The Art of Worldbuilding

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Natalie Layne Baker

Staff Writer

Natalie Layne Baker's writing has appeared at Audible, Hachette, Book Riot, Submittable, Entropy, Memoir Mixtapes, Howl Round, and Bone & Ink Lit Zine. She currently resides in Philadelphia.

The feeling of being drawn completely into a fictional world is unparalleled. Of all features a story might aspire to possess, great worldbuilding can draw a reader in like no other. But what is it exactly and how do authors do it well?

What Is Worldbuilding?

Worldbuilding is the process of creating a fictional world or universe, which includes such elements as world history, geography, politics, languages, customs, religious pantheons — just about anything that’s a part of our real world can be included in an author’s worldbuilding. Sometimes, you may see or hear people referring to the combined elements of worldbuilding as a story’s “lore.”

To take a classic example, look at J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. A major reason why these books are such enduring classics is their meticulous worldbuilding. From the detailed maps of Middle-earth to the invented languages spoken by the various races, there is so much lore in LOTR that an entire book based on Tolkien’s worldbuilding, The Silmarillion, was published after the author’s death.

There are countless other examples of great fictional worlds and universes to point to. The Star Wars universe is staggeringly huge and well-defined, a multimedia canon that includes books, movies, and TV shows. Ursula K. Le Guin was also a master worldbuilder, as evidenced in the complex geography and sociology of The Earthsea Cycle.

You can also find examples of great worldbuilding in books that take place in contemporary, or even real-world settings. Look no further than the living, breathing portrait of New York City in N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became or the naturalistic bustle of the Big Apple in the 1970s found in City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg.

Whether the setting is contemporary or ancient, based on our real world or wholly invented, the success of these fictional worlds rests largely on their authors’ attention to said world’s finest details.

How Do I Get Started?

If you’re in the business of telling a story — be you an author, a game master, or any other aspiration that relies on your narrative prowess — careful and thorough worldbuilding can help amplify the characters and plot ideas you’ve likely already got brewing in your head.

When you’ve already got a plot in your head but want to expand the in-universe history, geography, or sociology, you can start by asking yourself a couple simple worldbuilding questions like:

  • What happened before the events you’re writing about right now?
  • How do they affect the people in the world, both the characters and the unnamed citizens of the world around them?
  • Where are they, physically, in relation to other people, places, or societies?
  • Does their physical location provide them any opportunities or disadvantages that people in other places don’t experience?
  • Are past world events responsible for your characters inhabiting this place at this time?

Worldbuilding Tools

Keeping all of the facts about your world straight can sometimes be challenging, but luckily there are some great tools that writers and storytellers can use to keep track of it all.

Scrivener is a popular word processor that includes copious different ways of taking notes about your characters and world. World Anvil provides a set of almost Wikipedian tools for creating articles about characters, places, and timelines, and the ability to link them to each other where relevant. It’s just as useful for dungeon masters as novelists.

And for map enthusiasts, there’s a smorgasbord of map-making softwares out there, including Inkarnate, Azgaar’s Fantasy Map Generator, and Donjon’s Fractal World Generator. Find even more fantasy map generators here!

As you can probably guess, worldbuilding can quickly spin into hundreds of different questions. You can take it wherever you want, going as deep as Tolkien and crafting a hundred years of history for your fictional world, or contain it only to that which is immediately relevant to the story you want to tell. Just like any other storytelling tool, you can use it however you want.

Have fun!