Being GOD 101—The Basics of World Building

Nice to beep you

In case I still need to introduce him to you: Alex Limberg has been a steady guest on my blog for the past couple months, and since he has taken to crate training far better than I anticipated, I might keep him around even longer.

Who’s a good guest blogger? *dangles treat*

Alex is a copywriter and blogs on Ride the Pen to help you boost your fiction writing. Check and improve your stories with his free ebook “44 Key Questions” to test your story (very helpful checklist for anybody who writes fiction).

All righty. How do you create your own fictional world from scratch? So glad you asked! World building is critical to writing a good story, especially in certain genres like fantasy, high fantasy and science fiction. As an editor, I can always tell writers who skipped this step, namely because it makes me want to throw their book across a room. We have to establish a world and the rules of operation in that world before doing anything else, but I am prattling on and Alex is going to help you today.

Take it away, Alex!


Admit it, you want to be a god.

You despotic, power-hungry person, you need your own little space where everybody (and everything) bends to your rules, and you need to get your way.

Why else would you write fiction?

Ok, maybe you have other, more noble motives as well. Nevermind, sorry for prematurely accusing you (maybe).

But still, one of the most satisfying feelings for a writer is to create his own universe. Where else can you string along any individual, save or extinguish them just as you please, decide about the colors and shapes of what is and even bend the laws of the world to your liking?

You will build your most complete worlds in two genres: Fantasy and science fiction. Here, you can recreate the entire world and re-invented every little detail, should you choose to do so.

Maybe people eat shoes and walk on bread. They might have one billion twenty-two hundred million and fourteen eyes or none. What’s an eye anyway?

For his fantasy world Middle-Earth, J.R.R. Tolkien even went so far as to invent not one, but several languages. Diving into a world that detailed and miraculous must feel very tempting to a lot of people. That’s why the masses pilgrimaged to movie theatres all over the world to watch Lord of the Rings: No doubt they would rather be guided by Gandalf than by their own employer!

Science fiction on the other hand represents a harsher, less elfish and cozy world. Whereas fantasy says This could be, science fiction tells us This will be, which is a call much more threatening call to make… we feel more personally affected by science fiction.

In the end, no matter what genre you are writing in, you are always building your very own universe.

Maybe your story plays in a police department, in a hospital, or any other environment that has its very specific code of conduct, look and pace.

Maybe people in your novel talk very realistically or maybe your characters are just goofy and funny.

It might be just about the angle your story is coming from: In a thriller, there is very little room for laughter, everything is looked at from a factual, suspense-driven angle; in a comedy, everything is supposed to be funny. You might have noticed though that in real life funny and tragic moments often take turns very quickly and even come as a package within the same experience.

So it’s finally proven: Your TV set is not your real life!

Ok, so you want to be a young god or goddess respectively, create your own science fictional world, kill everybody, and let the rest live to your liking… now how do you go about it? What tips and guidelines am I able to supply you with on your honorable quest?

Let’s look at a simplified recipe on how to prepare your own world like a warm, steaming, yummy apple pie.

And let’s use one of the most famous science fiction movies ever to inspire us.

The Outline

Before you start writing your first draft, I whole-heartedly recommend you spend some time on preparing a detailed outline for your background. Be absolutely clear about what it looks like and which rules it adheres to.

Even writing in a more “realistic” genre will be difficult without an outline (although it depends on which type of writer you are). But inventing your SF or fantasy world “on the fly” is certainly a bad idea.

Think about it: The less you know in advance, the more of your mental disk space the story background will occupy while you are writing. You can only concentrate on so many things at the same time. So while you think about what a driving tests for talking ostriches looks like, you will miss out on the characterization or on writing sharp dialogue, I can guarantee you.

Make sure to write a detailed outline on your background.

The Feeling

As a first step, you should settle on the mood you want to create: What feeling should your world evoke? Is it funny or serious, very technological or rather simple? How far off is it from the good old world we inhabit?

Sexy in Space

Image by Ludovic Bertron/Flickr CC

For example, it could be “fantastic” science fiction with many curious races involved, like Star Wars. Or it could be a high-tech futuristic environment drifting through the vast reaches of space like Star Trek.

What does it feel like, which aspect of science fiction does it highlight?

Remember the 80s movie Blade Runner?

Its plot is a bit thin. But it’s a perfect example to study background, because it consists mainly of atmosphere. The wonderful production design, the highly acclaimed cinematography and Vangelis’s gloomy score all make for an extremely moody environment.

Blade Runner outlines a dark cyberpunk world and emphasizes the somber, haunted aspect of science fiction. It’s a cold, lonely, alienated world, one in which you can’t be sure if your opposite is human or an artificial clone looking like a human (called replicant).

Of course, you could go an entirely different route and make your world a friendly place with aliens looking like SpongeBob, feeding you grapes all day long. Whatever floats your boat. The SpongeBob version would render a completely different context and statement, and would of course require entirely different details and procedures (see below).

But whatever background you choose, here is the trick:

Give it a healthy balance between a world well known to the reader and a completely unknown one!

If you use certain things and procedures that are familiar to your audience, they will identify with your world. The more you can wrap your reader up in the feeling of a real, existing world, the more she will care about your story.

On the other hand, if you embed these things in a new, futuristic context, you take your readers by the hand and lead them into a world full of wonders, which is exactly what fiction should do: Take queuing at the register in the supermarket (a familiar, slightly annoying feeling, but in your world it’s done resting on hovering chairs), or meter parking (city administration is ready to charge again, but in your world they want your karma).

Balance between realism and imagination matters. For if your entire reality is a completely new one, your readers won’t recognize themselves in it anymore; but if your reality is too close to the known world – well, it’s not science fiction any longer then, is it?


Image by Byron Villegas/Flickr CC

The Surface

Next, there is the purely physical level: Based on the mood you want to create, what does your world look, sound, feel like?

The future looks streamlined, sounds mechanic and feels waterproof – at least that’s what the convention in science fiction wants to make us believe.

What the audience “sees” and “hears” right away is the uppermost layer of your universe: In the case of Blade Runner, do you remember all of the tubes, consoles, screens, scanners and the feeling they gave you – apparently enough emotion to hook you for a full two hours (because remember, thin plot)?

Can you recall the dark, threatening details of that world, whether it was an abandoned, deranged apartment block or stacks spitting huge clouds of fire?

Technology taking over our lives is often the idea behind science fiction. Technology, by default, is artificial; science fiction worlds are user-friendly, repellent, made of plastic and metal. Have you ever seen an iPad made of raw meat? Me neither; these worlds are all synthetics and steel.

Typical science fiction design looks streamlined, reflecting, immaculate; it sounds mechanical and automated, like a clicking, a buzzing, a laser-like swoosh; it feels smooth, firm and cold. Minimalism and functionality prevail. Everything is made for quick use and to save time. Keep this in mind when you are describing your world and what the characters see, hear and feel.

Then again, all of this is just an idea, a stereotyped label. Yes, just go ahead, create some science fiction with overwhelmingly furry surfaces – show me that meaty iPad!

Cool in Space

Image by L.E.Spry/Flickr CC

The Procedures

Now you know what your world looks and feels like. But what about its inner mechanics?

Think about the technology in your world – what’s ridiculously easy for people to do now? Do they beam themselves to work? Read each other’s thoughts instead of listening to them (time saver)?

Look at the technological advance. Then think logically and realistically: Because of the new technology, which changes might have happened in social life, in transport, in administration, in communication, in trade, etc…?

Throughout the centuries, technological changes have always brought along big changes in all other aspects of life: Take the law, for example. We have the internet now, people have access to never-before-seen technology to exploit each other on a whole new level; so we need a whole new set of rules, e.g. against cyber-criminals.

Think of all the areas of life internet has had a major impact on: Commerce (online sales), love (online dating), financials (online stock exchanges), and many, many more. With the advance of the internet, technological advance brought massive shifts in many other areas of life.

But let’s consider law again for a moment: Say if people read each other’s thoughts to save some time – where is the legal limit?

Are there thoughts nobody is allowed to read, private thoughts?

How is thought reading controlled, what’s the punishment for stepping over the line?

What’s the legal consequence of reading a policeman’s thought?

And as we are already at it, the government’s inclination to control its population always brings new threatening elements with it – that’s fertile ground for any science fiction story and some healthy paranoia.

In the Blade Runner world, citizens have to take emotional tests to expose if they are replicants or not. Replicants will be retired (executed). See how new technology (production of replicants) inevitably leads to new social and legal ramifications?

And sometimes, just once in a while, technology backfires – wasn’t the internet invented to save us a lot of time? And how much time did you waste on Facebook this week?

This is the irony of progress.

The Imagination

Finally, remember: That new universe of yours has to be imaginative! Had your reader the desire to read about the trashcans and trees behind his house, he would have just studied an essay about waste recycling in Dipshit, Ohio. Instead, not only give him something he doesn’t know and won’t ever know, but give him something nobody has ever experienced before.

What is it that makes science fiction so appealing?

It’s just that we love to imagine what the future holds in store for us! This is how human beings are wired, this is the dream of humanity – to live without the boundaries of gravity, of our bodies, of place, of time. So hand out some candy to the reader:

Which unimagined possibilities can he experience in your story that he won’t ever be able to enjoy in real life?

Is it time traveling to tell his younger self about the pitfalls of life’s journey?

Is it a robot who does all his homework?

Free-of-charge love with a clone?

In Blade Runner, we have things as mundane as a video device reacting to vocal commands; we also have flying police cars, which admittedly sound more like a nightmare than a dream to the average traffic participant – but at least they are every policeman’s wet dream!

So there you have it: The future is limitless and time is incomprehensible to the human mind. Humans will always wonder what the future has in store for them and humans will always be fascinated by science fiction.

And when the future finally arrives – it will be the new past within the blink of an eye… and a new future will be awaiting!

Alexander Limberg

Alex Limberg is blogging on ‘Ride the Pen’ to help you boost your fiction writing. His blog dissects famous authors (works, not bodies). Check your world building, realism and many other story elements with his free ebook “44 Key Questions” to test your story. Shakespeare is jealous. Alex has worked as a copywriter and lived in Vienna, Los Angeles, Madrid and Hamburg.

Kristen here; I have beamed my way back into this post.

And now over to you: Have you written science fiction or fantasy before? Or any other genre when it felt like you were very much building your own world? Do you have a secret sauce to draw your readers into your universe? How do you make sure your audience is as fascinated by that universe as you are? Is riding a rollercoaster equally fun on Mars? If our knees would bend in the opposite direction, what would chairs look like? Let us know about the future of humanity in the comments!

Remember that comments for guests get double love from me for my contest!

I love hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of FEBRUARY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel.

Before we go…

THIS SATURDAY! Branding for Authors. This is your best way to get PAID in the digital age. We have to cultivate that 1000 die hard fans who won’t settle for FREE.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook


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  1. Reblogged this on ugiridharaprasad.

  2. Thanks for this guest post! Very good advice – I would only be cautious as the first advice. Planning everything in advance doesn’t work for everyone, plus, it might make the writing experience a bit flat. I personally love to discover my characters while I’m writing them – Stephen King himself said that writing a good story is like discovering fossils – you know dinosaurs are down there, you’ll just have to figure out how to find them and put the pieces together.

    There’s also a writing method which starts exactly by knowing only the setting of your story, which is the snowflake method, which I suggest to new writers to discover if they can take a small idea and develop.

    Thanks again!

    1. That is different than world building. When it comes to science fiction and fantasy you have to make sure you are following your own rules. The movie Inkheart comes to mind. The movie violated its own magic thereby just pissing off everyone unfortunate enough to watch the movie.

      1. I think that the Story might sometimes dictate the rules of the world. It happened to me, where I had to change a good chunk of the rules I made up in my very nice outline, because the story was screaming for something else. And, full disclosure: it wasn’t to have a deus ex machina or to jump away from a difficult situation. It was because my main character was functioning differently, and the whole world I built was actually oblivious to him.
        All in all I think that there’s no silver bullet for those things, or we’d all be Tolkien (which was actually a bit cliche in his stories, with all due respect of course, compared to more obscure writers such as Sapkowski!)

        1. Well, I do flexible outlining. It’s good to at least take time to think these things through especially when you are new. If your characters beg for change in the world you created, then that is easy enough to fix in a Bible. But the more intricate the world, the more call for keeping up with what is what. Not all fantasy or sci-fi has the same amount of world building. But I know of many pieces I have edited that I had to stop and send it back. The author was violating his own rules or had not set any consequences.

          Great, your character can heal or fly or change shape, but it better have a cost or it’s lousy fiction. I get selections all the time with fantastical characters who can do everything with no price or consequence. That = Snooze Fest.

  3. Great advice and guest blog! Even if someone doesn’t like outlines, they can work out plot binds by answering questions about their characters, settings, and world-building.

  4. Great post! These are all such crucial issues for those of us writing in fantasy worlds. Most fantasies I’ve read have extremely limited magic – there’s one Gandalf or Merlin-type wizard, sometimes with one apprentice, maybe a few scattered witches. Yet role-playing games (which is what I first designed my world for) apparently have so many magic-users that there’s one for every adventuring party. How would having that much magic lying around affect everyday life in cities? For peasants? For rulers? Security? Entertainment? I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time working this out for my Eneana world. Even so, it’s easy to slip into ye olde Medieval fantasy world ideas, and forget how magic would be affecting the background (the “surface” and “procedures” you mention) even when that particular story doesn’t directly involve wizards. Thanks for the reminder to keep being vigilant!

      • Alex on February 1, 2016 at 4:15 pm
      • Reply

      OMG, role-playing games demand a whole different level of world planning. I have played my fair share, but I only created one small book of RPG once.

      On the positive side, you get a chance to create 1.000 background supplement books. 😉

      And it’s really fun to create this super-detailed stuff and use it many times over in the future.

      1. Yes indeed — I have over 300 pages just of revised D20 rules that I’ll never use again. (sigh) Since the gaming group disbanded and I’ve used the world only for fiction, I’ve changed big chunks of the world to make it more realistic, if less play-able. Although I probably still have enough material to make about 1,000 background supplement books. 😉 And yes, it’s definitely great to be able to keep using it over and over for a wide range of stories. Serious fun. I post most of the stories on my blog, so check it out if you get the chance!

  5. Great advice on world building. Thank you for taking the time to share. I love Tolkien’s mix of characters, cultures and motivations, ditto for Star Wars. Last year, one of the best little books I’ve ever read was The Sapphiran Agenda by Marcha Fox – her protagonist is Thyron, a very smart and capable plant. I adore plants, and IMHO Thyron was better than an Ent.

  6. I am certainly not here for the noble aspects (what are those again?), but for the thrill of invention. This is a great post, although I’m not familiar with sci-fi beyond Star Wars and Star Trek. Fantasy – Tolkien, Lewis, Martin – that’s more my area of expertise. However this could be applied to any kind of fantasy; Steampunk, Historical, Realistic/Modern, etc. Thank you!

  7. Marilyn Spokroe – that is way too cool! 😀

  8. I always had a huge respect for writers who created their own unique worlds. Especially Sanderson, who’s Stormlight Archive series is set in a fantasy world that feels completely unique, not a Tolkien inspired one like most others are.

  9. We’re all products of our environment so the world created becomes, not just a backdrop with neat flashy things, but an influence on the characters and their society. Each rule created for a society has repercussions. Simply put, in Blade Runner the story ultimately becomes an examination of what it is to be human and who has the right to decide who lives and who dies. All because some replicants question the world order. One (planned) complication created an entire story.

    Be careful when world building to not create complications you aren’t aware you created. Those become known as contradictions and become ugly when readers spot them. Too, remember repercussions, especially if you create rules and then make even a single change. You can inadvertently create contradictions that didn’t exist when the rules were initially created. Fallout has a way of drifting.

  10. Great post! I love creating worlds. One of the ways I’ve found that helps me with the actual creating of the world is to ask myself one question, answer it, which then leads to other questions, with starts to create a snowball effect. It also helps to have someone to bounce ideas off of. They can come up with more questions for you to answer about your world.

      • Alex on February 1, 2016 at 4:19 pm
      • Reply

      I like the questions system. You basically take on the role of a little kid asking: “Why are clouds white?” Just questioning everything.

  11. George Herbert (of Dune) DID have furry tech in some of his books. He had these things called bed dogs and chair dogs, which seemed to be LIVING furniture. Really weird.

    For Sci-Fi writers I can’t recommend Atomic Rockets ( enough. It’s the perfect reference site for building a harder-than-usual sci fi world. Just mind all the scantily clad space babes on all the book covers!

      • Alex on February 1, 2016 at 4:21 pm
      • Reply

      Bed dogs, pot hamsters, jacket fishs – I like it!

      1. Argh. FRANK Herbert. Can’t believe I got that wrong.

        1. LOL. I didn’t even notice. HA! I knew who you meant 😛

  12. Hi Kristen! First, Marilyn Spockroe will haunt my dreams, so, thanks? Anyway, Alex is right about outlining the world before you begin, and I did it completely the other way. I started with characters and dialogue, and then had to backtrack because my first draft looked like a screen play. I had to give myself permission to relax, slow down, and look around. What do they see? What does it smell/taste/etc like? If my race of demons (in my novel, not in my head) can perform what appears to be magic on the regular, why don’t they? What societal brakes are there? My questions kept being, if X then why? Why would they do/not do that thing? I wanted to make my MC go through a sort of reverse-Oz. He’s the only one in his world who can’t do these magical things, and wants to go someplace ‘normal’. When he does visit the human side of the story, of course it’s not that simple.

  13. I’m in agreement with weissblut here; I’ve created a whole mess of different worlds myself, and I think out of that maybe one was based upon an outline. I’ve had the world evolve from a word from the language spoken there, I’ve had it come out of a story written about it and/or fleshed out during said story, I’ve had it come from a religion or custom practiced there, or just from some bizarre character or other who needed a place in which to live, to be from. Ontyrepassages remarked on being careful about making up “unnecessary complications”, which would also be called “featurecreep” in game design. Personally, I think it’s not too bad a thing to get as complex as you want with creating your world; you don’t have to show the reader all of that which you’ve made, but if you have tons of detail you can pick and choose how much they see, and it tends to make the story easier to my mind. (You don’t need to figure out how many toes a leech-stickler has because you already know, or how many moons circle that planet).

      • Alex on February 1, 2016 at 4:23 pm
      • Reply

      I didn’t want to become too dogmatic there. True, different strokes for different folks.

      However, most writers IMO plan too little, and not too much.

    • Alex on February 1, 2016 at 4:26 pm
    • Reply

    Me, Kristen, me, I’m a good guest blogger!!

    *follows dangling treat willingly*

  14. Reblogged this on LEARNERWRITERS and commented:
    Amazing post on Kristen Lamb’s blog by Alex Limberg on world building. Love this as someone who writes fantasy myself. Some really good tips here!

  15. I would love to create two universes, one fantasy, the other science fiction. World building is why I haven’t. At this rather early phase of my writing life, I’m not up to the challenge. When I do give it a go, I’ll keep this post in mind.

    • Laura Hahn on February 1, 2016 at 11:53 pm
    • Reply

    I found this super interesting, thanks for posting

    • Laura Hahn on February 1, 2016 at 11:55 pm
    • Reply

    I’ve always looked to Brandon Sanderson’s writing rules:

  16. Thank you for all the good info. I LOVE to read Sci-fi and Fantasy and want to write it. Currently I write historical vintage fiction, paranormal and women’s fiction. I read more fantasy than anything, but until recently haven’t had an inkling of what to write. I’ve just tried a few short stories. I’ve got a long way to go, but this is great advice

    I shared with my critique group since two of them write Fantasy/Sci-Fi, and they REALLY need this advice!

    ~ Tam Francis ~

    • lisafender on February 2, 2016 at 6:35 pm
    • Reply

    I write a fantasy fiction series and what I’ve found is the most important thing is consistency. Also, you do need to decide, what do they eat, smoke, drink, religion, do they have powers and what are they? If you get all the basics down and stick to them, your world will be not only consistent, but interesting. Don’t add a magic at the end either just to get them out of a bind.

  17. This is fabulous, thank you for sharing. I’ve recently explored the realm of World Building for Nanowrimo. I tweeted AND pinned this article. Thank you, thank you.

    • Jean Lamb on May 12, 2016 at 10:14 pm
    • Reply

    I would like to promote a site I put up in the Dark Ages of 2007–but it does have a nice outline of what I like to make sure I have when I build a world. The site is and it has some other pages to give examples of some of the worldbuilding that I did for something I’m working on now.

  18. An interesting piece. It made me think about some of the sci-fi I used to read.

    I have to admit that since starting to write novels myself, I’ve copped out of the whole world building thing.
    I write crime novels… for want of a better description… which are set in the real world. Very few of my locations are fictitious and those which are have elements of real places in them. Even using real places and settings, I do my homework. I’ll use Streetview, to check things. I’ll visit where possible, or make phone calls to places to ask questions (Civic buildings, Police HQs, airfields, ferry companies and operations like the Channel Tunnel (Eurotunnel), even prisons and military sites.

    I really admire those who can construct a convincing new world… and thereby hangs the one thing missing from Alex’s piece.

    Even in fantasy, in fact especially in fantasy, the laws of physics and nature need to be borne in mind when dreaming up worlds.

    I have a saying that sums it up for me: ‘If you get the facts right, they’ll believe the fiction.’

    I may not write fantasy or sci-fi myself, but I do get given these kinds of books to edit, and boy do they vary in credibility. Magic is fine, as long as the ground rules are laid out. Special powers likewise, but at all times the reader must be able to believe in the possibility.

    I once read a book where close to the end I couldn’t see how the writer could possibly end it satisfactorily.
    How did his protagonist win the day? He prayed, and the bullet stopped.
    If it hadn’t been an e-book, I’d have thrown it across the room. (I have a CofE vicar as a regular character in my series… but he’s gay, secretly an atheist, and in his spare time he plays electric bagpipes in a Celtic rock band. He wouldn’t have got away with that.)

      • Alex on September 6, 2016 at 1:12 pm
      • Reply

      ‘If you get the facts right, they’ll believe the fiction.’ – I like that. Reality anchors your readers in your story, that’s why it is very important. I find myself drawn to this topic again and again, and have written a couple of posts touching it. Cheers, Chris!

  19. Interesting post, I always enjoy learning more about world building strategies. My fantasy worlds are very much inspired by my world (Australia), which provides so many weird and wonderful settings, and fascinating folklore to tap into. I’m building a great library of colonial folklore books to draw inspiration from, as well as landscape photos to shape settings.

    It’s hard to use things like kangaroos in a fictional world without people just thinking you’re writing about Australia, though. Glenda Larke’s worldbuilding is brilliant, her unique settings vary so much between each series, and I enjoy recognising little bits of Australiana in them.

      • Alex on September 7, 2016 at 8:13 am
      • Reply

      Using your own corner of the world as a starting point and template is a great idea.

  20. Reblogged this on Christy Jackson Nicholas, Author and Artist.

  1. […] Source: Being GOD 101—The Basics of World Building […]

  2. […] Source: Being GOD 101—The Basics of World Building […]

  3. […] be going into more about worldbuilding next week. In the meantime, here is an article on the […]

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