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I've never tried building a world before. That is, I haven't tried to put it on paper. At most, it's just day dreaming.

Is there a generally accepted "best" way to start building a world? Or maybe a list of don'ts when getting started? Do you start chronologically with the formation of the world, or maybe start with a small town and characters and build the world around them, or maybe a single creature and what sort of world would be able to sustain it? I'm trying to think where to start but don't want to paint myself into a corner.

I'm not sure how subjective/opinionated this stack tends to be, so please let me know what I can do to make this question answerable.

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    $\begingroup$ Both are equally valid and depends on why you are building your world $\endgroup$ – TrEs-2b Jun 1 '16 at 2:29
  • $\begingroup$ @TrEs-2b If i had to guess... just kinda experimenting $\endgroup$ – Premier Bromanov Jun 1 '16 at 3:45
  • $\begingroup$ @PremierBromanov Some users have split their world into many different posts so they can deal with different aspects separately. As for starting, I'd start with a unique reason for that "world" to be special. Then build from there. $\endgroup$ – Simply Beautiful Art Jun 1 '16 at 11:55
  • $\begingroup$ Im torn between Too broad and +1. On one hand this definitely is a candidate for being too broad, there are just so many possibilities that could be answers, like every one mentioned in the question, but on the other it has a certain hint of wanting something very specific. There certainly is no Best answer, It depends on what your end goal is with your starting idea, with many paths to choose, but at the same time, even then there are things that are common amongst all the paths to take between those 2 points which could formulate a solid, specific answer. $\endgroup$ – Ryan Jun 1 '16 at 15:37
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    $\begingroup$ worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/3622/… $\endgroup$ – Tim B Jun 1 '16 at 16:01
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I used to work as a paid GM, and built many worlds, and have later been working on many other stories (both by myself and with others). And in my experience, the best way to proceed (again, by my experience, this is my method) starts with one big question...

Have you already started building a storyline?

If the answer is "yes", the best way to proceed is a large series of "why's, and what's" digging further and further back.

Okay, you have a princess... why? Okay, you have this kingdom... why? It was founded by a warlord... why? He got people to follow him, why? The problems they were trying to escape that got them to follow him... why? The land was in turmoil... why? Massive famine... what caused this? Massive crop failures every hundred years? Why? The goddess of spring leaves during that year regularly? Why?....

Then you follow up all the why's with "also results in..."

"The Goddess leaves... which means the famine is during a year-long winter." "The land was in turmoil in the snow... means the warriors fought well in the snow who survived." "Those who followed were battle-hardened, hungry, and weary, and fighting for survival." "These attitudes founded the kingdom. There's a tradition of utilitarianism, doing what's required to survive. Maybe your princess is drawn to the finer things in life, things of elegance, and is tired of the coldness in her land. Or maybe she's a warrior princess with battle scars. Or maybe she's weak, and an embarassement to her linage. Maybe she's an acolyte of the goddess and fears the next winter. How she fits into her society drastically shifts when you know the whys.

If the answer is "no", then the best way to proceed is from the beginning. Like, THE beginning. As in, "before there were people, before your world existed, what was the foundation of the universe?"

Was it a big bang or was it "created by gods" and if gods, where did those gods come from, how powerful are they, and what are the limits of their power, is the universe real or a simulation, is it the dream of a butterfly... etc. etc. Answer the deep philosophical question about your universe first.

Now the world... is the world created or is it the result of the smashing together of massive hunks of rock? What kind of sun(s) does it orbit? How far is it from it/them that affects temperature? It's tilt that determines seasons? Stronger or weaker gravity (and side effects?) Is it filled with obviously planned mountain ranges and regularly placed ore deposits or would it make more sense to design the terrain in a random map generator? How long as it been since your initial map was the case? Have the continents shifted, have geological events or wars of gods moved things (if the latter, why, what was the strategic purpose?) Shuffle your continents, see where your resources end up. Where did the dominant species on the planet (probably humans for simplicity and familiarity) start from? How did they spread? How would animals evolve for each of the regions? What got domesticated first? Who were the oldest, why did groups leave/split/etc? When did wars happen, why did they fight? How fast did technology advance? Which types of technology were most important? What's ahead of our world tech-wise? What's behind? What are the present day borders?

Also, addendum to that (you'll need to work on it where it fits in) Has humanity contacted anything other than humanity? Before figuring out how they meet, figure out where they come from and how they fit into the greater world. Okay, now that part done, when, with the two storylines, did they meet with their respective cultures? Work with both cultures seperately before they meet. How did the meeting go? How did resulting political events shape the political boundaries? Etc. etc.

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    $\begingroup$ Very interesting - do you think that a gigantic mindmap with all the possibly "why"s can be effective to expand my world? It can be potentially gigantic, but I can see some sense in it. $\endgroup$ – Katamori Nov 27 '16 at 3:32
  • $\begingroup$ For larger stories, I'll generally make the mindmap/geological history. Two reasons it makes for effective stories: 1. Early Consistency. Answering the max questions pre-story-writing helps avoid plotholes, and helps the world feel alive. 2. Creative boost. If your world's pre-built with monkey wrenches thrown in, many cliche tropes may get barriers from working, requiring different solutions. An ideal conclusion in a world designed to have an ideal conclusion is one thing, but a semi-ideal conclusion where the world's inertia fought it feels more real and satisfying. $\endgroup$ – liljoshu Nov 29 '16 at 16:05
  • $\begingroup$ One major effect, is when the world is built independently as possible from the protagonist, the writing changes drastically. Instead of, as the author, looking and thinking, "What's best for the story/protagonist here?" it forces the author to step into the protagonist's shoes and think, "CAN the protagonist win? I have these obstacles, what sacrifices must the protagonist make to win? Can/Should they make them? If they lose, how does the protagonist not give up? What was lost when they failed? How can they recoup? How will this affect otherwise uninterested parties who may now act?" etc. $\endgroup$ – liljoshu Nov 29 '16 at 16:20
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I don't know if there is one "best" way to start building a world, but I do have one piece of advice which would help with a remarkable number of troubled worlds out there:

Don't set anything in stone, unless you have to.

Recognize that your first ideas probably have some issues with them. Find ways to see how the world would act if those ideas were true, without requiring them to be true. Then, when you realize there's issues, you'll have left room to adjust.

Feel free to get it close to set in stone. Some decisions you make will have long lasting side effects that are hard to undo, but try not to do things you feel cannot be undone without ruining the world. Those are the things that get you in trouble.

In other words, you don't have worry about painting yourself into a corner, as long as you make sure you can just move the paint out of your way before it dries. This is worldbuilding. Levitating paint off of surfaces so you can escape trecherous corners is pretty much standard issue world building material!

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    $\begingroup$ That last line is so true in world building, made me laugh $\endgroup$ – Mr.Burns Jun 1 '16 at 12:18
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There's no best way, just as there is no best world and no best story.

Generally, people want to build worlds in order to tell a story. What sort of story do you want to tell? I can think of at least three categories of story, which depend on the level of particularity you desire.

The most general would be something like, "I want to explore a world which is 90% water, with wind-powered ships sailing between the islands." Right. Now you need to start from the top and work your way down. You really ought to think about weather patterns in the absence of large landmasses (storms with large fetches will likely get ferocious), just how big the islands are going to be (a few large ones or a whole bunch of little ones), and how shallow the oceans are. Umm, and anything else you can think of. From here you can start thinking about ecologies. Move on to creating your society.

At the lowest level, "I see a young woman, cast on her own resources by the death of her parents, making her way in the world." This, of course, mandates an entirely new set of priorities. Her society is what counts, and from that you start creating the tech level (low tech levels imply low agricultural efficiency, and most people live on the farm - just an example) to support your society. Of course, even a low tech level can have decent-sized cities (Rome, for instance) and you can take advantage of that. From there you fill in the physical aspects of the world, but these are less critical to your story (most of the time - but watch it).

In between, you might start with the society, and use individuals to illustrate it, "I see an egalitarian utopia, current tech levels, under threat by primitive invaders." Here the society (in the sense of the collective function, more than social interaction) takes center stage, and things like planet-building become less important.

With that said, it's easy to get things wrong. On the functioning of medieval societies, Poul Anderson's On Thud and Blunder is instructive. There are other articles out there on various aspects of world-building.

With that said, paying too much attention up front to the world is not necessarily a great idea. Most stories are about individuals, and to some degree you can always come up with details that support your story. Getting too picky about the setting rather than the characters is not a sign of a good story. Plus, of course, there's the matter of style. If you can get the reader invested in the characters early, and you keep the story interesting, you can get away with a lot. It's called "suspension of disbelief". You have to be careful not to drop some howler into the plot which breaks that disbelief, but that's a matter (as I say) of style.

Finally, of course, there's magic. With magic you can do pretty much anything to your world and (again, it's a matter of style) get away with it. If you want to do this, I recommend reading older fantasy for inspiration. The current fashion in magic is peculiarly constrained and mechanistic, and often worries about things like energy flow and sources. Trust me, this is a terribly limited view of how people can conceive of magic. Prior to, let's say, the last 20 to 30 years magic was commonly written about in much more powerful terms.

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I don't have that much experience in world building, but one thing I always try to keep in mind is: Why am I creating this world? What do I need it for?

If you are just creating a world in your spare time, as a mental exercise, go right ahead and ignore this. If you, on the other hand need it for, say, an RPG or a book, make sure you understand what that product is going to need from your world.

One example would be a short story. Since you are trying to tell a story and creating a new world for that purpose, there have to be something that sets it apart from the real world. In that case, I would try and figure out that 'otherness' and identify what you need to get there: Maybe the atmosphere is different or social structures developed in a different way?

I hope this helps you.

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What do YOU want to do? Why?

The first question is always: why am I doing this? What is my goal? What do I aim to achieve?

Four categories of answers usually turn up:

  • I want to tell a story, and I need the world for the setting

  • I want other people to use the world to tell stories in, or to play in it

  • I want to explore one or a few "What If" scenarios

  • I like to build worlds for the sheer creative satisfaction of it

The answer to this question sets a few rules for you when you create your world, and provides you with a goal that you should not forget.

Where you go from there almost deserves their own respective follow-up questions and their own answers. But this question - and its answer - should always be your starting point when you build a world.

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What if?

The first advise I would give you is to start with a what if? (or at least a question) and develop from there. Because from this first what if are going to come all the other questions that will help you build your world.

Take one of my personnal examples :

What if humans didn't shape the world but another species did?

This what if was at the very base of one of my favourite worlds among those I imagined. It immediately implied other questions :

What species could this be?

How would the world look?

Why is this species above humans in this world?

What are their behaviour towards them?

How do humans organize, what do their society/ies look like?

And so on. Every answer will build a new aspect of your world and small answer by small answer it will start to make sense.

My second advise is to avoid including things to your world for the sake of it. I have done this so many times and that many times I made my new worlds inconsistent and senseless.

While it is great to always have our new world in a corner of your brain so you can make connection between it and everyday situations, not because you think about something nice means you must include it in your world. You see a cool ninja film and that makes you want your characters to use shurikens ? Think twice. Why would they use shurikens; is that even relevant in your world ? Everything you put in your world must result from a question so that it is justified and useful in making our world consistent. Don't think about why your characters are using shurikens, but think about what weapons they would use and then if shurikens are the most logic ones, make them use shurikens.

As said Cort Ammon before me, nothing must be carved in stone and never hesitate to change things if you realize they just don't fit. Once, I invented a world that took me a year to develop. After one year if found it was just not right so I rebuilt it, keeping only the core elements. I know theses are difficult decisions to make because you get to love what you created, really quickly actually. But if you get to a point where you are trying to justify every inconsistent but cool aspects of your world with weird, forced explanations, you are going the wrong way. Even if you love a character, for instance, don't hesitate to rework, nay remove him or her from the story completely if you find out he or she is useless to it or makes no sense in your world.


Of course these are my personal advises and I am convinced everyone has their methods. Don't take my what if approach as the only way.

I hope it helped you :)

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