Worldbuilding is, at its core, an imaginative divergence from reality that begins with a question. It’s most integral to fantasy, science fiction, and Dungeon Masters, but regardless of the genre (or role-playing game), the void that the characters float in remains colorless and empty until the author wonders, “What if…?”
What if travel to other planets was possible? What if no land existed—only ocean? What if people could move objects with their minds? What if a teenage boy got bitten by a radioactive spider and developed spider-like superpowers?
The infinite possibilities and choices can be overwhelming, paralyzing you before you even begin your first draft. How do you keep track of all the pertinent details? Are you wasting time naming the flora and fauna or actually moving your story forward? Before you rush to your favorite search engine and type in “worldbuilding questionnaires” (trust me, hundreds will pop up), remember three guidelines.
1. Prioritize Your Story
Worldbuilding is not meant to be the axis that your characters, theme, and plot revolve around. It can be a propellant, but it won’t manufacture a fantastic story on its own. If you focus on impressing readers with complex magic systems, technology, cultures, and geography, you risk everything else getting lost. Reducing worldbuilding to window dressing won’t solve the problem either. Instead, all of the environmental elements you add should serve the story you’re telling.
Over the course of the Spider-Man films, Peter Parker discovers the advantages and consequences of possessing and misusing power. The Marvel universe forms the arena for his struggles, but the comic book setting that Stan Lee created isn’t the reason the adventure is compelling—Peter Parker’s character arc is. The worldbuilding only enhances his interactions with the truth about who he should be.
If you have a solid premise (like a young man who obtains superpowers and learns about responsibility after a tragic loss), consider how your world could underscore the story’s purpose. How does the protagonist learn his lesson if he’s stronger, faster, and more resilient than normal humans? What are his limitations, and how does he adapt? Conversely, if you have an idea for a twist on reality (like superpowers being real), think about how it would shape the people who experience it. How would gaining special abilities feel? What would cause the gifting to happen?
Whether you start with an alternative reality or dream up an entirely new cosmos, give your story precedence. Otherwise the world you encase it in will be meaningless.
2. Determine Your Protagonist’s Perspective Inside the World
You’ll always know ten times more about your story world than the characters and your audience. Your job is to seal yourself inside your protagonist’s stream of consciousness so you can see which areas are significant enough to dwell on and require development. But first you need to figure out whether he has an introductory perspective or an immersed perspective. Is he exploring an unfamiliar land for the first time? Or was he born there? The answer will affect how much you’ll need to show and explain as he’s navigating his surroundings.
Harry Potter receives an unexpected invitation to Hogwarts, which allows the audience to share his ignorance and awe of magic, wizards, and how they stay hidden in modern-day London. Because this is the easier perspective to write, I’d recommend trying it first. You can bring information to the forefront as your character encounters new oddities, because your audience will be as confused and curious as he is.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Frodo Baggins from Lord of the Rings is a native of Middle-Earth. The aspects of his world that an outsider might view as extraordinary are ordinary to him, which makes conveying the rules far more challenging. You wouldn’t treat a smartphone as mind-blowing, but if you were a character in a book that an eighteenth-century reader picked up, they would have zero understanding of the device. The author would need to find a natural way to demonstrate how it functions without info dumping.
Most stories have a mixture of immersed and introductory perspectives, but knowing how your protagonist processes the world around him will help you craft authentic and relevant descriptions—instead of spending hours compiling an encyclopedia of facts.
3. Investigate the Why Behind the What
When people greet each other, they often engage in a recognizable set of verbal and physical mannerisms. Maybe they bow, nod, or shake hands. Whether you’re aware of it or not, even the most instinctual social customs follow a pattern that’s distinctive to the culture.
Before you start packing elaborate dialects and behavioral quirks into your world, however, remember that habits evolve for a reason. People might be oblivious to where their slang and etiquette came from, but it still has an origin. Observe how the people in your sphere communicate with each other, then ask yourself why. Don’t assume you’re an expert on handshaking simply because your parents taught you that it’s polite.
In Frank Herbert’s science fiction masterpiece, Dune, one of the Fremen spits at Duke Leto. His men interpret it as an insult, but it’s not. On a desert planet, every particle of moisture is precious and recycled—including human saliva. So offering it to someone else is monumental. The Fremen base their code of conduct on water conservation and survival. This tiny misunderstanding makes Herbert’s masterful worldbuilding more tangible.
When readers are orienting themselves within your world, they need a sense of stability. If you can define why your characters have certain idiosyncrasies and stay consistent, you’ll narrow the gap between fiction and reality.
A Whole New World
The best (and worst) part of being a writer is that you have the freedom to choose (or invent) literally everything that appears in your story. If you approach those decisions with intention, you’ll have a clear vision that will make the process more effective. The monster that is worldbuilding can transform a blank slate into a landscape teeming with beauty and pain and growth. Or it can be a fun, time-sucking hobby. Either way, your world awaits.
Rose Sheffler is a Kentucky native who began her writing career in the seventh grade by hijacking a simple assignment and turning it into an elaborate creative piece. Her teacher reprimanded her for not following the instructions and said, “You should be a writer.” She studied English Literature in college, with a focus on creative writing, and returned to teach seventh grade English at the same private school. Her favorite genres are fantasy, historical fiction, and fairy tales.
This summer she completed a manuscript of new fairy tales and hopes to have them traditionally published. Until then, she homeschools her three kids, feeds her philosopher husband, grades papers, engages daily with her church community, talks to herself, updates her blog, reads too many children’s books, considers the brevity of life in the face of eternity, and takes bookish photographs for Instagram.