4 Tips for Worldbuilding Success

fantasy worldThis article is by Katie Cross.

It was so hot that summer, I would have preferred vomiting barbed wire to walking outside.

The air was muggy and thick with humidity so high that a permanent haze settled in like a fog. I didn’t see my thermostat go below 80 degrees for far too long, even with air conditioning.

Living in a two-story red brick house in southern Georgia, I had a lot of great story ideas stuck in my head. I was brimming to the point it was paralyzing. There were so many ideas! I started on one tangent, just to start to explore another.

The scene was bitter cold, with snow and frosty windowpanes. Or …. was it supposed to be hot and arid? Wasn’t my character chasing a dragon? Yes, but they got lost on a trail and found a flow. Wait, that pink flower is poisonous. Or was it the one that turned into an umbrella when touched? Oh, this part of the world is swamp… or is it mountains? Definitely the mountains, the ones I put on the east coast… or was it the west coast?

Get the idea?

Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the heat addling my brain. It was an overabundance of ideas. The problem started when I realized that I kept trying to write the story, but my make-believe world got in the way. I’d sit at my keyboard and try to figure out where in my world I was, or my characters were, only to realize I was lost in a place of my own making.

It happens far more often than I care to admit.

Have you found yourself so bogged down in your own jungle that you didn’t know how to hack your way out?

I offer four suggestions to swim your way out of this murky mess. (Trust me: I get it. This doesn’t apply to everyone. Some people can’t write and be methodical about it at the same time. It’s all right. This can be a very unorganized way of being organized, and I’ll prove it.)

1. Draw a map

If you’re as visual as me, you need to see it to believe it. Or, at the very least, remember it.

I took a piece of scrap paper and scribbled an ugly, irregular shape in the middle. Then I started throwing features on it. Mountains. Farmlands. Caves. No, not that corner. This corner. Orchards? No. Islands? Sure. I rearranged several times and went through many drafts until I finally settled on one that felt right. (By the way, that’s how I knew it was the one. It felt right.)

Then I put it up on the wall in my office, right next to my bay window. I thought it looked great. Fortunately, my husband didn’t go in that room much.

It still undergoes multiple revisions as the story rolls on.

2. Paint a freaking picture

After I felt good about the map, I got a large artists notebook, the kind with thick paper. Then I scoured the internet to find images that expressed what was in my head. I printed them, divided the notebook into sections of my world, and pasted them. Once I finished that, I went around with a pencil and wrote every detail I could imagine. I scratched out some parts of the pictures with a sharpie and drew out what I was thinking next to it.

To be honest, it’s a disaster.

No one but myself could ever hope to interpret what those pages say, or represent. That’s all right. They don’t need to know yet. This is just a baby step to help you translate your gibberish in to full-blown English. (Or German, Spanish, whatever.)

That doesn’t mean you have to find and print pictures to express what you want like I did. Draw a picture of what you see in your mind, even if it’s just the shape. Finger paint it. Doodle, if you have too. Just get it down. You’ll be surprised what inspiration you may draw from it later, and how helpful it will be to see it.

3. Create character outlines

There is a separate notebook on my desk (ok, my kitchen counter. I never sit at a desk to write) designated for this. It’s entirely unorganized, but having it in one space makes it feel organized.

When I have a moment of genius strike me, or several, I open the pages and let the words flow out of my pen. Sometimes it looks like chicken scratch. Most of the time it bounces around, from plot, to character, to description, to landscape, and back to character. Again, that doesn’t matter yet.

When you feel like you have a substantial enough amount to go off of, trying making a character outline. Maybe scrapbook a page. Do they have shoulder length brown hair? Does it stick straight out of their head in purple spikes? Are they nine feet tall? Put the details in different categories if you have too. For example:

Jessabelle’s Looks

Hair Color: Purple

Eye color: Yellow

Height: 3’7”

Jessabelle’s Personality

What makes her grumpy: The smell of worms when it rains, puppies

What makes her happy: Watching a battle take place.

Etc, etc, ad nauseum…

I have a few key character outlines in my scrapbook, so when I’m writing I can refer back to decisions I’ve already made on details that may not be important to the plot line, like eye color. Freckles. Height. That kind of thing. Then I know my story is consistent.

Also, make sure you write in pencil. This is key.

As a writer, things change. Plots are constantly shifting, characters taking us by surprise. Just go with it, and write in pencil.

That leads into my next point.

4. Take yourself there

Become friends with your characters. Get really comfortable in your world. Love to go there. Think about it as you fall asleep, or walk around the block, or wait for your tea to boil. Put things that you love about life into your world. If you love it, the reader will know.

The more familiar it is to you, the more you’ll remember those pesky details. Write flash fiction stories about your world that don’t necessarily relate directly to your plot. It’s a way to sharpen your skill as a writer, and you’ll acclimatize yourself to the environment there.

Is your world mountainous? Then go climb an actual mountain. Get a feel for the rocks. Does your world have a lot of beaches? Try and find a patch of sand to run your fingers through, even if you have to nip over to the neighbors backyard and play in their kids sandbox. How does it feel? Can you put that into your story? Can you capture that moment in your fantasy world as well?

In conclusion, creating your own fantasy world doesn’t have  to be a bog. Don’t get mired in details, and don’t be afraid to create a loose structure until you get to know your world really well.  Try it. If it doesn’t work, if it stifles your creativity, then at least you tried.

What other ways do you have to keep yourself from getting overwhelmed at creating your own worlds? Have you found other ways to combat this problem?

About the Author:

Katie Cross is a writer, runner, weight-lifter, foodie and a girl in love with her husband and dog. Visit her at kcrosswriting.com to learn more about her upcoming book, Miss Mabel’s School for Girls.

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7 years ago

All the time I take notes and sketch on my tablet, which goes with me everywhere.  So far I haven’t had a need to draw a map, but I imagine there are times when it would be very helpful.  I use a Bamboo tablet and it integrates nicely with Evernote, which helps me keep my thoughts organized.

7 years ago

I think it might be possible to have a broad plot idea and themes in mind before fleshing out all the details of one’s fantasy world, but I certainly see the merit of knowing as much as possible about setting before one wholeheartedly jumps into writing.  I also do think there is a danger of getting too wrapped up in creating a fantasy world at the expense of plot and character development.  How much detail is enough about one’s fantasy world before we can say “enough is enough” — now it’s time to actually write the story?  It can be exhausting and perhaps even counter-productive to worry about it too much.

7 years ago

Great post! Katie and I have very similar writing practices. I sketch, paint, build collages, character diamonds and outlines. I love this. I’m going to tweet it and share it.

7 years ago

The thing is this: worldbuilding is the fundamental of fantasy writing. A lot of aspiring writers tend to have the wrong impression that plot should go first before worldbuilding. Wrong. If you want to create a plot, you need to know what kind of world you’re trying to create. When they say more haste, less speed, this is it. The greatest beauty about building a world is to let the readers understand the overall dynamics in-plot. What are the races existing in your world? Which are the ones certified extinct or deemed as legends? What is the world’s history all about? Society? Politics? Ideology even? I think when we invoked the memories of J.R.R Tolkien, we would go like “ooh… ah… Arda!”
And the funny thing will be that we all are capable of being our own Tolkiens so long as we know what we’re doing. Plan beforehand and create a framework firstly and foremost. Then depending on our individual schedule/muse, we can try starting on the plot while fleshing out whatever that needs to be fleshed out. At the same time, keep an open mind for new ideas while thinking over which ones are viable and which are not.

Reply to  KuokMinghui
7 years ago

KuokMinghui Agreed! I think you hit it right on the head- you can’t have a plot in a fantasy world if you don’t know what that world is. So much of the plot comes from the world.
I think we all have little Tolkiens inside us 🙂

7 years ago

Great suggestions! I just resurrected a long-delayed novel project this week and realized I was in exactly the situation you describe. I think the biggest takeaway is: Create a loose schema and run with it until you get to know things better. And I’m definitely going to do a map and get some inspiration images right away! Thanks!

Reply to  RiseOfTheTiger
7 years ago

RiseOfTheTiger I hope it helps you out! It definitely saved me from wasting even more time when I did it.

Flemming Hansen
Flemming Hansen
7 years ago


Aurora Storm
Aurora Storm
7 years ago

Great article…I write similar storyboards, although I never thought to draw a map. Thanks for the suggestion!

Reply to  Aurora Storm
7 years ago

Storm Storyboard is a great term for it! I’ll have to use that from now on. Thanks Aurora!

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