A bit of a disclaimer before we get started: I am neither an expert on the topic nor am I a hardcore planner. If you want advice from someone who fits that description, Jill Williamson has a fabulous series over on Go Teen Writers and a legit published book with tips on basically every aspect of creating a unique fantasy world, both of which I’ve read and highly recommend. However, I do have a method that works really well for me as a pantser/plantser. And if you are a fellow non-planner or you just want a technique that’ll let you do some planning without getting overwhelmed or bogged down in all the details, then hopefully my tips will help.
The Plantser’s Guide to Worldbuilding
- When you’re getting ready to write your novel, focus on what’s necessary. This is the key to my method. If you don’t remember anything about it, remember this: if something probably won’t significantly affect your story, don’t worry about it. Focus on what you know will affect your plot and you don’t get bogged down in planning every little detail, you don’t become overwhelmed, and you don’t have to search through pages and pages of notes trying to find the information you need. Granted, you won’t know very much about other areas of the story, but that’s fine. For example, when I created Udarean for The Way of the Pen, I focused most of my worldbuilding on the Authors and the Order of the Pen- in other words, the world’s religion. On the other hand, when I planned the world of Blood in the Snow, I focused a lot on the Bloodgifts, the ruling families of the two main empires, and the political interactions among different countries. I still know relatively little about the governments of Udarean or the religions of the Blood in the Snow world, but that’s ok, because those things don’t significantly affect my main characters or my plot. When I need to know them, or if I get a brilliant idea sometime, I’ll sort them out; until then, I don’t need to stress about not knowing.
- Know your storyline before you start worldbuilding. I’m not saying you have to have every scene planned out in excruciating detail, but you need to know something. I, personally, make a bulleted list of Significant Events and general plot movements that I think might happen. This plan helps me figure out what aspects of worldbuilding I need to focus on, which, as I already said, is vital to my method.
- Come up with a world concept. Or, in other worlds, know how to answer the question “Where is your world similar to?” For example, the world concept for Blood in the Snow is “fantasy almost-Asia.” Most epic fantasy novels have “Medieval Europe, but with X” as their world concept; for steampunk it’s usually “Victorian England, but with X.” You can also have a world concept that’s a mix of several places and times: Udarean blends Greece and Japan, and Aralan has elements of medieval, Victorian, and modern England and Germany. The world concept is useful as a jumping-off point for brainstorming culture, food, architecture, and so on, for research, for picturing your world, and, of course, for naming characters. That said, you do have to be careful to make sure that your world doesn’t become completely identical to the country or countries you’re using for your concept, because at that point you’re basically writing historical fantasy and might as well just go all the way and make it truly historical.
- Know your important places. So I said earlier to
just plan what’s necessary, which means that worldbuilding can look
different for every book . . . But that doesn’t mean there aren’t
patterns. There are certain things that I plan for almost every story I
write (or else wish I had planned!), and they mostly have to do with
place. A short list of locations you might want to think about:
- Country names. At the very least, know the name of the country your character came from, but it can be helpful to know what the surrounding countries as well. Knowing a few distinctive features about the culture or geography about each country is good too. For example, there are eight countries or regions in Berstru, and although I’ve only really developed about half of them, I know a little something about each one. (Pemew, for instance, is characterized by swamps; Arahad used to be a major center of culture but isn’t anymore; and so on.)
- Capitals/Major Cities. This one’s only really necessary in your character’s home country and any country they’re likely to travel to. Again, know the name and one or two especially distinctive things about the city. No need for more.
- Major Land/Water Formations if your character is likely to encounter or reference them. You don’t need to know every river in the country. You don’t need to know every mountain on the continent. That said, if there’s a major mountain range or river or something somewhere, try to have an idea what it’s called and where it is. This is doubly true if the place is somehow magical or especially culturally significant.
- Maps are actually super handy, if you feel like making them. They don’t have to be terribly detailed (most of mine are super sketchy, just rough outlines really), but they can help you sort out where countries are in relation to each other, where the cities are, mountain ranges and rivers, and so on. If you’re going to be working with a particular world long-term (e.g., over the course of multiple books), it can be helpful to make one.
- Build and adjust as you go. Sometimes, you discover that some element of your worldbuilding needs to be changed to improve the story’s plot, and unless that element is a major plot point in previous books, that’s fine. Change it, make the adjustments needed, and keep going. Sometimes you need to actually write about the world in order to really know what it’s like, and that’s fine too. Sometimes you come up with an insight about your world or a country or culture or region or something in your world after you’ve finished your story, or when you’re midway through the series, and that’s fine too. Jot down the idea, make the necessary changes, and keep going. In a lot of ways, your world is another character in your story. You can put details down on paper, but there’s always something you don’t know, always something you can discover, always a new way for it to develop. If you keep that in mind, world-creation goes a lot better.
Thanks for reading!
-Sarah (Leilani Sunblade)