For questions about the process of creating a new world or changing and developing an existing one, as opposed to questions about some element of the world being created or changed. NOTE that this is NOT a generic, catch-all tag; this tag should be used to address process, meaning HOW you world build not what you are building. Don't use it if the question isn't about worldbuilding process. See also the extended tag information for when to use this tag.
Many novels, films, and games are supported by consistent, logical worlds.
World building is a complex process that ranges from the enormity of the of the universe to the complex web of life in a particular location. Some created worlds are a minimum of information, while others are rich in their depth and detail. Both methods, creating what you need and creating everything, are world building and equally valid/useful.
Many excellent examples of world building can be found in fictional universes created by people like J.R.R Tolkien, Douglas Adams and Orson Scott Card.
Whatever drives you to create a world, maybe you need a setting for a book, a table top campaign, a movie, or perhaps a video game, World Building SE welcomes you.
This guide has been prepared to help you along the first steps of creating your own world...be careful, you never know how deep the rabbit hole goes.
What kind of World?
The first question to ask is what kind of world do I want to create? The style the world takes on can be a function of the story you want to tell, or perhaps you are creating a sandbox in which countless stories can be told. The options are virtually limitless. Start by answering the following questions:
Will your story take place in the past, present or future when compared to the real world? Using the real world is really the only effective comparison for users/readers/players so it is a good baseline when creating your world. Some of the tags in this category are: historyalternate-historyfuturologynear-future
What technology exists in the world? Do you have sticks and rocks, do you have FTL travel and communication? A past, present or future timeline does not dictate what technology you have available in the world you create. Specific technologies may have their own tags. General tags include: technologytechnological-development
Is magic part of your world? If you do, how does it function? Magic questions can be difficult to ask as the answer can tend to be, It's magic it can do whatever you want it to. Utilizing the question sandbox on meta prior to posting on main is highly recommended. The primary tag is: magic
What level of scientific plausibility do I want. Scientific plausibility is not a requirement for a good world/universe but some people prefer things to be accurate. To support this the site has hard-science and science-based. When asking for scientific accuracy utilize these tags (read the tag wiki's for more details)
These questions are the basics of world building and provide the flavor of your world, from this information you can dive into the details and start creating content.
Here are a few examples of what the above process can give you, which is a sort of thesis statement for your world.
The Heroic-Fantasy World: Many fantasy races (humans, elves, dwarves, etc) live on an earth like world with medieval technology, filled with epic adventure, and never-ending wars. Monsters, magic and dragons exist and sew chaos against which heroes must battle.
- The Alternate World, is similar to Earth in most ways. Perhaps Hitler was assassinated in 1939, or antibiotics were never created. Maybe it goes so far as to add magic to the world as in Harry Potter. The tags earth-like alternate-earth alternate-history alternate-world and alternate-reality are commonly used.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and as you'll stroll around the site, you'll read about many different worlds stemming from the imagination of thousands of users.
Approaches to World Building
In world building there are typically two methods:
The top-down method. This method focuses on creating a logically consistent world in which stories can take place. You can start by building a solar system, or a creator deity (or pantheon of deities). From there you define the continents, then the nations, and on to cities and neighborhoods all the way down to particular locations and people. All the while you are defining how the world works. Meta ideas/concepts like technology, religion, history and magic are all flushed out up front.
- Setting is established prior to the story being told
- The world is guaranteed to be consistent
- Helps define settings that can be used
- No need to "create as you go" allowing the author to focus on the story
- The top down method is a major undertaking as you are creating everything up front
- You must consider most things that could impact your story as changing the setting can create complications down the road
- The "Rabbit Hole" phenomenon. You could spend an entire lifetime world building and never get around to telling your story.
The bottom-up method. This method focuses on what you need at the time. For some stories the only setting you need is a single residence or town. Think of this method as the fog of war path. As you create your story the known world expands to fit the narrative.
- This method makes the setting available much sooner
- Save time by creating only what you need
- Allows you to tailor the world to your narrative rather than having it locked in place
- You may write yourself into a corner where concepts or locations are not consistent with something else in your story.
- You must stop to define concepts and create locations as you go distracting from telling the story
Where do I go from here?
Jump in head first...or damn the torpedoes!
Unless you are starting from scratch for the sole purpose of creating a world odds are you have a story in mind. This is the best place to start because it helps define the world you want in some basic ways.
World-Building is a potentially massive undertaking and if you want to make the world logical and consistent you need to keep up on reference material. Being able to jump back to a system you set up, maybe magic, months ago and double check the rules will keep you from running into situations where things don't make sense together.
There are many ways to do this, the most common of which today is software. Check the software-recommendations tag to get an idea of what software is out there to help you keep organized.
As an alternative you can do it in a more traditional manner with written notes, storyboards and the like. No one method is inherently better than the other. Use what works for you...though keep in mind that if you are not progressing maybe you should try another method, what you like isn't always what is best.
Define the meta world
Meta as a concept is the story behind the story, the framework of your world.
Common questions that need to be answered:
- How was the world created, by whom (if applicable)?
- Is there magic (or magi-tech)
- What races/aliens/monsters exist, what are their general attributes
- Is the world Earth-like or totally different, basically what beyond how Earth works do readers/users need to know? Keep in mind sentient races, flora, fauna, geography, there is a lot of ground to be covered here.
Additional information and resources
At this point you probably have a good idea about kind of world you want to create as well as a basic understanding of the concepts the world will include.
Odds are you haven't found answers to all your specific questions, and that is why World-Building.SE is here. Do not hesitate to ask a question.
A few tags worth specifically mentioning:
- worldbuilding-process: As evident from this description the world building process covers how to build a world including ways to execute repetitive tasks.
- worldbuilding-resources: Answers could include, but are not limited to books and websites
- reality-check: is your topic realistic, believable, or plausible? This tag often deals with the idea of suspension of disbelief
- science-based: no hand waving, no magic: answer must be based on, or extrapolate from scientific fact, but scientific citations are not required.
- hard-science: A more restrictive tag than science-based. Before using this reviewing: A hard-science ultimatum is a good idea. Answers to questions in this category should include proof in the form of scientific proof be that formulas, math or peer-reviewed journals. If you don't require this level of rigor, science-based is often a better choice.