Fantasy Writing: World-Building on the Go

 So many worlds, so little time. 

World-building is one of the reasons that fantasy can be so attractive for writers. It allows them to experiment and meld new cultures, creatures, landscapes, and histories. However, sometimes the need to create a complete and perfect world may cause the writer to get distracted from the actual writing. This can be due to a reticence to engage in any actual story or to keep their world pristine and untouched from the eyes of critics and naysayers.

Well, I have an announcement to make.

My name is Philip and I’m a recovering world-builder.

There. I said it.


That said, there’s nothing wrong with world-building at all. But like anything good, too much of it can drive you in the wrong direction. Imagine you’re going to make a nice dinner for your friend. She really likes spaghetti so you sit down and prepare to make the most mind-blowing spaghetti known to man. She’ll think it was made in some kitchen in Naples after she’s done eating. So you get fresh tomatoes, grated Parmesan,  mozzarella from a special cheese shop, hand-make the pasta, and spend all day and night preparing for this special dinner.

She sits down and looks at it. “Wow, this looks amazing.”

You smile. You put a lot of work into this. So much work. She should recognize the aged cheeses, the pain-stakingly made sauce (you threw out five others before it was perfect), the pasta you spend rolling out with your hands for hours.

She eats it. “That was pretty good. Want to watch a movie or something?”

Pretty good? Pretty good! You just spent the whole freaking day making this dinner and all you get is pretty good?

To me, this is how extensive world-building can be sometimes. You spend all this time designing every single minuscule detail of a world only for the reader to probably not even realize most of it. Readers (and writers) almost always note that good characters, plot, theme, and style is what attracts them to a writer. I’ve never heard anyone say “I love George R.R. Martin. He’s such a good world-builder.” Well, he is a good world-builder, but that’s not why people love his writing. They’re engaged by the whole package, not just small, sometimes intricate details that go into world-building.

So, you’re a card-carrying world-builder. Perhaps you lament that you’ve not written a story yet to take place in this world. Well, I’ve started using a method that allows me to world-build and still write my story. It’s not revolutionary, but it works for me.

Step 1: Outline

I write a whole outline using the Snowflake Method (you can search it and find lots of info about it). Once my outline is finished, I have some ideas of who my characters are, what the plot is, etc. This outline doesn’t have to be meticulously planned if that’s not your style. Just enough to get you going.

Step 2: Start Writing

Huh? What? Where does the world-building come in? It comes in on a micro scale instead of a macro one. Start with a town, a cave, a sweltering jungle. What kind of people live there? Humans? Elves? Jaguar people? It is a peaceful place? Why are your characters there?

Jot down a handful of questions before you actually start writing the chapter (pre-writing). As you’re writing, try to answer these burning questions to yourself. If you’ve come up with a creature, you can use what I call the “Random Crap Notes.” I write a brief description of the creature (appearance, behavior, etc.) and that’s it. As I’m writing, I develop the creature even more. Perhaps I don’t like the creature later on in the story. That’s fine. Make a note about it and go back and adjust it in whatever you need to. Don’t forget to sprinkle pixie dust on it (or highlight it, whatever)!

Step 3: Explore

Since you already have your outline, use it as your map. If you know of two countries who are at war, then you can do a little cheating and draw a rough map. Just something to whet your whistle. Then you can see where your characters are going to go and what they’re going to do.

For example:

1. Jeric and Maldrake leave Icelick City and head for Mt. Sadheart.
2. At Mt. Sadheart, Jeric is wounded by a snow wyrm and Maldrake has to treat his wounds in an ice troll’s cave.

OK, so you don’t need much here to go forward. Just this:

1. Why are Jeric and Maldrake in Icelick City? What’s it like? What are the locals like? Does any conflict happen there?
2. Why are they going to Mt. Sadheart? What’s it like? Are there any features to be aware of (weather, monsters, bandits, landslides)?
3. How was Jeric wounded? What is a snow wyrm? Is it poisonous? Why did it attack them?
4. Is the ice troll cave abandoned? Is the ice troll coming back? What do ice trolls think about stinky humans resting in their homes? Does it rip their arms off or slink back into an ice storm?

Of course you can come up with your own pertinent questions that you think work for your style of writing. By answering these questions you’re doing a good deal of world-building. Just enough to keep your story moving.

Step 4: First Draft Finished? World-Build to Hell and Back

If you’ve finished your first draft you have done what a lot of people haven’t. You’ve finished a story. Well, sort of. You’re not finished yet. Now it’s time to edit.


Yes. Edit.

When editing, this is when you can really let loose with the world-building. If you’re not happy with the attack pattern of a pack of crazed blood demons, develop them more. Change it. Make it work for you.

Want to really hammer home the politics of some of your countries? Well, since you’ve already written the first draft, you should have a sense of how some of them work already. You can beef it up, give it a fresh coat, whatever you like.

And that’s it!

So this method may not work for you, but if you’ve been hung up on world-building for a while, perhaps trying a reverse approach it can help you develop your world as you go. This can add some excitement that may have been missing from your project since you already know the mating patterns of wyverns and their migration activities.

Once again, I love world-building. I really do. But it was an addiction I had to kick in order to get stories written.

So what do you think? Does world-building extensively help you create a better story or do you think developing things as you go might encourage you to power through that first draft?