Saturday 26 March 2016

The Big Questions: Tips on Building a Fantasy World by Daniel Swensen #ChaBooCha

The Big Questions: Tips on Building a Fantasy World
by Daniel Swensen

Escaping to other times and places is one of the great appeals of fantasy. Fiction allows us to imagine and embrace the impossible, to dwell in worlds that defy reality and flaunt physical laws. As readers, we can lose ourselves in fictional history and immerse ourselves in nonexistent cultures. But as authors, creating a fantasy world from scratch can be an intimidating (and time-consuming) task. Where do you begin -- and where does it all end?

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, because I don’t think there’s any One True Way to build a fantasy world. The secret lies in finding an approach that works for you, experimenting with it, and not being afraid to change things up when you hit a wall. (Actually, I think that’s the secret to solving most writing ills, and it’s not much of a secret because that’s what I tell anyone whenever they ask).

Still, I’ve learned a few things in my twenty-plus years of building fantasy worlds for gaming and fiction. Here are a few tips to get you started on building a great, original fantasy world.

Ask the Big Questions

In my experience, the best first question to ask yourself when world-building is: how does this world differ from ours? If you’re creating a fantasy world that’s familiar but unlike our own (such as the pseudo-European-medieval setting that characterizes most epic fantasy), ask yourself how this world differs from those everyone has seen before.

This will inform many of the decisions that follow, and help you focus on the things that matter. No one really cares about how your world is the same. The appeal lies in the big differences and the little details.

You might  start with the broad strokes:

     A world like ours, but vampires and werewolves are real (Twilight, a whole lot of urban fantasy)
     A fantasy world with elves, dwarves, and dragons (Lord of the Rings, a whole lot of traditional fantasy)
     A faraway galaxy populated with aliens, galactic empires and advanced technology (space opera a la Star Wars)

Your question could also take the form of a “what if:”

     What if magic was real but hidden from the public? (Harry Potter)
     What if the universe was ruled by indifferent alien gods? (H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos)

The next big question might be: how do the differences affect the characters? The answer will vary depending on your chosen setting. A single big “what if” question can fuel an entire book or series. A world where magic is a hidden secret might not affect the majority of the population; a world where water is nearly nonexistent, or where people mysteriously float into space when they fall asleep, will affect everybody in big, impossible-to-ignore ways.

The bigger the “what ifs” (and the more of them you have), the more ambitious your world-building will be. The answers to these questions will likely shape the culture and history of your world.

Choose Your Approach

Now that you’ve picked a direction, it’s time to decide which way you want to build your world: from the top down, or from the bottom up.

A top-down approach means you build all the big questions and answers into your world-building on the macro scale. With this approach, you might write up history, outline major events of the past, draw maps, create figures of history and legend, and detail their lives. You’ll do this before you even get to your main characters and their story.

The background you create may never explicitly come into play in your prose, but it can inform character and narrative in rich, subtle ways. A great example of this is Lord of the Rings, the gold standard for detailed, voluminous history. You can read and enjoy The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings without knowing the details of The Silmarillion or the copious appendices -- but it deepens the experience if you do.

     You’ll have lots of rich, detailed history to draw on (once you’re finished)
     Material you don’t use can fuel future books or side projects.
     It can be a rewarding pastime on its own.

     It’s a lot of work (and a lot of time spent not writing your book).
     You may create material you’ll never use.
     The temptation to bloat your prose with historical details you spent so much time on can be huge.

A bottom-up approach starts with the characters and events you’re writing about right now. With this approach, you don’t write the history of the world and details about events happening far away. You only build as much world as you need, and you create the world as it becomes necessary. Faraway lands and past events can remain mysterious and undefined until you need them. This approach works best for stories that focus on character, or for what-if questions that are specific and localized.

     It’s faster than the top-down approach.
     Only build as much world as you need.
     This approach lets you stay focused on character and story.

     You’ll have to take good notes to avoid inconsistencies and contradictions.
     You might have more work to do in revisions (depending on how good you were at taking notes).
     Flaws and weaknesses in your fantasy world might reveal themselves as you write (this is not necessarily a bad thing).

Get Inspired (and Steal from the Best) 

Building up a fantasy world can be a blast -- but it can also be a lot of work, and (just as with writing prose), it’s possible to hit a wall and lose your inspiration. Don’t worry when this happens -- there’s a bottomless well of inspiration for you to draw from.

Here are a few things you can try if you’re feeling uninspired:

     Look at other fictional worlds (I like the Dictionary of Imaginary Places).
     Read creation myths, or brush up on your myths and legends.
     Fire up Google Earth and look at the architecture and geography of faraway places.
     Watch a good historical documentary (these can be great for generating what-if questions)
     Feast your eyes on some great fantasy art (Pinterest is a great place to begin).

Most of all, have a good time building your world -- if you find it fascinating and fun to build, chances are your readers will have a great time exploring it.


Daniel Swensen is a career freelance writer and fantasy author who lives in Montana with his wife and two spoiled cats. Orison, his first novel, was published by Nine Muse Press in 2014.


Today's give-away is a copy of the book Orison by Daniel Swensen. If you are a signed-up member of ChaBooCha, all you need to do to be entered into the drawing for this book is comment on this blog post. Winners will be selected from a random number generator on March 31st at noon (GMT).


  1. After this ChaBooCha mystery draft and then a chbk revision, I plan to get back to my fantasy mg which requires extensive world-building. I put it down last year because I knew it needed more research. The above questions should help Me get back in the swing. Thanks.

  2. Wow, great tips, Daniel. Thank you for taking the time to do this post. Like that top-down approach. I think I'll mix it with the bottom-up approach. So interesting.

  3. Excellent tips, yet to try this, but ideas are brewing now!

  4. Great post, Daniel. Thank you for the tips for both a top-down approach and a bottom-up approach to world building. So much to think about

  5. Daniel,
    this post provided me with much needed information and outlook. I especially like your suggestion to go to Google earth. i am starting a biography and looking at the topography of where it takes place will be helpful.

  6. While I don't write fantasy, I still create a world for my characters to live in... it's based on ours but often a mish mash of places I've been or can see in my mind. I find Pinterest can often help and will create a board with images I can refer back to.

  7. I really enjoyed this post and felt inspired as I read it! Like Melissa, I could relate to the imaginary place where my characters dwell. Thoughts to down or bottoms up? that is the question. Both have their own appeal. Thank you for sharing this wonderful advice with us!