World-building is an essential part of all fiction writing. Sure, with fantasy genres, writers have to create a whole new world (don’t you dare close your eyes). But, If you’re reading a novel set in New York, then you’d expect the author to tell how New York looks, sounds, and smells. You’d want to know absolutely everything about the people who live there, too. What they eat and drink, what they love and hate, what they do for fun. So, world-building is a vital skill that all fiction writers need to master.
Now, the nice thing about stories based in the real world is that you don’t have to invent details about the setting. Stephen King sets his novels in his home state of Maine because he has an intimate knowledge of that world. When you read one of his books, even if you know nothing about Maine, King’s knowledge comes through the text. There’s nothing generic about one of King’s fictional towns like Castle Rock or Derry. The people talk a certain way, they eat certain foods, they have particular vocations. They are unique.
The challenge for fantasy and sci-fi writers is to match the unique charm of the real world in an imaginary one. When creating an imaginary world there are ten broad categories that you need to address.
These are the ten key elements of world-building.
We’re going to look at those elements and talk about how one author, Dan Simmons, uses each to create the elaborate world of his Hyperion Cantos (minor spoilers ahead).
But first, let’s answer an important question.
What is World-building?
The most basic element of world-building is creating a new and unique setting for your story. In normal fiction, an author can use an existing setting for their story. But, in genres like sci-fi and fantasy the settings are otherworldly. This means the author will create most, if not all, the story’s setting and background. This is world-building.
The 10 Key Elements of World-Building
These are the ten elements you’ll need to bring your fictional world to life! (with examples from Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos.)
Like in the real world, religion shapes many of the events that take place in your fictional world. Likewise, different philosophies will motivate the characters’ choices, actions, and lifestyles.
When creating fictional religions and philosophies use real-world inspiration. Look to real religions and philosophies as a jumping-off point. Add myths or traditions to real religion. Combine the characteristics of two existing philosophies. Don’t, however, copy and paste an existing religion or philosophy into your story. Change them enough to make them your own creation.
Predict what would happen if, over a period of hundreds of years, a major religion diminished in power. Or, what if a minor religious cult rose to become the dominant world power? Think through how these “what if” scenarios would shape a world.
Example: In the Hyperion Cantos, there are many different religions and philosophies. Only one of these drives the plot of the final two books, though. This is a version of Catholicism embodied by a political power called the Pax. The Pax discovers an artifact, the Cruciform, that grants users immortality. The Pax’s unnatural control over life and death sets them up as a perfect antagonist.
What are the major philosophies and religions of your world?
What are the minor philosophies and religions of your world?
How did these views develop? And over how long a period of time?
What event(s) created these worldviews?
What conflicts are there between the separate religion/philosophies or within them?
In fiction, magic is separated into two groups- hard magic and soft magic. How you want to use magic in your story will determine which of these two systems you’ll use. Let’s break down the difference between the two.
In a hard magic system, the author will define the rules and limitations for magic. The characters need skill or will have to learn how to use magic. They may have to gather materials to cast a spell, or they might need tools like wands, or incantations. Magic in these stories can’t do everything, and magical users will have varying degrees of talent.
You’ll want to use a hard magic system if you plan to have a protagonist with a magical ability. If your hero has limitless magic then they will be able to use it to solve any conflict they encounter. This will rob your story of excitement, and readers will lose interest. That’s not to say a character can’t use magic to solve a problem, but there should be some challenge in how they use magic. Magic should be a tool that requires skill and creative thinking to use. The Harry Potter series is a great example of a hard magic system.
Soft magic has no defined rules or limitations. In a world with soft magic systems magic users can do whatever the plot needs them to do with their magic. There’s no explanation on how they use magic, where their power comes from, or the limits to their ability.
So, when is a good time to use a soft magic system? When magic creates a conflict that your protagonist must overcome. In a soft magic system, magic should create obstacles for your character. This is often seen in the form of a magical antagonist, like Sauron in the Lord of the Rings.
Example: In Hyperion, technology creates the magic system. The tech is so far advanced that it might as well be magic to the characters. The most magical character in the series is a metallic monster called the Shrike. Again, he’s technological but centuries beyond the other characters. The Shrike is a robotic beast that can move forward and backward in time. He can multiply himself at will, and he’s seemingly indestructible. The Shrike also poses a major threat to most of the other characters throughout the series. The Shrike seems impossible to defeat yet the characters must defeat him.
Does your world use hard magic or soft magic?
If hard magic, what are the limitations of this magic?
If soft magic, who wields it and what trouble does it create for your hero?
Before writing your epic fantasy you need to know the political systems of your world. You’ll also need to know how politics create conflict, and what trouble they’ll create for your hero. With so many real-world examples, political systems are not hard to recreate. Here are a few common types of political systems:
Empire- the state is controlled by a single ruler. The Emperor or Empress has absolute say in what happens within the government. Empires can be made up of small states with their own forms of government. Smaller governments can be overridden by the ruler. Empires are grand in scale, covering vast territories. Emperors can be benevolent, malevolent, or uncaring.
Monarch- the state is ruled by a king or queen. Succession is determined by birthright. A family will rule for several generations. Monarchs often claim a “divine right” believing that god, or gods, chose them to rule. Again, you could have a kind or cruel king or queen. It just depends on the needs of your story.
Dictatorship- this is another system with a single ruler or dictator. Dictators don’t claim a divine right like a king or queen. Dictatorships are oppressive regimes where individual freedoms are strictly limited by the state. Dictators often come to power through political means or through military force. Dictators often rise to power in times of crisis and are not afraid to use violence for political means.
Democracy- In a pure democracy the majority rules no matter what. The rights of groups in the minority may be trampled by the rule of the majority. Decisions are made by voting, where almost every citizen takes part. There are no representative bodies like senates or parliaments. A pure democracy would work best with a small community.
Republic- A republic is like a democracy, but decisions are voted on by a representative. Voters elect members of the government to make decisions in their best interest. Republics are characterized by representative bodies like a parliament.
Theocracy- a form of government where religious leaders rule in the name of god or gods. There is no separation or difference between the church and the state. The laws are indisputable and governed by religious doctrine. A priest will be at the head of the government.
Federation- a government where several small states are organized by a central government. Each individual states manages their internal affairs. The central government usually outweighs the state governments. A federation will normally use a representative government as a republic. Each local government will have a say in issues that affect the whole.
Confederation- like a federation, but the centralized government is weaker than the local governments. The central government is mainly used for administrative tasks. It can’t override decisions made by local governments.
Oligarchy- power is vested in a small group of elite individuals. These groups are usually made up of people with wealth, nobility, or military power. Influence is passed from one generation to the next through inheritance.
There are many other types of governments beyond what’s listed here. This is an area where you’ll need to do some research and decide the political system that best serves your plot.
Politics also makes for strange bedfellows. It’s a great opportunity to insert some intrigue into your plot. In politics, everyone is willing to make a deal. Bitter enemies may put aside years of fighting to take down a common foe, or achieve a temporary goal.
Example: In Hyperion, the galactic “Web World” is ruled by a federal government called the Hegemony. Each planet has a representative that serves in a sort of galactic senate. Simmon’s takes care in describing the inner-workings of the Hegemony. He uses the Hegemony to illustrate the political infighting of his world. This infighting makes up most of the story’s B-plot.
What political systems exist in your world?
How did the people in charge come into power?
Are the rulers kind or cruel?
How does your character interact with the world of politics?
This is where a lot of the other elements start to come together. Obviously, governments will clash with one another. Different religions will as well. But, there are conflicts that arise within a single group. Differing ideas and traditions have caused splits in the world’s largest religions. This is also where you can also explore some of those ‘big idea’ themes.
To be clear, we’re not talking about conflicts between individual characters. We’re talking about larger conflicts that happen when different factions collide. How do these conflicts shape your world and affect your plot?
Example: In the Hyperion Cantos, the TechnoCore is a faction of AIs that live a non-corporeal existence. Yet, they still find ways to come into conflict with both the Hegemony and theocratic Pax. Both of these conflicts shape the plot and push it forward. The actions of the mysterious TechnoCore also set up many of the story’s later plot twists. And, even within the TechnoCore three separate factions of AIs that are at war with one another.
What groups are in conflict in your story?
What is the cause of these conflicts?
Is your hero involved in any of these conflicts? How? Why?
Culture is a peoples’ arts, achievements, customs, rituals, languages, history, and more. Anything that makes a group of people unique is part of their culture. What food do a group of people eat and why? Food is a huge part of life and shouldn’t be neglected in your story. What music do they listen to? Do they like to party?
Explore the unique people that populate your world. And get creative, because people are the most interesting part of any story. Like religion, you can use existing cultures, but only as inspiration. Be sure to expand on cultures you use as inspiration and create unique aspects.
Example: In Hyperion, we’re introduced to the Amoiete Spectrum Helix. The Amoiete identify by specific traits. These traits are represented by the color of clothes they wear. They also have triune marriages of either two men and a woman or two women and a man. This brings the Amoiete Spectrum Helix into conflict with the Christain theocracy called the Pax.
What different foods do people eat in your world?
What are the different customs of each culture?
How do different cultures interact with each other in your world?
What are cultures in your world based on? Race, religion, geography?
To understand all the conflicts of your story the reader will need some history of your fictional world. They don’t, by any means, need the whole story of your world. But, you should have extensive knowledge of your world’s history. Who has feuded with who? What cataclysms have the people of your world suffered? What big global or universal events have shaped the world? How are the politics, religions, and philosophies responses to those big events?
Alternate histories can also play a role in world-building. This where the author creates a story centering around a “what if” historical scenario. Like, what if the Carthaginians won the Punic War? Or, what if President Mckinley was never assassinated? These are the kinds of questions that keep us all up at night? Right?
Example: In Hyperion, the characters constantly refer to a historical event called the “Big Mistake of ‘08.” This was when a group of scientists accidentally created a black hole. This singularity destroyed the planet Earth. The event sent humans to live among the stars. As the story progresses we find out that there’s more to the “Big Mistake” than what history records. The characters must discover the shocking truth behind this historical event.
Create a timeline for your fictional world. On it write, in moderate detail, five to ten historical events.
Technology is going to be an important part of any fictional world. The tech you create will allow the characters to travel throughout the world. They will also use it to defend themselves, and discover hidden mysteries. Like magic, technology needs to have it’s limitations when in the hands of your heroes. You don’t want them to have a magic piece of tech that gets them out of every jam.
Technology can also add to the mythos of your story. Lightsabers are so much more than just a laser sword. They are a fundamental part of the Star Wars mythos. The right piece of technology can add mystique to your world. Technology and magic can also be combined. In the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling creates magical tech like broomsticks, port keys, and wands. Each technology plays a special role in the plot of her stories. And Rowling’s tech has clearly defined abilities and limitations.
Example: In Hyperion, people can travel simultaneously one planet to a next with portals called Farcasters. The most intriguing thing about Farcasters is that no human knows how they actually work. Farcasters are a technology gifted to humans by the TechnoCore. But, like any free lunch, the characters in Hyperion find that Farcasters come with strings attached.
What technology in your world makes life more convenient for your characters?
Are there any downfalls to using this technology?
What is the most valuable technological item your hero owns? How do they use it?
Worlds or Regions
Here comes the part of the story where you might want to make a map. Maybe you don’t have to go that far, but you need to give your readers some idea of the physical distance between locations, and where different places are in relation to each other. Think about your cardinal directions, and make sure your geography is consistent.
It’s also important to give each world or region one identifying trait. Hoth, in Star Wars, is a frigid ice planet and therefore easily distinguishable from Tatooine. Bravos, in A Game of Thrones, is a city built on capitalism where the bank holds ultimate power. This makes it easy to identify next to the medieval fiefdoms of Westeros. The point is, make it easy for your readers to know where they are in the story. No two worlds or regions should be exactly alike.
Make sure you know what groups are in power in each of these different worlds or regions.
Example: Hyperion is the titular planet of the Hyperion Cantos. Hyperion is a frontier world on the outskirts of the explored galaxy. It was founded by a group of artists who named the capital city Keats after the poet John Keats. Hyperion is very different from Tau Ceti Center which is the central human world. Tau Ceti is full of elaborate city centers. There are dozens of other worlds each with unique, identifying characteristics.
What are the different regions of your world?
Draw a map of your world in as much detail as you, but with each region identified.
Give each region one unique quality or feature.
Geography is a tool for creating boundaries and providing obstacles for the protagonist. Most fantasy and science fiction stories are going to involve travel. You don’t want your heroes hopping from one place to the next with a ton of ease. Your geography should make travel difficult in a lot of cases, but not impossible. A simple example would be a hero that needs to get from one kingdom to the next, but there’s a mountain range between. Your hero may have to climb treacherous cliffs. Or, they may face deadly beasts before they reach their destination.
Geography can also instill a sense of wonder in your readers if you can create something they’ve never seen. Take a normal piece of geography and imagine a way to make it otherworldly. You can create trees that stretch into space or a lake made of fire.
Take an example of a river from the Hyperion Cantos– the River Tethys. The River Tethys is an interplanetary waterway. It’s actually a series of rivers that connect across hundreds of planets via the Farcaster portals. When characters travel down the River Tethys readers experience ever-changing geography from one world to the next. It’s a brilliant way to combine imaginative technology with otherworldly settings.
Example: There are other geographical features that represent huge obstacles for our characters. Hyperion features a forest of trees that act as lightning rods and are constantly on fire. There’s also a sea of grass where giant serpents roam.
Add five to ten major geographical features to your map
What features pose major obstacles to your characters and why?
What features would instill a sense of wonder in your characters and why?
So, those are the ten key elements of world-building that every writer should consider when creating a fictional world. There’s probably more, and if you can think of any please drop that info in the comments!
Continued Reading on World-Building
To learn more about world-building check out Timothy Hickson’s On Writing and Worldbuilding.
And please check out the amazing Hyperion Cantos if you haven’t already. Truly, I can’t recommend this book series highly enough!
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