World building can be a very fun and sometimes daunting task. Before we go into the specifics of world building, let’s see what makes world building so important in our book, tv series, games and movies.
The introduction & the course
In this lesson we look at why world building needs to be done in the first place. It will help you decide if you want to do world building for your project.
How does this lesson benefit YOU?
This lesson is important for you if you are not sure yet if you should do anything with world building. It will help you understand that you need to do world building, even if it’s just for small elements.
What are you going to decide in and after this lesson?
You will decide:
if you’re going to do world building at all for your project;
if you’re first going to build your world or first start writing/developing or do both in conjunction.
Why is world building important?
Every fictional book we read, means to give the reader a good time, maybe even transport them to another time and place. For that to happen, as a reader you need to be able to imagine where this place is, in what time period, what it looks like.
Let’s look at an example: I’m walking to the bakery to get a loaf of bread before I go to work. I cross the plaza and arrive at the bakery where there is luckily a small line of customers.
What does this tell you about the world the character lives in? Nothing besides the fact that there’s a bakery in it. This scene could take place in any book. A fantasy, a contemporary romance, even a science fiction story.
Let’s see what an adjustment might tell us about the world the character lives in:
On my way to the bakery I walk carefully on the cobblestones while avoiding the horses, carriages and dog carts that cross my way. This early sunny morning the plaza is already filled with small stalls where vendors sell their goods. Through the smell of the hides, cured meat and cheese and nuts I can just make out the delicious fragrance of fresh baked bread from my favourite baker. I hurry across the plaza and I’m just in time at the bakery to avoid being in a long line. I’ll have my loaf of bread and be on time for my work.
In this adjusted scene we learn a lot more about the world the character lives in. You may not know the exact time frame, but this is not our modern-day western world. We learn that there are enough horses, dog carts and carriages that our character might be hindered by them. We see that some goods we don’t find on markets nowadays, are there for sale, like the hides.
As a reader you can now envision the world of the character. Maybe you don’t know yet if it’s a historical fiction or a fantasy story, but we have learned a lot more. And that is why we need world building. These are details you as a creative writer not only need to know, but you need to convey that to your audience as well. That way you can not only give them a story, but you give them a world to disappear in for a while, even if it’s only during their lunch break. For a moment they are out of their daily routine, away from the stress and they can relax. It has just become a believable world.
When do you need it?
It doesn’t matter what kind of story you write, be it a short story or an epic one of hundreds of pages or even the background of your game or TV series/movie, every story needs world building. Stories set in a contemporary romance genre need it just as much as a science fiction novel that plays on a made-up planet.
As a game designer you need to be able to describe your world to your artists, quest designers and marketeers.
A TV series or movie concept writer needs to be able to pitch her project to investors and needs to be able to convey to prop designers and shooting crew what the world looks like. After all, you cannot have a Styrofoam cup in a world where people drink from wooden, porcelain or iron cups, goblets or tankards. Yes, Game of Thrones TV series crew, I’m looking at you here.
The only difference is how much world building you need to do to make your world believable for your readers, players or viewers.
In a contemporary romance you can say for example, that a character lives in present day New York and your audience will often already have an idea of the world the character lives in. That doesn’t mean, however, that your readers don’t want to know if the character lives in a busy street in downtown Manhattan, or in a quiet street in the suburbs.
World building or writing first?
Some will tell you that you HAVE to start with world building or your story will be worthless. I am here to tell you this is not true. It can, however, be extremely helpful to have at least thought about a few basic things. and it can save you a lot of time in writing the next drafts and editing.
Before you have a final version of your story, you can adjust it after your first draft. Many authors and other creative writers often include more world building in their later drafts. So, there’s no harm in not starting with world building. Starting with world building (maybe at the same time as your writing) can, however, give you an advantage during your writing process, because oftentimes the world becomes more alive for yourself as well.
Deciding on how your process takes place depends on how your story came to you. Did you first get an idea for a storyline or for a character or a world? When the storyline came first, you’ve probably already started writing. World building elements can easily be included while you’re writing your first draft and in later drafts. Did you get the idea for a character or a world first, then you might have to work some more on your world building to get a better idea for a possible storyline, if you don’t have that yet.
From my experience world building and writing go hand in hand. For my current Work In Progress (WIP) I knew I wanted a world that had dragons, dragon riders and mages. And I didn’t want it to have guns and cannons. I like the medieval period, but I didn’t want to limit myself to Europe alone (where you’ll often find fantasy worlds have their origin).
That was all I knew before I started developing the outline and the characters. I began to include more world building when I noticed there were things I didn’t know. I knew I had to figure out these things before writing my story, cause otherwise I could never make the world believable to my readers.
A look into Tergaenae
There was one big question I had: how on earth am I going to make dragons work in our modern-day world (without the guns and cannons that is)? I had no idea. I tried it, but I failed spectacularly at it. When I tried to find locations where they would live, what they would eat and things like that, I was stuck without a way out.
That is when I decided I needed another world. An older world. I looked at several options and, in the end, decided to go for a completely new world where I could do much more with not only the dragons, but also the mages.
This is how Tergaenae came into existence.
It is how the development of my storyline and character development partially influenced my world building.
Inspirational resources & the real world
I’ve also had moments where my world building influenced my storyline. When I looked at the places dragons could live, I found the Han Soon Doong caves in Vietnam.
These are giant caves that even have their own weather system! Photos of this cave inspired my layout of Dragon City, the place where the dragons would live and where the dragon riders would live. And where the palace of the Dragon Rider King would be.
It helped me solve the question how it was possible that the princes didn’t fully know about the physical health of their stepmother. They live with the rest of their squads in the Aeries, which are close to the entrance of the cave, whereas the palace is located deeper inside the cave. And thus, the princes don’t see their parents every day.
World as important as your characters and story
When we read a book, we are drawn to it for several reasons. For one reader it’s the characters, for another the storyline and for a third it’s the world. It doesn’t mean that the readers don’t care for the other things, they are just drawn to other elements. But in the end all three factors make up the entirety of the story. If you have amazing characters, but the world isn’t interesting and believable, readers will put your book away, stop watching the movie or playing the game eventually. They might finish it, but they won’t revisit it. They might not even remember any details of the story a few days after having finished it.
When a story hardly has any world building in it, it could literally play in any genre and time period, which will confuse your audience. It makes it not interesting and unbelievable. That is not what we want in our projects. We want our audience to come back to our projects and that is why we need world building.
When DO we remember things of a story? When it touches our senses. When we can imagine what the streets smelled like, what colour of clothing our favourite character was wearing, when we can almost feel the icy wind on our skin, when we feel cold ourselves when our characters have ploughed through meters of snow to get from the house to the barn to milk the cows. Or when they are soaked to the bone because they had to walk miles through the rain without any means of getting home faster.
That is why world building is so important. It helps us to create a believable world, characters the reader can relate to and a storyline that both makes sense and is fascinating.
Your lesson for today
Today the lesson is the same for authors, movie developers, game designers and TV series developers. It has two parts:
A: now that you know all this, decide if you want to take on the job of world building for your project.
B: if your answer to A is “yes”, decide if you’re going to focus on world building first or if you’re going to combine both the world building and your writing/development.
Do you have any questions?
Let me know! You can contact me through Patreon, my site and, if you have the right tier, Discord.
In the next lesson we will look at the world you can choose for your project.
Interior cleaner by day, Author & Game Designer by afternoon and night. Fantasy is my poison and I’m loving it. Dragons and magic play an important role in my world and to give it all free reign, I design my own worlds.