World Building for Fiction: How to Create a Believable World in 8 Steps

world building

Key Takeaways on World Building for Fiction:

  1. Define the Time Period: Choose a historical, present, or future setting.
  2. Choose the Location: Select the setting’s geography and landmarks.
  3. Determine the History: Develop backstory and past events.
  4. Decide on Technological Level: Establish technology advancement level.
  5. Decide on Customs: Create unique societal norms and traditions.
  6. Magic Inclusion: Determine the presence and rules of magic.
  7. Decide on Economics: Define economic systems and resources.
  8. World’s Laws and Government: Establish governance and legal structures.

I’ll never forget that feeling as a young boy, sitting with my older brother in the basement, completely engrossed in the Star Wars saga.

The worlds George Lucas created, from the bustling markets of Mos Eisley to the forested moon of Endor, had me utterly mesmerized. That was my first taste of the magic of world building, and my first glimpse into the vast universe of storytelling possibilities!

Now, as a writer, I often find myself asking, “How can I recreate that magic?” If you’ve ever felt the same, you’re in the right place.

In this guide, I’ll share insights into the art of world-building for novels, short stories, and screenplays, offering tips to help you imagine and write a realm that readers won’t just read about—they’ll feel like they’re living in it. Let’s get started!

How to World-build

infographic on the 8 steps for building a fictional world for a creative novel, short story or screenplay

1: Define the Time Period

time period

When you’re creating a world of fiction, one of the first things you need to decide is the time in which your story will take place.

Will your story be set in ancient times, in the present, or the future? Will it be a world of knights and castles or spaceships and aliens?

The time period you choose can significantly impact the kind of story you tell.

For example, if you want to write a historical fiction epic, you’ll need to choose a time with enough social and political turmoil to provide plenty of material for your story. There are lots of ways to draw inspiration from actual historical events!

On the other hand, if you want to write a light-hearted fantasy, you can make up your own history.

Deciding what time period to set your story is a significant decision. Make sure it’s a period that will allow you to tell the story you want!

In The Codebreakers of Bletchley, set during World War II, the story unfolds in Bletchley Park, England. The narrative centers on a dedicated team working tirelessly to decrypt enemy communications. The fate of the war hinges on their success. The story is deeply enriched by elements like the top-secret nature of their work, the use of period-specific technology, notably the Enigma machine, and the overall wartime ambiance. These aspects heighten the story’s suspense and the stakes involved.

2: Choose the Location

World Building Steps

One of the most important aspects of the worldbuilding process is deciding on the location and geography of your world. There are a few things to remember that will help you make the right choices for your story.

First, consider the type of story you want to tell. Is it a high fantasy set in a sprawling empire? Or an intimate story set in a small village? Or a dramatic piece set in a modern office building? The location and geography of your physical world should support the story you want to tell.

Second, think about the mood and tone of your story. A dark and gritty world will have a different feel than a light-hearted and whimsical one. Again, the location and geography of your world should support the mood and tone you are trying to achieve.

Some location-based aspects of your world to consider include:

  • The landforms and terrain of your world
  • Important bodies of water
  • Climate (is it a warm land? or a frozen tundra?)
  • The natural resources
  • Artificial structures (buildings, bridges, towers, statues, etc.)
  • Flora and fauna of the world (plants and animals)
  • Are there any examples of unique or memorable geography or landmarks that you want to have in your world?

Finally, don’t be afraid to experiment. Try out different options and see what feels right for your story. You may even want to go so far as to create a visual map of your world or territory, such as George R.R. Martin did for his Game of Thrones books.

There is no wrong answer regarding world-building, so have fun and see what you can create!

James Cameron’s Avatar presents an extraordinary setting: the alien moon Pandora. This world is characterized by its vivid bioluminescent forests, gravity-defying mountains, and distinctive wildlife, all of which are visually captivating in the film. More than just aesthetics, these elements of Pandora help to shape the Na’vi’s culture and their conflict with the human intruders. The film uses Pandora’s unique geography to bring together themes of environmental protection and the impacts of colonialism.

3: Determine the History

world history

Whether you’re world-building for a fantasy novel, a historical drama, or a science fiction epic, the goal is to create a real and alive setting. Here are a few key considerations that can help you decide on your world’s history.

  • First, think about the kind of world you want to create. Do you want a world that closely resembles our own or one that is vastly different? Once you’ve decided on the general feel of your world, you can start to flesh out its history.
  • What key events have shaped your world?
  • What have been the prevailing political and social structures?
  • How have the people in your world evolved over time?
  • Has the world always been around, or is it newly created?

By thinking about all these elements, you can start to build a rich and detailed history of your fictional world.

Think of the Hyborian Age, created by Robert E. Howard for his Conan mythos and how in-depth it goes into this fictional chapter of Earth’s history. It is so detailed and rich that it feels like it could have happened in our real world!

4: Decide the Technological Level

world technology

When world-building in fiction stories, one of the decisions you’ll need to make is how advanced the technology in your world will be. There are quite a few factors to consider when deciding on the tech in your story, especially if you are writing science fiction.

Do you want your world to be a realistic depiction of our own or a more advanced society? What kind of story are you trying to tell? For example, advanced technology is probably a given if you’re writing a space opera. But if you’re writing a historical drama, having characters using advanced gadgets and gizmos might not make sense.

Another thing to consider is how advanced technology will impact the characters and the plot. Will it make things too easy for the protagonists? Or will it create new challenges and obstacles for them to overcome? Will there be any artificial intelligence in your story?

There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to deciding on the technological level of your world. It all depends on what kind of story you want to tell.

Consider a different version of Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek, set in the near future rather than the distant one. The technology in this scenario would be much more similar to what we currently have, instead of the highly advanced tech in the original series. This change would significantly alter the way society and social interactions are portrayed in the universe of the characters.

5: Decide on the Customs

world customs

When creating a new world in fiction, one of the most important things to decide is what the customs and traditions will be.

To do this, consider the daily life of your characters:

  • What do they do on a daily basis?
  • What kind of work do they do?
  • What do they eat and drink?
  • How do they dress?
  • What languages do they use?
  • What kind of transportation do they use?
  • Is there a formal or informal class system?
  • What are the gender roles (if they have any)?
  • How do different social classes behave?
  • Other factors to consider include religion, education, and family structure.
  • You also may want to consider adding an unusual custom or ritual to your characters’ daily lives, as this can help make your story more memorable to your readers.

These elements can contribute to a fascinating and detailed world, full of unique customs and traditions for readers to delve into. For instance, in The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien crafted entire civilizations within Middle-Earth, each with distinct languages, rich histories, and customs. He brought an incredible level of detail to his creation.

6: Does Your World Include Magic?

magical elements

While there are many factors to consider when building fictional worlds, one of the most important choices is whether or not to include magical elements or a magic system. There are several things to keep in mind when making this decision.

First, consider the type of magic you want to include.

  • A soft magic system is one in which magic is not well understood, may be rare, and often has unpredictable results.
  • A hard magic system is one in which magic is better understood, is more common, and has more predictable effects.

Second, think about how magic works in your world.

  • Will it be used for good or evil?
  • How will it be obtained?
  • What are the consequences of using magic?
  • Is magic banned in any way?
  • Are there any magic or exotic creatures in the world?

These are just a few of the questions you’ll need to answer before deciding whether or not to include magic in your worldbuilding.

For example, Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher books establish in fine detail the various types of magic used and studied on the Continent, as well as the rules for who may use them and how.

7: Decide on the Economics

world economics

There are several factors to consider when deciding on the economics of your imaginary world. Let’s take a look at each:

  • What is the prevailing economic system in your real-life world? This can provide a good starting point for your fictional world, as you can then build on it or deviate from it as you see fit.
  • What kind of society do you want to create? Is it a utopia where everyone is equal or a more stratified society with a clear power structure?
  • What resources are available in your world? This will have a big impact on what sort of economy is possible.
  • Think about the needs and desires of your characters. What do they want and need from an economic system?

In Frank Herbert’s Dune, the role of economics takes center stage in the story’s world-building. The central plot hinges on the trade of the valuable resource, Spice. The economic aspects of this universe influence everything, from personal relationships to the interactions between different societies

8: Decide the Laws and Government

laws and government

When creating a fictional world, you must first decide what sort of government and laws will be in place. There are many different options, and the right choice will depend on the story you want to tell.

For example, if you’re creating a world based on real-world history, you’ll need to research the political systems of different cultures and civilizations. On the other hand, if you’re creating an entirely imaginary world, you have free reign to invent whatever type of government you like.

Either way, it’s important to think carefully about the implications of your choices.

  • What sort of society do you want to create?
  • What sort of people will live there?
  • What sort of conflict will arise from the way your characters interact with the government and each other?

The answers to these questions will help you to create a believable world for your story. For example, in the Judge Dredd series, created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, the systems of government and law enforcement are the drivers for the story world at large, especially as seen through the protagonist‘s eyes.

What is World-building?

World-building is the process of creating a setting for a story, typically involving the construction of imaginary households, cities, countries, cultures, or even entire worlds, as well as the creation of religions and political systems and the development of history and backstories for individual characters or entire groups. World building is popular for the genres of fantasy and science fiction, in particular!

This can be done through careful planning and attention to the smallest detail by the author, or much of it can be left up to the reader’s imagination. World-building is also a fun way to explore different possibilities and create something new and exciting for your novel, story, film, or even video game!

Whether you’re planning an epic fantasy saga or a small-town mystery, giving some thought to the world where your story takes place can help bring it to life.

The Importance of World-Building

World-building is like setting the stage for your story.

Think about it: in genres like fantasy or sci-fi, the world you create is where all the action happens. It’s where your characters laugh, cry, and go on wild adventures. By giving readers a solid, believable place to imagine, you make your story pop!

A good world can set the mood, pull on heartstrings, and even become a character of its own. Bottom line? A rich, well-thought-out world can turn a good story into one that readers can’t put down.

city during day

The Foundations of World-Building

1. Start With Your Characters

World Building Steps: create your characters

Characters are absolutely crucial to any story, which is why it’s important to dedicate some time to their development before diving into world-building. By fully exploring your characters and understanding their motivations, you’ll have the foundation to construct a more immersive and believable world for them to thrive in!

Start by asking yourself some basic questions about your characters.

  • What do your main characters want?
  • What are they afraid of?
  • What motivates them?

Once you have a good sense of who your characters are, you can start to think about the kind of world they would inhabit.

  • What kind of environment would best suit their needs?
  • What sort of people would they interact with?
  • What sort of challenges would they face?

2. Plan Your Plot and Character Arc(s)

World Building Steps

Before you start building your world, it’s essential to think about your plot and character arcs.

  • What’s the story you want to tell?
  • And what kind of journey do your characters need to go on?
  • What kind of challenges or obstacles do they need to overcome?

Answering these questions will help you create a world that feels grounded, even if it’s entirely fictional! By planning these things out in advance, you’ll save time and effort later on. You’ll also be able to ensure that your world-building supports your story rather than getting in the way of it.

So, take a few minutes to think about your plot and characters before building your world. It’ll make the whole process a lot easier – and more fun!

3. Decide On the Theme

decide on your story's themes

Deciding on the theme for your story before you start world-building helps to ensure that all of your world-building serves a purpose.

It can be tempting to get carried away with creating intricate details about your story’s setting, but if you don’t have a clear idea of the themes you want to explore, all of those details will be for naught. By taking the time to figure out what themes are important to you, you’ll be able to focus your world-building efforts and create a richer, more nuanced story.

So take a moment to ask yourself:

  • What themes are at the heart of my story?
  • What is the underlying message(s) of my story?

Once you know the answers, you can start building the world that will bring those themes to life.

4. Define the Setting of the World

world name

Before you start diving into the nitty-gritty of world-building, it’s essential to take a step back and think about the big picture.

  • What is the size and scope of your world? A single household or an entire galaxy?
  • What is the name of your world?
  • What type of setting is it? Where and when does it take place?
  • Is it a post-apocalyptic wasteland or a medieval kingdom? A historical world or a futuristic one?

The setting often defines the genre, so once you have a general idea of the feel of your world, you can start fleshing out the details.

blue and brown globe on persons hand

For example, if you’re creating an imaginary setting, you’ll typically need to come up with races, creatures, magic systems, kingdoms, and religions.

If you’re creating a dystopian society (like in these incredible dystopian films), you’ll need to decide what kind of government controls the populace, what sort of technology is available, and on what side of the conflict your main character starts.

By defining your world’s size, scope, and overall type of setting before you start building, you’ll save yourself many headaches.

RELATED: Check out this list of tons of story setting ideas for storytellers!

Examples of Great Fictional Worlds

1: The Hunger Games

Hunger Games

The Hunger Games is an excellent example of world-building. In the story, the nation of Panem is divided into 12 districts, each with its own unique culture and history. The capital city of Panem is a wealthy and powerful metropolis, while the other districts are predominantly poverty-stricken and oppressed.

Suzanne Collins details the different districts, their customs, their way of life, and how the capital controls them. This richly imagined world makes The Hunger Games an immersive and captivating read.

Further, this setting heightens the story’s sense of urgency and stakes, as the characters must fight for their survival and the future of their entire world.

2: Harry Potter

Harry Potter

One of the most beloved examples of world-building in fantasy novels is the Harry Potter series. J.K. Rowling created an intricately detailed wizarding world, complete with its own history, customs, and rules.

Every aspect of this magical world is meticulously planned, from the magical creatures that inhabit it to the spells that are used. This attention to detail makes reading the Harry Potter books an amazing experience. Readers can picture themselves attending Hogwarts, casting spells, and even fighting Voldemort himself.

It is no wonder that the Harry Potter series has such a devoted fanbase; Rowling’s impressive world-building makes it impossible not to be drawn in!

RELATED: Read my review of Dune Part 2 for more info on what a great story setting can look like!


As you can see, there is much to consider when creating a believable world for your fiction story. By building out your world in detail, you will make it easier for readers to immerse themselves in your story and suspend their disbelief!

So take some time, have fun with it, and consider all the fun options out there to build a world worthy of the story characters in your head!

world building for fiction

Questions About WorldBuilding

Why is world-building popular?

World-building has gained popularity recently, especially among sci-fi and fantasy writers. It allows the creation of a fully realized fictional universe with its own history, customs, language, and maybe even magic! This enhances the reading experience, making it more immersive and “real” feeling. It also lends uniqueness and originality to a story. Plus, world-building is just plain fun. It’s a chance to be creative and let your imagination run wild!

What is fantasy world-building?

World-building is the process of creating a story’s world. This can be done for various purposes, such as creating a setting for a novel or film or developing a fictional world for a role-playing game. The process often begins with creating a map of the story’s world. This can be followed by developing the history and culture of the world, as well as its flora and fauna. Sometimes, world-building can also involve creating new languages for fictional worlds.

What is good world-building?

World-building is crucial in literary fiction, as it helps to create a believable and immersive world for a story. Good world-building is convincing and well-thought-out, considering history, geography, politics, and culture. It should be grounded in reality, even with fantasy or sci-fi elements. The world must feel real, with logical laws and customs. Careful world-building can make the difference between a world readers want to visit and a world that just feels fake.

How do you create a fantasy world?

Creating a fantasy world is a blend of imagination and structure. Start by envisioning the big picture: the history, geography, and cultures of your world. Then, dive into details like magic systems, creatures, and societal norms. Drawing inspiration from myths, nature, and even real-world cultures can add depth. Remember, consistency is key; every element should fit seamlessly into your world’s logic. As you write, let your creativity run wild, but always keep the rules of your world in mind to maintain believability for your readers.

Interested in storytelling and ways to tell a good story? Check out these helpful articles:

How to Write a Story with Three Act Structure [with Examples!]

What Is the Climax of a Story? [Definition and Examples]

The Best Writing Tools for Fiction Writers (Reviewed!)

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