As far as I read books, I met various worlds. Each of them has own size.

Middle-earth is very large and partially not limited (some parts are only mentioned). Discworld is very large, but quite limited - and what is more important, most stories take place in relatively small area (for example Ankh-Morpork, Lancre and so on). These two worlds come with people that have mostly common people size.

In the Carpet people, world is very small - but still relatively large in comparison with size of its people. The same (or at least very similar) situation is in SF novel Non-stop by Brian Aldiss.

So, my question is: How large can be world in comparison with size of its people? Or better, what size is the most suitable for story, in comparison with size of its people?

I really would not like to create my world unnecessarily large, even if I plan to let some area to be in fog of sweet ignorance (like hic sunt leones or miles and miles of bloody Überwald) to make it a bit smaller for its people, than it really will be.

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    $\begingroup$ Surely this depends on the story. Are you writing about a cartographer planning to map the world or about a library where every night the books come alive? In those two extremes the characters could be the same size but in the latter the world need not be larger than the library. $\endgroup$ Jul 21, 2017 at 7:40
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    $\begingroup$ I always wonder how some of it translates. Does the Effing Forest even have the same pun? $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Jul 21, 2017 at 8:13
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    $\begingroup$ You might get better answers on the writers SE, writers.stackexchange.com $\endgroup$ Jul 21, 2017 at 10:20
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    $\begingroup$ I feel like it's worth mentioning the Ringworld series by Larry Niven as one of the largest surface areas (a ring approximately the height of earth, but as wide as earth's orbit.). A dyson sphere would of course have even ridiculously more area than that. $\endgroup$
    – aslum
    Jul 21, 2017 at 12:59
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    $\begingroup$ @Lio Elbammalf What, didn't you know that all libraries in the multiverse are connected in L-space, so mapping a Library is much larger than mapping the world (even without the complications of wile grimoires). $\endgroup$
    – pojo-guy
    Jul 21, 2017 at 14:05

9 Answers 9


You're using Pratchett as your example so the answer is largely as he approached it.

The world is big enough for everything it needs to contain. He was deliberately vague about distances and directions. The only accurate map is the map of Ankh-Morpork (and the basic railway map) because as he says in the introduction to The Streets of Ankh-Morpork:

I've always been mildly against mapping the Discworld. It's a literary construction, not a place. I like to leave it vague. [...] You can be vague about the road to the Mountains of Mystery, but you need to know the way to the post office.

Areas are large enough to travel for days while small enough for Rincewind to run across at the speed of plot while being chased by everything and dodging the drop bears.

The details are only important when they help the plot. Everything is Chekhov's. The height of a tower only if someone is going to be climbing or falling off it. The distance to the next town only if someone has to ride it before dawn. You see a fixed distance to Überwald only when they need to build a railway there in a hurry.

Don't let the world define your story, let your story define the world. That way it'll all fit nicely with some far off places to spare.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 even if you posted just the last line as a one-line-answer. $\endgroup$ Jul 21, 2017 at 12:44
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    $\begingroup$ Consider how inaccurate medieval map actually were, they are accurate locally but absolute shit on a continental scale. take that as a reason to start with a smaller accurate map with a vague idea of were everything else is then expand the map as needed. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 21, 2017 at 12:57
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    $\begingroup$ @Mindwin let's not encourage one-line answers, please $\endgroup$ Jul 21, 2017 at 12:57
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    $\begingroup$ @jandvorak eh? is that really necessary? Let the votes do the work. And speaking that to someone that has as many gold badges as Separatrix is hardly encouraging anything (assume they know better). I'd upvote a one-liner before any 2,000 word wall of text tolkien-detail-level answer any day. This is not a technical stack. Loosen up. $\endgroup$ Jul 21, 2017 at 13:22
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    $\begingroup$ @John, the bigger problem is that once you start trying to make accurate maps of the Discworld you find that, like the Tardis, it doesn't quite add up. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Jul 21, 2017 at 14:51

Your fantasy world needs to be exactly 7% larger than the area your story takes place.

This, of course, is not true.
For your fantasy world, you don't need to bother yourself with those parts of your world where your story does not happen.
Consider Howondaland. Unless I am mistaken, it is mentioned at times, but mostly in the Almanac. Its size, its exact location and such is irrelevant. It has no part of the story, so there is no point providing those details.

Discworld would work just fine for many stories if it was only half as big as Ankh Morpork.

Consider a movie set. You don't see the part behind the camera. And you don't need to. You only need what little of the world the story takes part in. That means, you concentrate on the story, and describe as much of the world as is relevant for the plot, and leave out all the rest. It's not important, and you don't want your readers to get bored.


I find three aspects of your question that need careful consideration.

  1. Intuition about size You must play with Google Earth for a while to get a genuine idea of the enormous size of our planet. Otherwise it is very easy to make silly errors that people will detect. How long does it take to walk between cities, or to cross a plain to reach a mountainous region. How large and complex a city really is (hint: it does not consist of a few relevant streets). And how there are different size scales, like city size vs region scale vs country scale vs continent scale; they require different mental assimilation.
  2. Where do you want the action to take place It is not clear from your question, so sit to consider: Do you need to design a city like Ankh Morpork in detail because everything happens there? Or do you need to design a region in detail because the heroes go out on a quest?
  3. Size as a philosophical theme For me, one of the major selling points of Ringworld is the sense of wonder emanating from trying to conceive the size of the place. It is huge! And Niven makes sure to note how there must be more stories there than can be conceived by one mind, just by the sheer size of it: Loads and loads of places and civilizations that are just too far to reach each other. And of course you can go farther in size and conceive a galactic empire...

For comparison, let me point out that, even though I like the Star Wars universe, they get it wrong every single time in all these respects: planets have one important city and one climate, it takes the same time to move between buildings as it takes to move between planets, and the majestic size of the galaxy is pitifully reduced by the use of hyperdrive for the sake of moving people between exotic locales.


Larger does not mean better.

Anyways, fantastic worlds can get very huge. Larry Niven's Ringworld and Robert Silverberg's Majipoor are considerably bigger than Earth. Both of them are more Sci-Fi than fantasy, but this allows us to get a scientific idea of their size.

But any celestial body imaginable would be dwarfed when compared to a multiverse. Michael Moorcock was probably the originator of the idea of fantasy multiverse, and then other authors used this idea in their works (example).

I think Steven Erikson (with Ian Esslemont) is the current record holder for the most boundless and diverse fantasy universe.

But let's take a look at the practical meaning of it.

  • Large world can host bigger stories
  • Large world can appear boundless to the reader and create a sense of adventure that we lack here on XXI century Earth
  • Large world can imply that anything is possible in faraway lands, and the author can add new books to series, each set in a new country

On a downside:

  • If a world is inflated just to increase the scale: a kingdom with population of one billion might impress one reader, but in my opinion, it's just ridiculous;
  • Different parts of this world must be properly (physically and culturally) connected. This work is difficult and takes a lot of time from the author (take George R. R. Martin for example), and maybe taxing for the reader to follow.
  • $\begingroup$ Physical size should matter. If Saturn or Jupiter had a surface, you'd be crawling, not walking due to gravity. $\endgroup$
    – Lenne
    Jul 22, 2017 at 12:22
  • $\begingroup$ If our world is an Earth-like planet and we are bound by the laws of physics, then yes, of course, there are limitations. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jul 23, 2017 at 18:07

Fascinatingly, I see that most of the answers here are those better suited to a Writer's question. I shall give some minor insights on a Worldbuilder's question.

The interplay between people and world is a dynamic and reciprocal one. Nevertheless, it is possible to paint in broad strokes and then etch out the details on successive passes.

Character writers notwithstanding, there is also a certain pleasure in designing worlds with no plan to focus on major characters and movers. This is often seen when building for the sake of player exploration rather than for dramatic backdrop or prop — vis–à–vis for the sake of such as MMOs and LARPs.
Though you do not have any preplanned narrative in mind, you do need to plot out some of your expectations.


What is the cohesive scenario underlying your world? What distinguishes it from others? What others did you like, and wish to extend or rebirth or revise?
Is one half deluged and the other half arid? Maybe the world resembles an M. C. Escher tetrahedron. Maybe it is on the back of a spider.

Inhabitants are an important part of this, too. Do you want large aquatic beasts or small furry flying things? Is this a world of octagonal crabs or of many differently endowed varieties of worms?
Et cetera.


How much do you want your players — whether driven by users or by narrative — to focus on the finer intricacies? Is this a world of grand, sweeping vistas, or one of tiny pixies dancing under the applewood brackets on a rainy night? Do people prefer to travel far to ancient ruined cities across perilous distances, or do they struggle with innermost turmoil over the sacrifice of an unloved parent?
You can do both, of course, but a richly detailed world becomes very dense, even if designed fractally or algorithmically. Of course, don't forget to include some variation across the distances if you choose to develop both the vast and the minute.

  • Larger distances with less resolved details are often used as a platform for multitude or variety of encounters.
  • Tighter spaces with finely resolved details are often used to explore philosophy and emotional concepts.


Ah, yes. A world with no users is not like a star with no satellites. It isn't a sun warming some eerie landscape, nor a tiny star flickering in a crowded sky. It is more like an unvisited flower dying in the desert.
You need to choose a group of users by location or preferences. Yourself as a user is a good way to begin. The answer to that question is a bit of soul-searching, really: What world would you like to explore?


I'd think about your characters, and perhaps future generations of your characters, and how you will use the world. Do you intend to be using the same world ten years from now, IRL? Then you better make it big; no telling what stories you will be telling in ten years.

To me, the world needs to be logically coherent, but a "setting" is the best kind of deus ex machina. You don't have to explain why a talking coyote guards the cave leading to the elven kingdom, that's just how this world is. Or why your hero has to travel to Septima 7 to consult with a pedantic vegan Tyrannosaur on his warp drive modification. Or why his warp drive didn't do what he wanted in the first place.

In Star Wars, much of the plot and resonance is just about the setting. Luke is in danger in a cave (when with Yoda, he encounters the hallucination or whatever of Darth Vader), while Hans Solo is in danger in a cave (inside the giant worm they thought was a cave). Or, what idiot sets up a military base in Antarctica (Hoth the ice planet)?

Blah blah about strategy, but that was world-building too; making the best strategic place for their base so frikkin' inhospitable. Really Hoth was a deus ex machina, a setting to push Luke to use his Jedi powers.

We can think of settings as villains and helpers. The magic forest will try to kill you. The greenstone fountain will heal you. Ariel's castle is safe haven, if only you can get there, and she knows the secret to the maze you must get through to find the home of the white dragon.

but like characters, you don't want the settings to seem too conveniently helpful or harmful or powerful. When your character is confronted by an evil dragon, you don't have a witch appear, give your character a handful of powder that kills dragons, and then disappear, never to be seen again. Nor can the forest they have entered have some convenient suit of armor discarded in the forest, complete with magical sword, that they can use to defeat the evil dragon.

You are better off describing some far off lands and leaving the world vague (as it is for most of us IRL, anyway). Sketched settings can be like sketched characters; interesting and potentially worthy of their own story in the future, but just introduced in the current story to serve some plot purpose, like an excuse for knowing something critical, or to go somewhere.

Walking on the dirt road, they passed a thin path veering left, marked by a head-sized black rock. Callie shifted the sword on her back and nodded toward it. "That one there winds past the black mountain, a few days down, close on the Bent Village. My mother was born there. Said it was the most horrible place."

Marc looked down the path, empty to the horizon. "A damn small mountain, or more'n a few days. What's horrible about it?"

"She never says it, and too late now. Heard tell they mine crystals there, and the tunnels are like black glass, so you can see your spirit in them. Like on a smooth lake in the moonlight. Always wanted to go there."


A setting is a setting, but in many ways the world itself is another character. When your hero runs up against your villain, is he intimidated? Overconfident? Writing the villain a certain way to fit the story is natural, and so should be the world.

When your character is being introduced, the world may be vague and unending. A few books in your character could know the location of every bodega for a thousand miles. You'll notice two things: The size of the world didn't change and didn't matter. It is the perspective of your story that will drive readers.

To answer your question, the perfect size for a story is literally unknown, so as to prevent restraint while still being able to create an establishment.


As can-ned_food's answer points out, this question and most of the answers are from a writers.SE perspective. From a worldbuilding perspective, however, I think there's a lot to be said for the world being much larger than what's needed to tell a story.

Part of this is worldbuilding for its own sake -- some people really enjoy creating a made-up world, or coming to understand one that somebody else has created. If you're one of the people who likes this, there's your reason already to go ahead and make the world huge.

Beyond that, though, worldbuilding is valuable to fantasy writing as a way of forcing oneself to pay attention to internal consistency and plausibility. When you're writing a story set in the real world or something very close, you already have a context of history, cultures, economic systems, etc. in terms of which the plot and characters can make sense. In a fantasy world you don't get any of that for free. Do the livelihoods of your characters even make sense (economics)? How were they able to come to know the things they know about their world (education system)? Etc.


From a world building perspective, the size of your setting is determined by the needs of your plot. Larry Niven's "Ringworld" or a Bishop "Orbital" are vast structures, but for practical purposes the size is used to support the plot points, rather than totally driving the plot.

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The Ringworld is thousands of times the surface area of Earth, even immortal characters will need dozens of sequels to fully explore the place. OTOH, there are books and series that are set in small towns which seem to have a great deal of complexity inside the town limits (the mark of a truly gifted author).

enter image description here

Infinite possibilities exist here as well

So in terms of worldbuilding, think of the plot and then add whatever ambience you need , which defines the size, scale and scope of your world


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