I’ve said this before, but there are many ways to approach creating a fantasy world (or sci-fi world). Should you work outside-in or inside-out? Should you use vignettes? Beyond the basics, what is the best order to take things in? Those are questions that are going to be unique to each writer (and potentially each world), so I can’t give you a concrete answer, but in this post I’ll show you a few of the processes I use for my own worlds.
Example #1: Aleruus
Aleruus is the world (or pair of worlds, rather) that I began building when I was first starting to write fantasy. It’s a world that drew a lot of inspiration in its early days from classic fantasy worlds such as Shannara, Hyrule (roughly Twilight Princess-era), and Landover. As such, it fits a lot of the classic fantasy tropes.
When I started out, Aleruus existed primarily as a vehicle for the stories that took place within its borders (though my fascination with worlds was clearly budding, as one of my kingdoms was built in large part to explore the areas of Hyrule that I was unfamiliar with and wanted to imagine more about). It didn’t have a lot of depth and I developed various aspects of the world as stories called for it; there were few elements that came about simply because I wanted to develop the world itself.
Nowadays, Aleruus is a bit more interesting. As I’ve reconstructed pieces of it, I’ve made an effort to develop unique details that set it apart from “every other fantasy world,” since I’m aware of its inherent weakness in that area. A lot of these elements have come about simply because I wanted to know more about the world, rather than to serve specific stories. I’ve also developed more concrete central values for each of the kingdoms in Aleruus, so that I have a very basic framework to go off of. But Aleruus remains largely story-driven. The largest number of its new developments occur as I’m writing and details come up that I need to explain or as I want to give characters a certain backstory that doesn’t make sense yet. Occasionally I’ll branch out from those details, but as I build Aleruus it’s largely a practical project.
Since it’s helpful to have all these practical notes in one place, they’re often immediately turned into World Anvil articles or added to my orderly Google doc of Aleruus notes. There’s little chaos involved in the process.
Example #2: Esleon
Esleon is my sci-fi world, and my method for this one is sort of a cross between my processes for Aleruus and Deseran (which I’ll talk about in a minute). Esleon has gone through some serious changes over the years; it was originally a fantasy world! At some point, stories came together and I decided to update some of my story ideas to take place in a sci-fi/fantasy version of our world. Thus began an exploration of how the world was significantly remolded, how survivors of a world-wide apocalypse rebuilt afterward, and how magic and mythical creatures would impact the development of society afterward.
Unlike with my other worlds, my focus with Esleon is primarily on a single nation: Concordia. So instead of a framework of cultural values, I mostly work off the timeline of Concordia’s gradual development. The worldbuilding starts out more of a post-apocalyptic fantasy blend and then gradually works its way into a more solidly sci-fi style (with superheroes and still a hint of fantasy).
Esleon is often story-driven, like Aleruus, with various elements appearing and being reconciled with existing details as they crop up in short stories or novels. But I often explore modern cultural issues (sometimes exaggerated) through the lens of this superpowered world (both technologically speaking and with regard to actual superpowers), thus exploring some details independently from any written stories. These can be inspired by current events, conversations with friends, hypothetical questions, philosophical dilemmas, media I’ve been consuming recently, etc. These most often impact the development of the world’s history and values rather than its technology or other tangible elements, but sometimes there’s overlap.
Since Esleon is a younger world than Aleruus, I allow myself more freedom to explore brand new ideas. There’s less fear of ruining what’s already established, simply because less is established. So it strikes a comfortable middle ground.
Notes on Esleon’s worldbuilding might end up slightly scattered as I jot things down in notebooks or various documents, but they (will) all find their way back to World Anvil eventually so that they’re all in one place when I need them for story reference.
Example #3: Deseran
Deseran is my favorite fantasy world. You’ve probably heard me use it as an example in many of my worldbuilding posts, since it’s the world in which I feel like I’ve hit my ideal process (and it’s the one I personally find most interesting).
While I call Aleruus and Esleon “story-driven,” I’d consider Deseran more “story-building.” Deseran started off small. I started with the core values of a small handful of cultures and began building from there. (I recommend cultural values as a starting point for development, since they’ll inform everything around them.) For a while, those few cultures were all I worked on. I explored the various facets of their culture; how they interlinked with one another, their history, their religions, and their conflicts both internally and externally… and over time those developments led to the creation of neighboring cultures, which then went through the same process.
Other cultures were developed based on the principles and habits I’d learned from my earlier work. I learned that free-writing about a given culture works really well for me (at least for this world), and that my habit of asking questions upon questions about interlinking issues can be super powerful when I just let my brain run. I learned that I love exploring worldview through fantasy cultures, since fantasy allows you to use a focused lens on a certain concept in a way that is difficult to achieve in different types of worlds. That led to the creation of entire cultures centered around concepts like pacifism, duality, exaggeration of focus on different elements of worship, etc.
I also give myself a lot of freedom with Deseran. I have a sprawling map that I’ve barely even started to develop yet, which leaves tons of room for additional cultures as I build, and they can be as varied as I can imagine. Shapeshifters who use animal skins to change shape? Why not? Put them in conflict with the culture that doesn’t believe in harming anything living. A nocturnal species that’s light-years ahead of its neighbors in astronomical knowledge (pun intended)? There’s space for them, too. Which means that if I come upon a seed of an idea, I can almost always fit it into Deseran somewhere.
With core values and concepts in place, questions will often crop up, either as I’m going about my day or as I’m writing stories. For instance, my legend of the Scarlet Wraith came together thanks to the question of whether one of the characters in Calligraphy Guild would know of any legendary heroes to name a pet dragon after. (The Scarlet Wraith turned out to not be a character Sairsha would name a dragon after—or even a hero at all—but the question was the necessary spark.) Having core values also allows me to use tools such as worldbuilding prompts to a fuller extent, since I can see a prompt like, “What is the most famous art piece in this culture?” and answer it based on what I know of their values. The best-known art piece in my artisan nation is very different from the best-known art piece in my military-led nation.
Notes for Deseran are much more free-form than my notes for my other worlds… and yet get into World Anvil more consistently. Deseran notes (almost) always start as ramblings in one extremely long Word document. A given ramble might only consist of one topic (one of my entries is only one sentence), others might jump around a good deal. Afterward, as I feel like it, I scroll through the document until I find a topic that catches my interest and I work on inputting everything I have on that topic into a World Anvil article so I have all of my related notes in one place later (and so I can share Deseran with others between now and when I’m able to publish more stories set there). If my notes don’t start as rambles, they start instead as World Anvil articles, either based on a World Anvil prompt (as was the case during a couple of their community events, in particular) or simply because I think a template would be more helpful for the particular worldbuilding element (for example, the Scarlet Wraith).
A few things do remain consistent over all of my worlds.
- Have a framework in mind (cultural values, a cultural timeline, etc.)
- Ask questions about the world
- Keep notes together (World Anvil is the ultimate destination for all of my notes, but there are several organizational options)
These are what I would say are the core of any worldbuilding process, regardless of what method you find works best for you.
Hopefully this was a helpful look at some examples of worldbuilding process!
What does your worldbuilding process look like? What is your favorite part of the process? What worldbuilding tools do you use?