M. M. Kastanek
Hi fellow world-builders! World-building is one of my absolute favorite parts of writing fantasy, but from talking to other fantasy writers, it’s the thing they struggle with most! I’m here to help you take your first concrete steps toward building your world. It isn’t easy, but your story will reap countless benefits from this extra work.
The 6 World-Building Categories
When I world-build, I focus on six main categories: Government, Civilization, Geography, Belief Systems, Peoples, and Advancement (I have in-depth descriptions and work-through documents on my blog). Below is a smattering of questions I ask myself when world-building.
What system of government does my world have? Does each country/territory have the same?
Is the system of government patriarchal or matriarchal?
What laws affect my character’s daily life and who enforces them?
Is the populace generally patriotic?
Are there taxes?
How does my main character get the goods/services they need?
Is there an organized military presence?
How does the government recruit people for military service?
Has your main character’s homeland ever been invaded?
Is history recorded? Is it generally known by the populace?
What languages are spoken?
Were the peoples who currently inhabit the land the ones who originally discovered it?
How is the culture of your world’s society evident in your character’s daily life?
Describe the literature, art, music, and traditions of your world.
What are taboos in your society?
What is clothing like and what does it tell about your world?
What seasons and weather does your world experience?
Are there any geological formations that are significant to your story/character?
Are there country/territory boundaries?
What animals/beasts are common in different lands?
What is the food like?
What natural resources are used in your world? Where is the main body of water?
List any important locations. Why are these important?
How are the lifestyles of people reflective of the weather/temperatures/seasons?
Is there organized religion? How is religion practiced?
What does your main character believe about the afterlife (is there an afterlife?)?
What religious texts are there?
How does religion interact with the government?
What strongly-held morals does your main character have?
How does religion and morality affect the laws and punishments of your society?
How many deities (if any) does your society have?
Do worshipers worship for fear of retribution or out of devotion?
Describe the appearances of your various peoples.
Can someone be exiled from society? How?
What are traditions or festivals celebrated by your main character?
What do different peoples/races/cultures think about one another?
What are the various magical races? What tropes do they follow or break?
What do relationships and marriages look like?
What is the typical family structure?
Are there class or caste systems?
What does your society use for light? To figure time?
Is there written language? Is it prevalent among all classes of society?
What weapons are used?
Are there collections of knowledge (i.e. museums, libraries, scriptoriums)?
What level of technology is your society at?
Does your society use magic? How is it used/regulated?
How are goods/materials transported? How about people?
How are things communicated within a city? What about outside of the city?
General World-Building Rules
Make your world real/believable/tangible - What?! In a fantasy? You have to make fantasy real? Actually, yes. This is my #1 rule. If you don’t read any further, I don’t care as long as you ingrain this truth in your head. Good fantasy relates to the reader. Whether that is through characters readers can connect to, a situation that hits home, or a reality readers see reflected in their own lives. Fantasy must be real and that is what draws us, as fantasy readers, to it. You can have all the flying green-tailed, eyeless, big-eared beasts you want in your world, but you have to have something that helps the reader connect to your story. This can be done in multiple ways.
Use the senses to evoke a feeling of reality in the reader. If your character walks into a crowded alleyway filled with the smells of paprika and pepper, knocking into the sandstone walls as passerbys in bright clothes jostle through to hawk their wares, you are instantly given a picture of this world and can then assume other certain features or create the rest of the scene in your head. This description gave the reader enough sensory details to connect to your world without overwhelming them with details that don’t really matter. It’s like a scavenger hunt - give them precise bits of information to lead them along a path. Let their imaginations do the rest.
Use certain tidbits of information that call to mind a relatable place or being. This helps connect the reader to your story and draw them into your world. I found this fascinating in Brent Weeks’s “Night Angel” trilogy. He describes the world with bamboo, ootai tea and rice fiber screens. What does this give you a picture of? East Asia. This helps you fill in the gaps for what the author doesn’t describe and helps you to connect to the story. It grounds you in an otherwise fantasy world. This especially comes into play when describing your creations. Bat-like wings, curled horns, or slit-like eyes all communicate something to the reader and put an image in their head by relating your creature to what they know.
Have a character or situation that everyone has experienced. Everyone knows the smart-aleck (so Hermione works). Everyone knows the grumpy old man (so Ove works). Have characters that readers know about and can think “oh yes, I know someone like that.” The key is to then change the narrative on these people the reader thinks they know. Sure, Hermione is a know-it-all, but she’s also very kind, adventurous, and loyal to her friends. Ove is grieving the loss of his wife - makes you think twice about that mean old man neighbor you have. Use characters and situations that relate to the reader to draw them in, then flip the narrative.
Set your world apart. There are certain tropes in fantasy that work, especially when world-building. But that doesn’t mean you can’t put your own spin on them. Have a female dictator as the bad guy. Heck, have a female dictator that’s the good guy! Create a setting like the equatorial Africa instead of westernizing it like most fantasies do (there’s a reason that southern Germany immediately evokes images for us of fairy tales). Find something about your world and make it unique. This can be challenging, but it will make your story stand out. That being said, fantasy tropes are tropes for a reason. Use them when necessary, but be aware of what those tropes are. Know the rules so you can break them!
Make it pronounceable. I am all for creating your own names. I don’t have a single “normal” name in my WIP. HOWEVER, you must make your names pronounceable if they’re to stand the test of time. Nobody can pronounce X!kenbshle, no matter how clear you make it in your pronunciation guide. Readers like hearing the names in their head. They like being able to talk about the characters. This rule goes for people, places, beings, and any other creations you’ve made. For the sake of readers everywhere, keep it pronounceable.
Don’t vomit all this information you end up discovering to your reader. Know and show. Know all this detail so that you can pull from it when writing. Show this through the eyes of your characters and their experiences. Don’t start us with five pages about how the government works in your society. Please. Just don’t. For all our sakes. For example: you know that your government is a democracy with a nymphic president. Don’t tell us that. Show your character going to vote and have him consider the names.
Make your world tie to your characters. See the story through their eyes. If you have an established character, build your world around them. Don’t make them so unique that they don’t fit into your world at all (unless that is the entire story). A character should fit into a world. Build your world around your characters. For example, I have a beast in my story that is essentially a humanoid cat (fur, ears, the whole works). I would not put this beast and its society in the desert. It doesn’t make sense.
I wish you all the best in crafting your world! Most importantly, have fun with it. If it feels like a task, your work will read like it! Spend some time imagining and get to know this world your characters live in. You might just be surprised when they speak to you.
Follow M. M. Kastanek on Instagram: @mmkastanek