The 6 Essentials of Sci-Fi & Fantasy World Building
Guest Post by David Michael Williams
We writers must know more about our story than will ever make it into the pages of a book.
That’s true for characters, plot, and—especially if you’re writing speculative fiction—the setting. Whether you’re conjuring a world for a sword-and-sorcery epic or an entire galaxy for your space-opera saga, you’ll want to spend a lot of time thinking about setting.
For one thing, your story will be a whole lot stronger if you can sprinkle vibrant details throughout. Conversely, if you leave too much of your setting unexplored, readers are bound to fall into the holes you unintentionally leave behind.
Yes, skimming over important aspects of world building can have dire consequences. Best case scenario: your setting is blurry. Worst case: you end up contradicting yourself—and even if you manage to “write around” a problem you didn’t anticipate, you’ll likely end up with a thin, contrived narrative.
So what’s the solution?
Work. Lots of it. But the good news is this can be a lot of fun. Heck, it should be fun because you’re writing about imaginary stuff, a heady fabrication brewing in your own mind. This is why you write speculative fiction. This is unadulterated creativity!
Well, mostly unadulterated creativity.
Since we’re talking about creation on a massive scale, it’s best to tame the chaos with a bit of strategy. This is the science behind my world-building exercise: start broad and then narrow in. It’s equal parts research (looking at existing cultures, both real and imagined) and brainstorming (piecing together fragmented ideas through sheer force of will).
I’ve broken down the process into a series of questions in six categories. Let the fun begin!
The environment is the space where your characters will interact. If you’re writing science fiction, it might actually be space. In any case, environment forms the foundation of setting. Whatever you decide here will impact every decision that follows.
- Are you writing about Earth? If so, how does it compare to the Earth your readers are familiar with?
- If it’s a different planet, how does it compare to Earth (e.g. multiple moons or suns)?
- What is the shape of this world? (It doesn’t have to be a sphere. Ringworld takes place on an artificial, ring-shaped construct in space.)
- What is the ratio of land to water? Is there a third option?
- What climates, terrains, and biomes are represented?
- Are the physics comparable to Earth? (In The Orville, Xelayans are physically stronger than humans because their home world has much more intense gravity.)
- Are there special landforms or natural phenomena worth noting (e.g. the Grand Canyon and Marianas Trench)?
- Is this a planet at all? Might it be a moon? Or an asteroid? A spacefaring vessel?
- Are you building several worlds? A solar system? A galaxy? An entire universe?
- Are there multiple dimensions or realities that intersect with one another (e.g. the physical world and a spiritual realm)?
- What is the name of your world or worlds?
The inhabitants of your setting encompass not only main characters, but also people or creatures your protagonists may encounter throughout your story. Knowing your characters ahead of time might give you head start here, but more likely, hashing out your “lifeform options” will give you more choices when deciding whom your tale is about.
- What forms of intelligent life exist in your world?
- If you are using any of the species (sometimes called “races”) found in traditional fantasy worlds, how does your version of an elf, dwarf, or ogre differ from all that has come before? (Use existing folklore and fiction as inspiration, not a template.)
- The same goes for extraterrestrials: how do your aliens differ from what Star Trek and Star Wars have already covered?
- What is the typical lifespan of each species? What do they look like?
- What about beasts? How do your animals compare to the creatures your readers will be familiar with?
- What about “monsters”? Are they merely ferocious animals? Are they intelligent? Something in between?
- Any unique plants (e.g. intelligent, dangerous, or magical)? Are there any unique fungi? Viruses? A completely new form of life?
Yes, history. Before your eyes start to glaze over, let me assure you that you don’t need to craft a complete timeline detailing every day from Creation to the present. (I suspect some world builders might relish the challenge.) Think broad strokes, for starters.
- How did your world come to be? Was it a random cosmic incident? Made by one or more gods? If a deity is responsible, why did he/she/it do so?
- What do you know about ancient history? How did the earliest societies form? Was it a peaceful beginning or violent from the start?
- What would the oldest living citizens remember?
- Has anything significant happened within recent history? Something catastrophic, like a war? Or something evolutionary, like a peace treaty?
Not every fantasy or sci-fi story needs to incorporate religion, but since spiritual beliefs guide many people and cultures, their absence could be conspicuous if you omit them entirely. The more civilizations you invent, the more variety is to be expected.
- If there is a higher power, is it a single deity, a few gods, or a pantheon of hundreds? How do the gods interact with mortal races? What are their natures?
- Or is there no one guiding destiny? Does that notion invigorate people or discourage them?
- Do the inhabitants of your world share a universally accepted theology? Do folks worship the deity of their choice from a common group (e.g. ancient Greece, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance)?
- Or are there many different, competing philosophies (e.g. A Song of Ice and Fire). If so, will the story reveal the “one true religion,” or will it be left to the reader’s interpretation?
- For each individual religious sect, who are the administrators (e.g. clergy)? Are they granted special abilities from their respective deities? Does every priest receive the same gift(s)?
- What do the gods demand of the clergy?
- What kind of influence does religion have over the populace? What do the people expect from the clergy? What do the clergy demand of the people?
- What do people believe happens to them when they die?
To be clear, I’m using the term “magic” to refer to any supernatural aspects of your story. It could be gods-given spells or amazing technology. (Like Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”) Magic systems tend to play an important part of fantasy and science fiction, so don’t skimp on the details here!
- What is the source of the supernatural in your world? Is it cosmic (e.g. the gods) or extraterrestrial (e.g. powerful aliens)? Is it nature-based? Science-based? A talent that draws from one’s own life force?
- How is magic learned and/or evoked? Prayer? Studying? Are any ingredients or components needed? What is the cost? (There should always be a cost—the higher, the better.)
- How does the average citizen perceive magic? Are they suspicious? Jealous? Do they persecute magic casters?
- Or does the populace accept magi? Maybe even revere them?
- If magic takes the form of technology, does everyone have access to it? How do aliens from more advanced worlds interact with those of less-evolved planets? Or with the have-nots on the same planet?
This category covers just about everything else, and you can get as granular as you wish. However, I highly recommend spending some time ruminating on language, governance, economy, and everyday life—for each culture you’re creating.
- How many different languages are there? How many languages does the average citizen know? What about ancient/dead language? Does magic or science have its own language?
- How do people of disparate cultures communicate? Is there a prevalent language (e.g. English)? Are there hybrid languages (e.g. Spanglish)?
- Are most citizens literate? Can they read and write? How important is education?
- What kind of government does each nation have (e.g. monarchy, oligarchy, democracy, anarchy)? How do the rulers wield their power? Are there checks and balances?
- How do religion and magic impact the government—and vice versa? How does a country police powerful magi or technologists?
- How is value calculated and exchanged? Is is a bartering or token economy (e.g. trading coins, shells, or some other substance)? Is money a more abstract concept (e.g. “credits” in Star Wars)?
- How advanced is society? Are we talking Stone Age? Dark Ages? Industrial Revolution? Does gunpowder exist? Nanotech?
- What are the most common occupations for a town, region, or country? What are the most prestigious roles? What are the least?
- What holidays are celebrated?
- What do people do for fun?
- What foods are prevalent? What forms of art are popular? What does everyday life look like for the common folk? What is considered normal? What is abnormal—and what are the consequences for being abnormal?
You survived the world-building gauntlet! Or you will. The odds are you won’t answer every one of these questions in a single sitting. It took me about eight hours to run through them during a recent world-building exercise. I didn’t figure it all out on the first try. There are still a few holes.
In fact, you probably won’t feel like you truly know your world until you actually enter it and start writing your story. The answers to the above questions—as found in your world-building document—is more like a travel guide than an encyclopedia. You’ll be able to visit your creation with more confidence than if you just popped in unprepared, but there’s still more ground to cover.
Now it’s time to be a tourist. Your first draft awaits.
Be sure to scroll down for info on David Michael Williams books, or check them out on Amazon!
Meet the Author
David Michael Williams has suffered from a storytelling addiction for as long as he can remember. His published works include The Renegade Chronicles and The Soul Sleep Cycle, a genre-bending series that explores life, death, and the dreamscape.
Connect with David
- Website: https://david-michael-williams.com
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/1MillionWords
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/onemillionwords/
- Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/14427025.David_Michael_Williams
The Soul Sleep Cycle
Welcome to a hidden world where gifted individuals possess the power to invade the dreams of others. Two rival factions have transformed the dreamscape into a war zone where all reality is relative and even the dead can’t rest in peace. Check them out on Amazon!
Book Three is available now!
The grave could not contain her grief.
Annette has devoted her life—and afterlife—to reclaiming her departed family, no matter the cost. To stop her from destroying the dreamscape, former enemies must unite and declare war on the so-called Lady of Peace.
But how do you defeat someone who is already dead?
If Dreams Can Die depicts the final confrontation between a death-defying cult and the CIA-sanctioned dream drifters sworn to defend the collective unconscious.
Available in paperback and for Kindle at Amazon:
Read more on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/45993852-if-dreams-can-die
Check out these other, awesome articles and interviews by David Michael Williams:
A Sneak Peek of If Dreams Can Die comes out on Tibetan Lemonade at Noon, PST on May 24th! Don’t miss it. You’ll be able to read it here once it’s live: If Dreams Can Die
Read sneak peeks of other novels in The Soul Sleep Cycle:
Praise for The Soul Sleep Cycle
“A blend of sci-fi and fantasy that manages to transcend both!”
“If fantasy, mythology, and a gripping read are what you are after, The Soul Sleep Cycle series is a must read.”
“Lots of twists and turns…definitely not predictable.”
“This is the kind of book that lingers in the back
of your mind long after you finish reading it.”
“A wild ride that kept me guessing
from beginning to end!”
“I couldn’t put it down.”
“To anyone looking for something fresh and unique,
I’d recommend this.”
“Easily the best book I have read in years.”
“Can’t wait for No. 3!”