Building Worlds

The techniques and strategies used by writers to create immersive and believable magical worlds for their stories.

Dante Alighieri
The One Power

What is worldbuilding?

In any work of fantasy, the Secondary World did not blink into being of its own accord. Somebody needed to design that world, working hard to come up with a setting, a history, a culture and more. This process is known as worldbuilding – the meticulous process of constructing an imaginary world.

Tolkien is probably the most famous example of a worldbuilder, but he was not the first. That title goes to Dante Alighieri, who wrote the *Divine Comedy* at the start of the 14th century. This work may not officially count as fantasy, but it definitely counts as worldbuilding.


Dante constructed a vision of the afterlife, complete with Nine Circles of Hell. Each Circle has a sense of culture and place, and together, give the sense of a Secondary World. Other writers have been building Secondary Worlds in the centuries ever since.

Choosing a template

Building a world from scratch takes a lot of time, which is why worldbuilders often use a real-life setting as a template. This setting functions like a canvas, with the worldbuilder painting new details on top until they create something fresh and unique.

The most common template is something known as pseudo-medieval: a romanticized version of the Middle Ages, complete with knights, castles and kings. A lot of Secondary Worlds are based on this template, but with some magical details, like wizards and dragons, added in.


Steampunk in another example. This template is based on the industrial era of Victorian England, complete with steam-powered machines and top hats. Shenmo, meanwhile, is a template based on folklore in Classical China. Even Tolkien used a template: medieval Scandinavia.


After choosing a template, one of the first things a fantasy worldbuilder adds is usually a type of magic system. Magic is not an essential component of a Secondary World, but if that world is meant to break the laws of possibility, magic is a good place to start.

A famous magic system was created by Robert Jordan for his world in *The Wheel of Time*. This world is based on a pseudo-medieval template, but with a type of magic called the One Power. This magic is channelled differently depending on the gender of the user.


A magic system will have knock-on effects on the rest of the Secondary World. For example, if magic can be used to make food, does the world need farms and farmers? If magic can be used as a source of light, does the world need electricity?


Many Secondary Worlds are inhabited by humans, but in a lot of cases, worldbuilders choose to add fantastical races too. Classic examples are elves and dwarves, but there are lots of different examples.


China Miéville’s *Perdido Street Station* uses a grubby, industrial, Victorian city as a template for its Secondary World. This city is inhabited by a number of species, including insect-like humanoids called Khepri, and a race of bird-people called Garuda.

Just like the general setting of the world, writers often use templates for their races. For example, Miéville’s fantastical races are based on real-world insects and birds. In other stories, like the *Harry Potter* series, the world is inhabited by centaurs, a race drawn from Greek mythology.


If a Secondary World includes different races, or even just different tribes of humans, it makes sense that these groups would speak some different languages. Some writers take the time to write conlangs – or constructed languages – to provide more depth to their world.

A notable example is Dovahzul, a language that appears in the *Skyrim* fantasy video game. It is officially the language of dragons, but it can also be used by other races as a means of casting spells.


Worldbuilders might use real languages as a template. For example, Dovahzul was inspired by Old English, plus some elements of Swedish and German. The written version of the language was based on ancient cuneiform, and designed to look like scratch marks made by a dragon’s claw.


When it comes to worldbuilding, a Secondary World can be enhanced by adding a sense of local culture. In the Primary World, every place has its own traditions, fashions and architectural styles, and a Secondary World needs these too.

A striking example is the island of Kekon, in Fonda Lee’s *Green Bone Saga*. This unique environment showcases a blend of Asian-inspired culture, with intricate descriptions of jade jewellery, noodle dishes, and other local customs.


In the same world is the island of Espenia; it has an American-inspired culture, which contrasts sharply with the cultural details in Kekon. In real life, even neighboring villages have cultural quirks, and different regions in a Secondary World should have cultural differences too.


A Secondary World will feel stronger and deeper if it features a sense of history. When a reader feels as though the fantasy world just popped into existence on page one of the book, it does not feel authentic.

In Patrick Rothfuss’ *The Kingkiller Chronicle*, the people living in the Secondary World tell stories and sing songs about historical events. There is a sense that these songs have been passed through generations. The entire world feels more real, and lived in, with this clear sense of past.


In fantasy writing, the history of the world is often referred to as lore. Sometimes, a piece of lore feels concrete, like the date of a historical battle. At other times, it leans towards myth and legend, like a song about how a tribe of gods created the world’s first humans.


Along with societal details, like history and culture, worldbuilders also need to consider the physical geography of the Secondary World. This includes the shapes of continents, the positions of mountains, even climate patterns and the location of natural resources.

The Al-Rassan setting in Guy Gavriel Kay’s *The Lions of Al-Rassan* is based on the geography of the Iberian Peninsula. The land is divided into different kingdoms, all of them competing for limited space, with the ocean pinning them on three sides. The climate is hot and dry, and two moons hover in the sky.

Some worldbuilders come up with visual maps to give their readers a picture of the world as a physical, geographical settings. This is especially helpful when characters travel, and readers need to know how far it is between the start and the destination.


Different approaches

When putting together all the different elements of a Secondary World, worldbuilders can take two very different approaches. These are often referred to as outside-in and inside-out, and they are generally just a matter of preference.

Using the outside-in method, a worldbuilder starts with a broader world, often thinking about the physical geography of the continents. From there, they start to narrow in on specific details, until they get down to the level of tiny villages, and the individuals who live there.


The inside-out method is the opposite. These worldbuilders starts with something niche and narrow, like a village at the edge of a forest, or even a single character. They expand outwards from there, fleshing out the world as they build toward a a global scale.

Inferred worldbuilding

When it comes to worldbuilding, one thing is certain: a Secondary World will always have some holes in it. No one has time to think of a culture for every single tiny village, or a unique geography for every part of the world.

To hide these holes, writers use a technique called inferred worldbuilding. This is when they hint at something, but let the reader fill in the gaps. For example, the story might mention a strange-looking hut. The reader will try to imagine who lives there, without needing to know that the writer does not know the answer.


This process is all about balance: give just enough details to make the world feel real, then let the reader’s imagination do the rest. Ultimately, constructing an entire world is impossible, but with inferred worldbuilding, a writer does not need to.

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