How to Build a World from Scratch

Hey, friend! Recently I’ve had a bunch of fellow authors reach out with their questions about the writing process. And I am LOVING it! I’m learning that I love sharing my resources just as much as I enjoyed researching and finding them. So, I’m going to use this space to discuss some of the most-asked-for topics. I hope you enjoy!

When I started writing Kingdom Above the Cloud, I had images in my mind of characters and scenes. I jumped right in, never considering important details about the world they live in. This caused so many headaches down the road! I didn’t know their history, currency, weather patterns, cultural traditions, spiritual practices, governance systems, or anything else! 

Honestly, the BIGGEST game-changer for me was that my best friend married a Dungeon Master and crazy creative story-teller. That’s right. Dungeons and Dragons completely changed my writing for the better! Playing D&D for the first time, I was amazed at the detail that went into creating a world, and Mark helped me figure out all sorts of things that were causing problems in my book.

There is so much to consider when creating a fantasy world. If I were starting all over, I would follow these steps.

  1. History

How long has your world/kingdom/village been in existence? Who founded it, and what were the circumstances? What are the wars, migrations, calamities, and milestones that impacted this location? You do NOT need to know what happened every day, or even every year, decade, or century. But you do need to know a general history of the BIG MOMENTS. 

A few years ago, as I told Mark about Adia, he said, “Hmm. So your world is pretty young, the way you are talking about it. It hasn’t been around for thousands or millions of years like most fantasy worlds.” This was a lightbulb moment for me! My world was indeed young, and that has become a foundational part of the story. 

  1. Geography, Weather, & Natural Disasters 

Grab some paper and a pencil, or check out my favorite mapping tool, (They didn’t pay me to say that! I just really love their site.). There is a free version that will suck you in for hours if you’re not careful.

Make sure you understand the lay of your land. This is a step I skipped at first, which spells trouble for someone like me who has no sense of direction. My characters were running amok all over the place. And if I didn’t know where they were going, how could my readers follow? Now that I have a detailed map, I reference it all the time while I write. It even inspires some of my story lines!

While you’re thinking about your land, go ahead and plan the weather patterns (are there seasons, or is it constant? Is it rainy or dry?) and natural disasters that might hit every few years. For Adia, it’s floods that come down off the mountains. It’s why my characters live in treehouses above flood level.

  1. People & Creatures

Who lives in this world? What are their races, religious beliefs, languages, heritage, and cultural practices? If you have multiple people/creature groups (Think about all the types of characters in Lord of the Rings, from hobbits to dwarfs to elves to humans and more), you may want to make a chart that keeps all of these important facts organized. 

For Kingdom Above the Cloud, there are two main people groups. I have the rustic villagers in Adia and the city dwellers on Mount Damien. However, the people on Mount Damien could be further divided by their economic class, from the poorest to the royals, since there would be different cultures for each of those groups. 

It’s a lot to remember! But it’s also a ton of fun to dream about these characters’ lives.

  1. Systems

The next level of world-building is thinking through the systems in place. My totally weird but helpful tip: Think through all of the different United States Secretary of ________. (Such as Secretary of Defense or Secretary of the Treasury) Use that list and think through what your world needs. You might not need all of them, but it’s a handy way to start thinking about the governance and needs of your world. 

  • State (Foreign Policy)
  • Treasury
  • Defense
  • Justice
  • Interior
  • Agriculture
  • Commerce
  • Labor
  • Health & Human Services
  • Housing & Urban Development
  • Transportation
  • Energy
  • Education
  • Veterans Affairs
  • Homeland Security

Think about the kingdoms in Game of Thrones. Those cultures are complicated and detailed, and almost all of the above areas are addressed in some way. 

  1. Magic

Is there magic in the world? Is that magic accessible to all, or just a few? Do they learn it, or are they born with it? Is it for good, evil, or both? Most fantasy worlds have some element of magic. It will be important to think through the rules of this magic and what it is capable of. 

This was a very tricky spot for me. I knew that my main villain had once had magic powers, but he lost them somehow. So, I had to create a magic system that could be revoked. I can’t give you any more details without a MAJOR spoiler, so I’ll stop there. But the moral of the story is: it’s important to know the rules of the magic in your world and be consistent throughout. 

After all of that planning, my last piece of advice is this: have fun. If all of that planning takes the joy out of your writing, throw those steps out the window. My hope is that this process will invigorate you and set you free to write stories with vast and fascinating worlds!

2 thoughts on “How to Build a World from Scratch

  1. While this is one of the favourite parts about writing a book, it’s also one of the most tedious, requiring lots of thinking and organising, as well as clippings for visual help. Love your tips though. Do keep writing and sharing more of them!

Comments are closed.