Defining the purpose of your fictional world is a foundational and yet often overlooked step of worldbuilding. Leaving your world’s purpose indefinite and vague opens the door wide to overwhelm, lack of direction, and frustration with the worldbuilding process. But defining a world’s purpose can feel limiting–and how do you effectively frame the purpose of a world, anyway? Hence often overlooking or ignoring this helpful step.
Today I want to look at how defining the purpose of your world will aid you in the worldbuilding process and how to frame your world’s purpose effectively.
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The Prime Question: Why Define a World’s Purpose?
“Why do it? Won’t outlining my world’s purpose just limit my creativity and the scope of my world?”
Yes and no.
Defining your purpose with a world limits the scope of what you focus on developing, yes. But this is actually to your benefit. When you can clearly distinguish between which elements will further your worldbuilding purpose and which are only distractions from that goal, you can set aside all of the extraneous pieces and focus on what you really need. No more finding yourself stuck neck-deep in a rabbit hole that has no relation to your story or game!
However, your purpose with a world might change, and these limits you give yourself don’t have to be forever. If you’re working on a short story today, maybe you only need to know a bit of slang and the cultural trappings of your character’s immediate surroundings. Later, when you decide to write a novel from the same setting, you can focus on the societal structures and deeper cultural currents that are relevant to the story. Maybe then you decide this world would be great for a tabletop roleplaying campaign, and you realize that you never created a map because you didn’t need one, but now you have to know the terrain of your world. Limiting your scope for one project doesn’t prohibit you from building more later! And each shift in purpose will add something new to the world you’re building, enabling you to do more and more with it as you go.
These purpose-guided limits don’t have to be without exception, either. Maybe you’re focusing on your map and a general cultural overview for the sake of a D&D campaign, but you have a really neat idea for the fashion in this society and that’s a really fun rabbit trail for you. You’re absolutely allowed to follow that bunny trail! Worldbuilding is meant to be fun, and limits are meant to help with that, not hinder it. If the limitations are no longer serving you, take a break from them!
Now you know why it helps to define the purpose of your world. The first consideration as far as how to do it is the medium you want to work with. A novel will require different information from a tabletop game, which will require different information from a film, which will require… well, you get the point.
The first step of defining your world’s purpose is to determine which of these mediums is your first priority. So if you’re building for a short story, you can focus on a very particular area of your world. If you’re building a tabletop campaign, you might need a broader scope but you can probably focus on large-scale elements of the setting vs. the details. If you’re building for a novel, what elements you need to develop within your world will heavily depend on the story you’re telling; medium doesn’t lower that one down much.
But you can see that even if your medium doesn’t tell you exactly what to develop on its own, it does at least tell you what questions to ask next.
Study Your Story
In any medium, you’ll want to look next to the story you’re trying to tell. You want your worldbuilding to support and fill out that story. An adventure story, for instance, will require very different elements from a slice-of-life type of story.
Look at the overall structure of your story. Look at what settings are involved, how much travel the characters have to do, and the overall focus of your story. If there’s a lot of traveling (like in an adventure story), the geography, weather, and flora and fauna in your world might be high priorities, along with a map and knowledge of available travel modes; in a story that sticks closer to your character’s home, it might be more important to focus on the education systems, vocational systems, and everyday elements of life like clothing and architecture instead. If you’re writing a story that focuses heavily on the political arena or follows characters within your culture’s government (e.g. if you’re writing a story about princes and princesses and castles), you’ll probably want to know something about the political system and what officials hang around (e.g. who would make up your royal court), and at least have a vague idea of what diplomatic relations look like between your culture and others (as well as between the government and the people).
These are just a handful of examples, and these are not exhaustive lists of what to know for each example, but hopefully you can see that the type of story you’re telling will guide your focus as you build a world for it.
Think About Theme
This point does tie in with the previous to some extent, but it’s a separate consideration since you can cover one theme in a myriad of different story contexts–as well as a myriad of different themes within a single story type.
I think that worldbuilding is a powerful tool for exploring themes, but this has to be an intentional piece of the worldbuilding process. If there are themes that you know you want to explore within this world, think about what elements of the setting would be most useful for doing this. If you want to explore the sanctity of life, you might develop flora or magic that endangers life in order for your characters to wrestle with and/or combat it; if you want to explore the cost of war, you might build a history of war into your suffering nation’s backstory; if you want to explore the abuse of power, you might build a magic system with heavy consequences, a corrupt religious system, or an overreaching government.
There are broad possibilities when building a world with theme in mind, and I’ve barely scratched the surface, but considering your themes is another way to define the purpose of your world and use that to direct your worldbuilding efforts. Personally, I think it’s helpful to approach this in conjunction with the elements of your world that you’re most interested in developing–which we’ll discuss more in a moment. If you could build either a magic system or a political system to further your theme, but you find one option more exciting to develop, go with that!
Consider Your Characters
Knowing your characters can be an additional way to find direction in your worldbuilding. Who your characters are will impact how they interact with the world–and which areas of the world they interact with most–which can tell you where to focus your attention. If your character is really interested in politics, you’ll need to develop at least enough of your political system for your character to sound like they actually know what they’re talking about (or to clearly not know what they’re talking about); if your character is a craftsman, you’ll need to know what type of craft they participate in, how that craft is practiced (individually? within a guild? in a factory?), and what sorts of goods they create (for example, do carpenters work in architecture at all, or are buildings made entirely without wood, leaving carpenters responsible only for furniture or something else entirely?).
The characters around your main cast may require you to hint at other areas of your world, as well. A minor merchant character, while minor, will give some insight into the economy and trading operations of your world. These things don’t have to be fleshed out nearly so deeply if they’re not relevant, but it may prove helpful to develop a few details in a broad range of worldbuilding topics in order to give these moments a flavor more unique to your world, that ties in with what you’ve developed in more depth!
Want to learn more about developing details intentionally and giving the illusion of depth in areas that don’t need as much real depth? I have a whole lesson on this in The Worldbuilding Toolbox!
Invest in Your Interests
I’ve alluded to this point in previous sections, but I want to take a moment to specifically focus on it: Let your interests drive your worldbuilding!
We can’t always ignore the elements of worldbuilding that we don’t like or that don’t come as naturally to us (and we wouldn’t develop our skills if we could avoid those things!), but there are ways to focus your time and energy on the areas that you enjoy and spend less on the areas you don’t.
When you’re looking at how to build your world to support your story and you’re given two equally reasonable options–say, your character can start out as a tailor or a carpenter and neither has great bearing on the story to follow; or the “power corrupts” theme can be explored through either a magic system or a religious system–go with the one that you’re more interested in exploring! Maybe you like the idea of sewing fine, but not well enough to write about it enthusiastically, but you love the idea of exploring a guild system and carpentry fits neatly into that; the carpenter option is the one that you’re going to have the most fun developing and building out from, so follow that track!
In areas that you can’t avoid–or that you want to touch on for authenticity’s sake without spending days developing in-depth systems–find a method of developing that element of the world that gives you the most payoff for the least effort. As an example, I’m not big into language-building and I’m not interested in building complete languages for my worlds, but I do like being able to throw in bits of a fictional language to add color to the setting and a twinge of authenticity to the characters’ dialogue. As such, I’ve figured out what elements of a language can add the most color without requiring a lot of effort to develop (hence my post “The Lazy Worldbuilder’s Guide to Conlang“).
In cases where you really do need to develop something in more depth, but it’s not something you enjoy, try to think of it from a new angle or focus on a portion of it that you can enjoy. Maybe you’re not a fan of politics as a concept, but it helps to think of it in terms of the interpersonal relationships between the individuals in charge vs. focusing on the resulting diplomatic outcomes. Or maybe it’s the opposite! Maybe you don’t like the political posturing of national leaders, so you focus on the more general relationships between their countries and work backwards to figure out how the leaders might feel about each other. Or maybe you intentionally create a character to fill that leadership role who hates the political posturing as much as you do and you work out the politics through their eyes. Whatever the case, find your unique lens on the issue and work out from there! This not only makes the process easier and more fun for you, but it also helps to set your world apart as uniquely yours as you share it with readers and build stories within it, which is one key to great worldbuilding (another point that I cover in The Worldbuilding Toolbox)!
What About Worlds for Their Own Sake?
“But Ariel,” you say, “I’m not building a world for a particular project (at least not yet); I just build worlds because I like building worlds. How does this apply to me?”
Well, maybe it doesn’t. If you’re worldbuilding just to worldbuild, you may not need any of these limitations. “This world exists to be a fun world to build” is a perfectly reasonable worldbuilding purpose!
But if you’re getting sucked a little too far down the rabbit hole and your approach is starting to feel aimless, or if you know you want to have a workable world for sometime down the line even though your current focus is on exploration, there are some things you can think about to find the direction you’re looking for.
Option #1 is to go back to the previous point. Develop what you’re interested in! If you’re into architecture, spend some time developing all the different kinds of architecture in your world. If you find religious systems fascinating, focus on those. If you like building fascinating settings and locales, develop your geography for a while. Whatever your interest is, focus there.
Option #2: Develop one culture at a time. Pick one of the cultures (or people groups, nations, towns, continents… any smaller-than-the-globe portion of your world) and build it out in as much depth as you want to. Maybe challenge yourself to see how thorough you can be with that one society before moving on, or just develop it until you get bored and want to work on a different culture for a while. Either way, focus your attention on one area and make that your purpose for the time being.
Option #3: Use prompts. This is an approach I’ve used with Deseran on multiple occasions. Pick a worldbuilding prompt (I have a whole list) and answer it for as many cultures as you have in your world (whether that’s a super long list or consists of only 2-3 societies). For example, I might take the question of “When and how does this culture celebrate the new year? Or do they?” and develop 10 new traditions for my world, each for a different culture, and learn vital information about each culture I’ve answered for–or find ways to reinforce things I already knew about them through those new traditions.
Want more prompts? There’s an additional prompt list included in The Worldbuilding Toolbox!
Option #4: Think ahead. If you know you want to create something within this world in the future, keep that future goal in mind as you decide what to develop. Make your first priority exploration, but keep your second priority (whether it’s a video game, novel, RPG, etc.) as an additional guideline. Say you can’t decide whether to work on Culture A or Culture B; if you’re operating solely off of exploration, you may never choose, but if you know that you want to write a story set in Culture B someday then that can make the decision easier.
Record Your Purpose for Reference
I’m a big advocate for writing things down, because my memory is super unpredictable and I know I’ll forget important things if I’m not careful–and I know I’m not the only one.
Wherever you keep your worldbuilding notes (whether in a binder, in Scrivener*, in a Word document, someplace like World Anvil*, etc.), write down your purpose so that you can refer back to it when you need to bring your worldbuilding back in line or figure out what to develop next. You can include as much or as little in this as you want; whatever is going to help you keep on track with your purpose! If “I’m building this world as the setting for [novel title]” is sufficient, great! If you want to jot down some information about the different categories I’ve mentioned here–noting your character’s background or interests, your story type, your themes, etc.–go for it! If you want to include notes of inspiration, such as jotting down some worlds or series that you want yours to resemble, that can also be a help.
Personally, I love World Anvil’s built-in “world meta” page for this purpose. Here, you can see how I’ve used it for Deseran. This is yet another area in which World Anvil’s templates do a great job of prompting consideration of some really useful elements for developing your world, and I mentioned it as one of my favorite features when I did a World Anvil review a while back. But, of course, it can be easily replicated in another format to go with the tools you already use. (I promise I’m not just promoting World Anvil because I’m an affiliate; I became an affiliate because I promoted them so much on my own anyway, lol. But that is the end of my World Anvil sales pitch for this post.)
Writing down your world’s purpose will not only help you as you develop this world, but also as you consider whether to add new worlds to your roster vs. add new pieces to your existing world(s).
Now I want to hear from you! Comment below with which of these points was most helpful to you, and share the purpose of your current world(s), if you’d like!
Now that you’ve defined your world’s purpose, learn to build your world effectively and build a system that supports your purpose with The Worldbuilding Toolbox!
The Worldbuilding Toolbox is a 4-module course designed to walk you through the basics of building a world that is built on your interests, supports the kind of story that you want to tell, and serves as more than just a backdrop to your story–plus how to develop a system to get you there that is based on what works for you, not just what other authors say you should do.
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