When you’re writing a fantasy (or sci-fi) story, you’re going to have to do some worldbuilding.
Building your fantasy world can easily become a daunting task. The many details can become overwhelming.
That’s why, in this guide to worldbuilding, I like you to focus on the details you truly need. Pick a few things where you go deep and detailed. The rest of it, you can keep rather shallow.
I’m a big fan of Brandon Sanderson’s approach to worldbuilding (which will be evident from this article). I highly recommend watching his lecture on the topic on YouTube here.
Do I have to do worldbuilding first in a story?
A lot of times, writers start with building their world when they’re planning a novel. Or they have a certain world in mind before they know what their story will be.
There’s nothing wrong with this. However, I would recommend thinking about your story first before you go any deeper with your worldbuilding. After all, you want to make sure that the details in your world complement the story you’re trying to tell.
Where do I start with writing a fantasy world?
When you begin your worldbuilding, you first want to decide what kind of fantasy you’re writing. An urban fantasy would need less worldbuilding than an epic fantasy, for instance. Consider how much of the world you’d need to build.
Then you need to pick which physical and cultural elements you’ll need within your story. And then prune that list so it’s a lot more doable. You’ll only go deep into detail on the elements you’ve picked.
Shallow vs. deep
What do I mean when I saw “going deep into detail.” Generally, you don’t need to develop every aspect of your world in complete detail. If you pick a narrow list of elements to fully develop, worldbuilding becomes much more manageable.
And because you narrow down on a few elements and work these out in detail (and because these elements are actually important to your story), the reader will feel you’ve created an entirely new universe.
The rest of the elements can then be shallow. For instance, instead of developing a full history, you can come up with the name of a great war that happened at some point and reference it in your story (where it makes sense). This war doesn’t even need to be explained in detail. It will feel to your reader as if the world you’ve created is real and expansive.
Pick your elements
How do you pick your elements? First, you’ll need a list of things to choose from. Below, I give you the most prevalent options to choose from. Go through them and write which elements you’d like to develop for your story. If you come up with additional elements, write these as well.
Gender norms/Sexuality norms/Social norms
When you’ve made your list, count how many elements you wrote down. Likely, you still have too many.
Keep the story in mind
In the next step, you’re going to question: which elements are actually important in my story?
For instance, if your characters are going on some epic quest where they’ll travel a lot, it’d make sense to develop the terrain, climate/weather, flora, fauna, borders, races, social norms, and city design.
But if your story takes place within the same city, it makes more sense to focus on social norms, hierarchy, economy, fashion fads, and the local weather.
The type of story you want to tell also matters here. If your story focuses on societal values, you’ll likely focus on more cultural elements. But a story focused on action and survival will probably focus more on the physical element.
And, of course, you always want to build a magic system.
Go over your list again and narrow it down. As a guideline, for epic fantasy, I would recommend 6–10 elements in total.
As you build your story for each of these elements, always ask yourself how the worldbuilding can elevate the plot. This can be done by:
Creating certain obstacles, challenges, or opportunities for your characters.
Creating certain settings for your story that give it a specific atmosphere.
For the rest of the worldbuilding elements, keep the details to a minimum.
Need a step-by-step guide for your worldbuilding?
My Easy Worldbuilding guide has a ton of pages with questions for each element to help you in your process.
By the end, you have a fully developed world and enough shallow details to create a story that has a vivid and engaging world.
Do you need to create a map?
It’s not always necessary to create a map. It depends on the kind of story you’re writing and whether it’s common within your genre to add a map.
For instance, urban fantasy usually doesn’t have a map (although Ninth House did have a campus map). However, epic fantasy almost always has a map in the front. The map is then part of the reader expectations.
But if your character doesn’t really travel within your world or if the surroundings don’t really matter, it’s not necessary to have a map.
It can be tempting to spend a lot of time worldbuilding. However, at some point, you’re going to have to start writing.
I would suggest not spending longer than a month on your worldbuilding (preferably not longer than a month on worldbuilding, outlining, and character development combined).
If you spend longer than this, it’s likely you’re coming up with details that won’t be necessary within your story.