and even more that have either
yet to be discovered/defined, and again even more that can be made by combining
two or three genres. Theoretically you can create your very own, unique genre
with ease. Steam and Space? You just got Steamspace (probably a better name for
The most typical genre you’ll come across is either Fantasy or Science Fiction; both of which are often accompanied by other genres, such as Steampunk or Cyberpunk. I base my own worlds off of these four specific genres.
These are but four of a massive
collection of different types of settings and genres you could place your world
in. The four above are likely the most common, followed quite tightly by Post-Apocalyptic and Alternate Universe settings.
But it doesn’t really matter what you label your world has. It’s all up to you, really. What’s important here is to define what kind of world you want to create, and then try to stick with it and not deviate too much. Is your world comical? Keep it funny and weird. Dark? Stay true to the darkness. Futuristic? Avoid dragons (or not. It’s your world).
In Science Fiction it’s often all
about discovering planets, terraforming them and then colonizing them, where
the settlers typically originate from Earth. Some of the more interesting
Science Fiction worlds avoid mentions of Earth and create their own lore
surrounding a single, made-up planet or several made-up planets. Maybe their
entire existence has always been on some spaceship or space station. Often in Science Fiction, your world is expected to make scientific sense, or at least have attempts at seeming to make sense.
Again, it’s not really all that important knowing how your world was created, as you can easily decide upon this at any other stage in your world-building endeavour. But I do argue that knowing this early on can save you some headache later along the line, since you’ll be moulding the world’s events after a point of time based on what happened during that time, and not the other way around.
This, also, isn’t of critical importance, but it’s useful to establish a certain timeline for when you decide to write down your world’s history.
If your world’s only a couple of centuries
old, or even less, then there’s likely not a lot that has happened, but the
details of what has happened will probably be described in concrete evidence
and clear recollection.
An older world, some thousands to hundreds of thousands of years old, will have a larger span of history, and it’s very likely that this history will either be forgotten by its inhabitants, or told as vague legends and myths rather than actual facts. Typically your world’s inhabitants would only be familiar with your world’s history some hundred years in the past or, at a stretch, a thousand years in the past.
The point is, the farther back one goes, the less detailed the history should be accounted for.
Now this is rather important.
inhabits your world? Are there only humans? No humans? Lots of aliens, fantasy
races etc. The shape your world takes is only as detailed and defined as the
beings that live there. Depending on what kind of people live there, the world’s
cities, nations, politics and religions will have to be based around the views
of your inhabitants. Ideally you're creating a world and describing it from the perspective of its people.
Are your inhabitants typical races that you see in other settings, like elves and orcs and so on? Do they have any spins on them to differentiate them from others of their similarity? Is your world inhabited by a unique race that you yourself has created from scratch? This is all relevant for your world’s identity. Usually it’s just easier to pick a race you’ve seen before like elves, since there are so many sources you could draw inspiration from. Inventing a new race is more difficult, but would help to establish your world’s uniqueness.
Speaking of being unique, is your world really that special?
This is where I’d argue that you shouldn’t be too worried
about having an ultimately unique world. Most worlds out there are similar to
each other, but the way they differentiate themselves from each other is all
dependent on smaller details. It's very much in the way you present your world.
Perhaps your elven people are underground blacksmiths who specialize in metallurgy. Maybe your world exists in five different planes of existence at the same time, or maybe your world consists only of water. Is everything made out of shadows? Perhaps stones? There are millions of different ways of being different from other worlds, and even if you do create a world that is similar to another, it’s not the greatest crime in the world. As long as you’re not creating Azeroth 2.0 with identical similarities and calling it all your own, you should be good.
Essentially, I think it is important to realize that just because someone else made something, it doesn't mean that you can't do something similar yourself.
Originality is a flawed concept,
where I would say that the more important issue is whether your world is
actually interesting or not, as opposed to unique. Of course, being interesting
is often a result of being unique, but it shouldn’t be 100% necessary or
required. None of my worlds are inherently unique on their own, but it is their
detail, the slight spin-offs from typical expectancies, that help to establish
their uniqueness. It's all, as I say, in the presentation, really.
Are you writing a novel, but need a world for it first?
Is your game amazing, but doesn’t have someplace to call
home? Any specific themes you have in mind? Are you trying to present an idea
or message through your world? Everyone has a different reason for wanting to
create a world, so you should at least try to know why you are creating your
world in the first place.
In my cases I started off wanting to write novels, so I needed a setting for those. Later on I decided that I could use my worlds for any games I might make in the future, and in-between all these changing directions I just realized that the real reason I create worlds is because I enjoy building them. It’s a nice hobby that takes up as much time as I want it to.
So really, you don’t have to have any life-changing reasons for why you’re making a world. You could just as easily just want to make worlds because you find it fun.
Don’t be afraid to change things later.
It’s your world, so you can do with it whatever you want. If you decide at some point that you didn’t like something, or that some aspect of your world would be a lot cooler or more sensible if you changed it, then by all means do whatever the hell you want. Nothing is ever set in stone, and while it might be difficult to change things much later once you’ve started to properly define and establish your world, and once your world has accumulated a fandom of sorts, then, yes, I agree that it would be difficult to change aspects of your world and you should probably leave it as is, and instead try to work around the things you want to change. But I’ll still argue that it is your own world, and as such you should be free to do with it as you please.
You should, with any luck, now have a basic idea of where to start with your world-building endeavour. Again, I’ll empathize that everything I’ve written is not gospel and there are many ways of building worlds. Instead I’d encourage looking for other world-building write-ups, which might cover more of what I’ve already presented here, or maybe they’ll touch on subjects that I didn’t even think of quite yet myself.
As I go on through this series, I’ll be slowly diverting the focus into a more narrow passage, to speak of aspects of world-building that are more specific in nature. So if all this caught your fancy and you feel that you’ve grown wiser for it, please do look forward to future write-ups of mine on the subject of building worlds.
I maintain several large folders consisting of
various artworks from other artists that I use as reference. It helps give a
clear thought as to what you’re trying to create, and how your world should
look. Obviously you don’t use any of the artwork you find directly in your
world, but as a source of reference, you should be golden, and I’ll advocate
how helpful this is. Especially if you can't draw at all.
Your friends can often be a great source of
feedback. Talk with them about your world and ask them what they think about it.
It’s up to you as to whether you’ll take their feedback for what it is, which
is often more like criticism. It’s probably not ill-intentioned, as your
friends likely just want to give you some pointers based on what they
themselves know. If you’re afraid of discussing your world with your friends,
such as worrying that they’ll make fun of it, then I daresay that they’re
probably not your friends at all.
I always keep a small notebook and pen in my jacket’s pockets. This way, when I come up with an idea, I can write it down wherever I am. It’s easy to forget something that springs from your mind, so I highly advise writing it down while it’s still a fresh thought. Write down whatever you think of, even the things that seem silly or stupid. In the end those dumb ideas of yours might actually be genius in disguise.
Do you play video games, watch movies or read books? All of these are excellent sources of information and ideas. Immerse yourself in worlds that you want to create, and soon your mind will be shovelling coal to power your imagination. The mind feeds on information, and a healthy, imaginative, creative mind is one that has engaged and feasted itself with ideas of many different worlds and settings.
At some point in time your world-building project will start to grow out of control. You'll have a hard time keeping track of all your information, and you'll probably struggle with trying to figure out what information you have that is outdated or new. Everyone has their own solutions for this, but I tend to divide my documents into folders, which themselves are divided and sorted in categories, such as "World", "Races", "Magic", "Religion" etc. It also helps that I have a website where I keep and maintain my worlds, which additionally serves as a way to easily access my worlds' information from wherever I am.