Whenever you create a work of art or fiction, you’ll need to engage in world building on some level. This is the first step in story building. Fantasy, sci-fi, and historical literature require world building, as do fantasy-inspired art and video games. Even the more realist and contemporary genres and settings require you to create a believable and consistent world that readers will be absorbed in.
Whether you’re a writer or a visual artist, here are some important things to consider when world building and creating a fictional culture.
3 Steps to World Building
The way you put the following three steps into practice will depend on whether you’re a visual artist or a writer. A writer will probably want to write down their ideas, and a visual artist to sketch them. However, you can switch these up at the world building design stage: if you’re a writer with drawing skills (or vice versa), then have a go at sketching your buildings and characters!
Story Building for a Believable World
Science Fiction & Fantasy: Creating Unique and Powerful Worlds
Step 1: Devise a History for Your World
One key to making a believable world or creating a fictional culture is to make a plausible, consistent history for that world. Whether you’re writing about the past, present, or future, everything in your world will have been affected by prior events. For example, an angry warlord may be the way he is because he saw his family slaughtered; a barren planet may have once been fertile and lush; and a gang of roaming, orphaned kids certainly have a backstory.
If you’re writing some type of historical fiction, you can rely heavily on “real” history. You’ll need to thoroughly research the period. Details like clothing, food, and buildings should be accurate. If they’re not, there will always be a reader (or viewer) who will notice and not be very impressed!
Step 2: Design a Physical Setting
Once you have a history of your world, plan how it physically looks. Perhaps you’ll need to design fantasy buildings or plants. Again, if you’re writing historical fiction, your world will be based on the period you’re writing about, so consult history books and art for guidance.
Whatever your genre or format, some world building questions to consider are:
- Is your world on Earth or another planet?
- How large are the buildings? What are they made of?
- Are there bodies of water in your world? Is the water drinkable?
- How much vegetation is there? What does it look like?
- What color is the sky? How many moons are visible? Is the air safe to breathe?
- How is the weather? Would a reader recognize weather patterns or does your world experience extreme or unfamiliar events?
- Are there animals in your world? Are they “real” or invented? Are they wild or threatening? Are they domesticated?
If you’re stuck at this initial stage of creating fictional worlds, check out some world building templates and map generators for inspiration.
Step 3: Design Your People and Social Structures
Character building doesn’t stop at your main characters; in fact, designing how non-focal characters look, behave, and interact in fictional worlds is as much a part of the world building process as designing the history and physical setting. Your main characters will probably not be acting in isolation, even if you focus mostly on them.
Some world building questions to consider are:
- How do people live? In nuclear family units in houses and/or apartments? In camps? Are there nomadic people in your world?
- What form of government are people living under?
- Do people “get along” in your world? Is there widespread crime, violence, or conflict? Are people afraid or suspicious of strangers?
- Are there many different cultures in your world? How can you distinguish between them? Do people speak different languages?
- What kinds of jobs do people do?
- Do people follow a religion?
- Are your characters even people!? Perhaps they’re animals, fantasy characters that readers will already recognize (mermaids, ghosts, vampires, etc), or something completely new.
Important Elements of World Building
What you include in your world depends on the story you want to tell. Many writers or artists find it easiest to only go into detail about the elements of the world that are directly included in, or touch upon, the story and action.
The most important elements of world building to consider are:
- Physical setting and what it looks like
- Society, people, and how they interact with one another
- History and backstories of people and places
- Consistency in history, physical description, and characters
Types of World Building
World building takes many forms and is commonly used in the following:
Science Fiction Novels
Comics, Anime, and Manga
Dungeons & Dragons
World Building for the Visual Arts
Concept Art: Drawing Imaginary Worlds