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What is worldbuilding and why to worldbuild?

You can create anything, but what should you create?

If you like fantasy or science fiction—not excluding other genres, of course—be it in the form of books, TV series, movies or games, you have surely came across worlds very different from our good and old Earth. Worlds with magic, bizarre creatures, robots, brain implants, cities on the clouds, sugar-made kingdoms... and many, many other weird stuff.   All the inhabitants of this places, their culture, and even the places by themselves can be considered "the world". This world, even sometimes looking a lot like ours, needed to be created, modified, or... built. And here we got the name of the thing: worldbuilding is the process of creating fictional settings.  

Worldbuilding is generally the creation of new worlds that are different from ours. It takes elements from both reality and our imagination and merges them together to form a completely new world.  
Alphonse Cypher, creator of Cadmeia.
  Well, that's it. Thanks for reading.   Unless... unless you have some deeper interest (I mean, you are in a site called Worldanvil, right?). If that's the case, keep reading!  

Table of contents

 

What do you mean by building a WORLD?

Well, first we have to answer another question:  

What is a world?

If you said "a planet", you are partially right. That's because a world can be much more—or less—than a planet.   I'm almost sure it's not an official concept, but, for me, we can call "world" any setting that serves as a background to a story (that can take the form of a book, a game, a RPG campaign, etc), including all the elements that compose it. Sometimes, what we call a "world" may also be called universe, like Steven Universe Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars Expanded Universe.   A world (or universe) can have the size, the depth and as many elements as its creator wants, not being limited to the size of planet and neither necessarily being as big as one.   For example, Azeroth, from World of Warcraft, has the size of a planet, and is a world. But Panem, in Hunger Games, is "just" a country, and can also be considered a world in the context of the books. And the Galaxy, from Star Wars, is also a world, even encompassing many other smaller worlds within it.  

A house with many bricks

So, rather than the shape, the world is what is inside it. You can think about nature, like the creatures that roam the land, the kinds of plants, climates, the geology, the seas an landmasses. You can also consider the civilized people, their culture, history, language, religions and settlements. You can even consider more abstract elements, like the "mood" of the world, chaos, peace, etc.   We could say that a world is like a house (sometimes literally) and a house needs bricks, right? Our "bricks" are all the things that keep our world standing up, like:  
  • Characters, such as heroes, villains, the wise masters or the cabbage sellers, which will interact with the world and other characters;
  • Places (imagine a story without places!) in many scales, like cities, space stations, forests, planets and Grandma's house;
  • Creatures like mounts, predators, preys, parasites, plants and all kinds of living things;
  • Natural laws, like physics, climate, seasons and magic;
  • Culture, for example the religions, traditions and languages of a people;
  • The History of the world, telling us how and when things became what they are now.
  Many stories that you've been told certainly have something special in one or more of the aspects above, and they were created like that because those were the bricks the author needed to tell their story. Any relevant element needs to be created and/or placed in the world, and that's what worldbuilding is.  
For me, worldbuilding is crafting a believable world and setting to tell a story with; the world interacts with the story as well as the story interacting with the world. This story is hopefully a good one, and proper worldbuilding can and will bring it to life.  
SsethTheBard, creator of Obscur.
 

Why the hell would someone build a world?

Well, because it's funny. Don't you think?   ...   Ok, ok.  

The main reason, I suppose

If you want a better reason, know that, in most cases, constructed words are used to tell stories, giving them a solid and credible background. (But I'm sure you already knew that.)  
Worldbuilding is one of the main elements of storytelling, besides character creation and narrative. It forms a foundation on which your story is set in and your characters interact with the world around them. It is especially important to look at the relationship of the world, story, and characters and how they react to each other.  
Alphonse Cypher, creator of Cadmeia.
  For example, the feats of an assassin of the old days who loved parkour; the drama of a teenager who had to lead a rebellion after winning a game; or the journey of two little guys to destroy a magical jewel while their friends distracted the enemies with battles. All these stories have their own worlds, with their own and exclusive features.   Worldbuilding is tightly tied to narrative, and when you have a good worldbuilding, it's much easier to captivate your audience. A well crafted world has a big role keeping up the suspension of disbelief, making the audience "pretend seriously" that the story is real. For example, they will see that talking trees having a debate and, instead of saying "That's bullshit, trees can't talk", they'll be interested on their motivations and think "Hey, there trees really need to discuss that! It's important to save their forest!"   Just to warn you, don't think that these stories always need to be so "exotic", with magic and pew pew and bang bang. Of course, you are probably looking for fantasy or science fiction here (at least I am), but even a realist story that happens in a real city, like London, Tokyo or Rio, needs some worldbuilding if it's fiction. (But let's be honest, magic and lasers make everything better.)  

Other but not less noble reasons

Not always a person wants just to tell a story when worldbuilding. Sometimes, it's a way to learn about new subjects (as I hope you will learn here in Tailoring Worlds), and it's a total valid way. Why not study ecology by creating your own ecosystem, or economy by managing trades between two planets? You know what they say, you only truly learn something when you practice it.   There are also people who worldbuild as a hobby, to fulfill their lust for organization, to ease their stressed minds, have their own mini-reality where they can be gods, or just because they want. Believe you or not, creating things as a pastime can be very, very satisfying, and, as they say in r/worldbuilding, it's really taking escapism to the next level.  
Worldbuilding helps me stay a little childish—in the best meaning of the word. It keeps me creative. Also, I can create my very own world to get lost in, which gives me a place to be when the everyday life becomes a little boring.  
Kelban, creator of Lesho Region and The New World.
 

Worldbuilding can create everything, but it's not everything

Some people say that worldbuilding is overrated. I strongly disagree with that, and the reasons are just above.   BUT I admit that when worldbuilding becomes too excessive on details, specially the ones which are more useless info than flavor, it may be a problem. First, because it may distract you from the main point of your building, usually the story; you end up wasting so much time with irrelevant details that the main elements are left aside.   Second, because it distracts your audience from your work. It's always nice to have some flavor, but reading two entire pages about why someone must sit with legs crossed when at the table during a dinner with a general of a determined culture, with comparisons to other military ranks and other cultures not even related to your story, is a bit too much.   I may have exaggerated here, but remember that you don't need to create and detail everything in your world; part of the fun is letting your audience's thoughts fly and fill the gaps you leave. Of course, you can create as much as you want, but never forget the storytelling, the narrative, because it's also crucial.   So, why am I being so hypocritical giving so much attention to worldbuilding? Because I like to put a lot of description in my worlds; it's a part of my style that no one needs to imitate. Also because worldbuilding is the focus of this site, and this way I can cover many levels of depth.   You can always make less detailed worlds with instructions that cover the details in depth, but the opposite is much harder to do.  

What can I make with worldbuilding?

Well, everything!  
If someone can think of it, it can be done. I've seen scientifically accurate Flat Worlds, Dinosaur Noir stories, expansive Space Operas, and Superhero stories are all doable. Heck, even the backstory to a board game counts as a world, as is the case for Ironrise.     You can create impossible landscapes, towns or cities from your imagination, a whole new culture and their traditions—or a whole bunch of them.  
Kelban, creator of Lesho Region and The New World.
   

Add weird stuff

You can create places that look like Earth, but with a special touch. Maybe there are vampires roaming the streets or superheroes exploding skyscrapers. Or, maybe, magic schools for special kids or camps for demigod teenagers. And what about robotic dogs and time-travelling call-boxes? What is weird for us can be totally normal in another place!
 

Travel in time

What about going to the past and create worlds that look like a plagued medieval Europe, the rum-filled times of pirates or the steamy beginning of the Industrial revolution? Oh, you prefer the future? What about flying cars (I still believe they'll be real one day) a brain connected to the internet or interplanetary travels? You world can be when you want it to be!  

Go far, far away

Desert planets with giant worms, worlds with colored volcano-like colossal aliens, futuristic cities where everything is automatic, countries devastated by nuclear wars, lost kingdoms under the ocean... building your own world, you are free to go where no person have ever gone.  

Get a new favorite place

Sometimes, we end up loving so much a world that we wished it was real. We wish to befriend our heroes, walk on distant planets, fight the giant monsters, drink polymorphic potions, or, why not, just sit down and drink some tea with a hobbit friend. As your world takes shape, it will become unique, and, with dedication and some affection, it will be for you—and maybe for many others—almost as a second home.  
With good worldbuilding one can immerse almost any reader into the story and make them feel like they know this world just as well as their own world.  
SsethTheBard, creator of Obscur.
 

How do I start building my world?

Hey, that's the spirit! Show spoiler
(Really, there is a spirit right behind you! Kill it!)
 

The process of building a world

I say in advance: creating a world is not easy, since there is so much to be done. Of course, the process itself may change depending on your world's purpose, its size, complexity, the media it will appear on and many other factors; but it's okay to say that, to create a rich, credible and captivating world, it's necessary research, creativity, humility, and A HUGE LOT of hard work.   To manage that all, organization is vital, since you're probably going to scribble a ton of things. Happily, a terrific tool is just in front of you: WorldAnvil. Here anyone can make a wiki of their own worlds, which is simply amazing. And besides keeping work safe, here it's possible to check what other people are creating and get the feedback of the community, that is very active and very kind <3   And if you want a world to tell a story, it's also very good to have a direction, knowing what is essential and what can be left aside for that specific story (but you can always expand anything later if you wish). Directing the worldbuilding is up to the author, since every world is unique and needs different things. I'll give you some tips on this matter, but we won't go so deep yet.  

Just giving you a taste

We still have some things to talk about, but maybe you want to start right now. There is no general formula that will fit every world, but you can get a very good direction taking some elements in consideration:  
  • The main goal of your creation: what are you gonna do with this world? Play RPG? Write a novel? Draw a comic?
  • The size of your story: how big is your story? Is it a saga with many books? A one-shot comic? Something in between, not too big and not too small?
  • The format of your story: how will your tale be told? Will it be a novel? A virtual game? Maybe many independent short stories?
  • The size of your world: how big is your setting? Is it a house? A city? A planet? A galaxy?
  • The content of your world: this may be a lot, but think about what is in your world. Places, creatures, magic... What does is it have of common, and what does it have of special?
  • What you already have in hands: how much have you created for your world until now? Do you have an entire story? Maybe just a sketch? Or don't you have anything and just wanna see what happens?
  Try to answer these questions, if possible scribbling it somewhere and not just in your mind; think about how everything will fit, and keep it with you. We'll talk about some of these things in the next topic, but it's a nice way to start.  
I always suggest starting smaller. A character is always linked to a location, a profession, carries Items, is part of a species and ethnicity. I always suggest starting with 5 characters and simply answer their Name, Species (Ethnicity if important), Profession, and Place of Birth. Throw in two sentances of backstory and you've actually created a world at its very basic.  
   

What comes now?

Beyond that elements, we could consider many other things, like the mood of your setting/story, the tastes of your audience, recurrent themes and so on. There are many possibilities and combinations, as well as many authors and styles, and that's why there is no worldbuilding formula that applies to everyone.   But don't worry, my tailor, I'll help you.   The next topic, Starting your World, is all about the first steps before creating your universe. We will speak about some elements of your world, different "levels" of worldbuilding, the most adequate methods to get what you want, and, in the end, a guide that you can check to start building your world. Just keep an eye here on Tailoring Worlds!   I hope you liked the article and if so, there is a <3 button down there and could learn something. If you have any comment, be it a suggestion, a question or a critic, don't be shy to say it. We are all here to learn, after all.   Seeya later, guys :D

P.S.: I've been away for a ling time and for many reasons. I'm very sorry for letting you waiting, if it's the case. Now the blog is coming back and I hope we continue learning about Worldbuilding. Thanks a lot for reading!

TL;DR

  • Worldbuilding is how we call the process of creating a world;
  • The world, also called universe, is usually a setting that serves as background to a story;
  • A world is not limited by size: it can be as small as a fairy house or as big as a multiverse;
  • A world is composed by elements such as places, characters, items and nature;
  • The main reason to build a world is the creation of an immersive experience for the audience, but one can also build as a hobby or to study some area of their interest;
  • Too much worldbuilding can generate a lot of distractions and details that are just info, not flavor, so be careful;
  • Worldbuilding's final product is only limited by imagination: the world can exist anywhere, whenever the author wants, and host any kind of fantastical elements;
  • The process of creating a good world usually involves organization, a direction and a lot of hard work, be it writing, researching or just thinking;
  • The direction of your work needs to take some factors in consideration, like the format and size of the story, size of the world, it's content and previously done work.

HOMEWORK

  1. See the questions at the end of the article? Grab your favorite piece of fiction, be it a novel, a game, a movie or anything else and try to answer those questions using it as a base. You don't need to be so deep or write another novel; this is just for you to get an idea of how it works and break a masterpiece into more tangible elements.
  2.  
  3. Now, answer those questions again, now thinking about your world. Again, you don't need to be so deep or specific, but try to gather these basic aspects basing on your ideas. Keep these notes with you and see how they will change—or improve—with time.
  P.S.: Both activities can be "boosted" with the questions proposed in the last video of Complementary Material, just below.

Complementary Material

What is Worldbuilding? by GardulStories, a video with basically what I've said here and a little more. (By the way, for some reason, the thing reminds me a lot of WorldAnvil O.o)   What is 'World-Building'?, an interesting article about the history of this word.   Against Worldbuilding, a polemical but interesting article about the dangers of worldbuilding too hard. (Please read with extreme caution and don't get triggered.)   Worldbuilding Tips for starting your world, a video by WorldAnvil that gives more depth to what I said in the final part of the article.

Articles in this topic (Introduction)

Topics in this category (Worldbuilding Basics)

  • Introduction
  • Starting your world
  • Tools
  • Resources

Special Thanks

These guys helped me to take this blog a little closer to the community:   Alphonse Cypher, creator of Cadmeia;   SsethTheBard, creator of Obscur;   Kelban, creator of Lesho Region and The New World;   PatheticBarrel, creator of Variel and The Barrelverse.   Go and check out the amazing things they've been creating!   And also thanks R3negade X, for teaching me how to use anchors and put internal links (as in Table of Contents)!

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Comments

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15 Dec, 2018 03:39

As the guy who told you about how to use the url links to make a table of contents, I can say with 100% confidence that you have already mastered this technique. I am so proud! One thing I should mention is that I sometimes set it up so that when you click on where the table of contents link sent you, you got back to the table of contents, but I understand that that's not always practical, especially when the headers come before large amounts of paragraphs like they do here.   Speaking of, once again you've shown a great talent for providing information and tips in a way that feels as smooth and natural as drinking silk (FYI, don't actually try this at home), and the little bits of humor go a long way in making it feel relatable. All in all, great piece of work, and I wish you well in your future endeavors.

15 Dec, 2018 12:41

Have you drank silk? Don't know what to think about it.   I'm glad you liked it and I thank you again for teaching me that. In an article as big as this one, it's certainly a life-saver. I also thought about going back to the top of the page, but have yet to plan how to implement that.   Thanks for the nice words!

15 Dec, 2018 09:50

Really love the article and how you kind if touch on using worldbuilding to learn. I wouldn't know half of what i know if i didn't research it for my writing and campaigns and worldbuilding with that information helps me establish lore in a realistic way. It's super long but well worth the read. Great article

15 Dec, 2018 09:57

Also super sorry but 2 things i noticed while reading. I. the second paragraph of how to build a world, you have some grammar errors: i think u mean which is absolutely amazing and there is an is that should be an are.     Apart from this, an example of how to world build would be very convenient. Something i noticed when i started is all the how-tos are very broad. But few go into the nitty-gritty of it. I've had tabs opened to several places for research, images, etc for 1 article and i rarely see anyone discuss the complex ways you go from a simple idea to an entire aspect of the world.

15 Dec, 2018 13:01

Fixed these mistakes, thanks for pointing out! As I've said in the other article, I'm not a native English speaker, so anything you find and point me out will be well-accepted.   Also I'm glad you liked the article. Yes, one of the most exciting—but sometimes terrifying—things about this blog is how much I will need to learn (check the categories of the world). But learning is surely good for the mind :D   About an example of worldbuilding, that's really a nice idea. In the next articles I will discuss factors like world size, content and different approaches to build a world, so maybe creating a 'mini-world' as example (and who knows expanding it with the blog as i gather more specific info) could be good.   Thanks for the idea and the kind words!

15 Dec, 2018 10:33

Hi! Finding this article in #article-critique was a surprise, but a good one! Using WA as a blog platform is great, so keep it up! :)   I found it quite interesting for beginners. It was all "old news" to me (*shows of Vetern Worldbuilder medal*), but I enjoyed reading it anyway. It has the right balance between useful information/tips, jokes, and formatting variety to make it easier to process. Adding quotes is also a great idea.   I don't really have any criticism. I have spotted some typos/errors, but I forgot to note them down. I only remember this one: Here anyone can make a wiki of their own worlds, what is simply amazing. This what should be which.   Great job, thanks for sharing! :)

15 Dec, 2018 13:05

This mistake was also pointed by other reader, but thanks anyway! I'm Brazilian, so English is not my mother language and it's always good to improve it.   And thanks for your comment! These words really make me feel this blog idea is worth trying and can benefit the whole community.

15 Dec, 2018 11:36

This, this is an article. I feel like this truly is a rather in-depth look at worldbuilding with a lot of useful tips, some minor jokes and glad to see even some quotes being put by actual worldbuilders. It's expansive, in depth, fun to read and so on. Nothing more to say, this is truly done beautifully. I applause you!

15 Dec, 2018 13:06

Thank you very, very much! <3

15 Dec, 2018 13:10

Though, now to think: Perhaps you could make the one spoiler bit be done a bit better Now that's the spirit

No really, there's a spirit behind you! kill it!
Something like this perhaps?

15 Dec, 2018 13:16

Oh, didn't knew about this way to use spoilers. Double thanks!