Creating a fictional world of the caliber of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings is no small task. It’s one of the most overwhelming creative endeavors you can undertake. Even the most creatively driven people can burn out before their fictional world is fully realized, and the reason for this is that there are so many things you need to consider to make everything work.
However, if you can invest the time, energy, and research into making it truly immersive, a well-thought-out world for your characters to occupy will elevate your story far beyond others in your genre. It can be exhausting to think about, but with the right strategy, your world will start coming together in no time.
Without a doubt, the single most important thing you can do when planning a fictional world is to take notes. If you don’t write everything down and keep things organized, you’re never going to be able to keep things consistent—and you’ll risk forgetting good ideas.
The way you choose to organize information about your fictional world is up to you, but my recommendation is to open a dedicated account with a cloud service, like Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive (Google Drive is my personal pick).
Do not keep all your notes about the world on a single document. It will quickly become impossible to navigate and far too lengthy. Instead, make a new document for each idea. You will feel less need to truncate the information you’re writing down, and it will be easier to read if you’re looking to reference a specific thing later. Then, you can create different folders to group similar ideas together.
For example, say your world has four unique civilizations on it with vastly different cultures. You will need a folder for civilizations, with four subfolders—one for each civilization. Within those subfolders, you may have additional subfolders for their cultural practices, religions, language, history, and more. You can even create dedicated documents for different folk tales and myths from the world. If there are rulebooks, religious texts, stories, poetry, or songs that are important to the world, you can compose them in their own documents as well.
As you fill your Cloud with folders, subfolders, word documents, and spreadsheets, keep in mind that both Drive and OneDrive allow you to link between different files. If you mention a concept in one document, and you have more information on that concept in another document, you can link to it. This allows you to easily navigate to different documents that relate to the topic you’re looking at.
And of course, it should go without saying that you need to write absolutely everything down. The things that truly bring a world to life are the small details, so even if you think something isn’t that important, you should write it down anyway.
Long before you can start thinking about little details for your world, you need to consider some of the broader ideas. Your world needs a foundation before you can start doing much else to it.
Genre and Context
The first thing you should consider when you begin thinking about your world is its purpose.
What do you need your fictional world to do? What is the primary genre that the world plays host to? What do you need it to achieve? Is this world a fantasy landscape? A world parallel to earth? A sci-fi dystopia? An alternate timeline for the world as we know it?
By considering the primary context of the world, you can anticipate the things you will need to plan out later. For example, if you need a fictional world for a fantasy story, then you’re going to need to figure out just about everything that makes the world work. If you are writing a world that is meant to represent Earth in 1000 years, then you will have different goals—namely figuring out how existing things have evolved over time.
Apart from the context within the world, you should consider the context around the world. What is the solar system like? What other planets or visual phenomena can be seen from the planet’s surface? Is there anything unexpected in the sky, such as an extra moon (or several), satellites, or space debris? Are any of the other planets habitable, and are there other intelligent species or colonies on any of those planets?
You should also consider if there are other interdimensional realms that exist in the world’s canon. Is the world part of a multiverse? Are there parallel dimensions? Other realms? Is there an afterlife that includes a realm for the dead, such as Heaven and Hell, Valhalla, and others? Is there a Fae realm? A dream realm?
If your world ends up being associated with other realms or worlds, then you should have at least a basic understanding of what those other realms are like and how they interact.
Of course, every place deserves a name, and your fictional world is no different.
Depending on how many civilizations and languages exist in the world (and by extension, the universe), the process of naming your world could be a bit more complicated than you might think. Each language is likely going to have a different name for the planet, and even within the same language, different cultures may refer to it in different ways. Because of this, you can consider naming your planet while you are figuring out the specifics of the different cultures that will occupy it—though it is helpful to start thinking about this early on.
Before you finalize a name for your planet, it can be helpful to give it a placeholder name. You can even continue to refer to the planet with its placeholder name after you’ve decided what its actual names should be. This can help keep your notes more clearly labeled, and it gives you a way to refer to it objectively and outside the lens of a particular culture.
Biology and Nature
At this point, it’s time to start thinking about the biology of the fictional world. These are things such as the plants and animals that exist there, as well as weather, climate, and more.
First of all, you need to have a sense of what the world looks like overall. What are the major landmasses, and what are their orientations and relations to one another?
At this stage, it can really be helpful to draw out a basic map. You don’t have to be good at drawing to do this, and it doesn’t have to look pretty. It’s just nice to have a visual representation of the different continents and their relative size and location. You can also use special software to help you do this, such as Azgaar’s Fantasy Map Generator. It can generate a random map for you to use right away, or you can play with the customization tools to change names, country borders, city locations, routes, and even the elevation and shorelines.
Once you have a map of your world, you should also consider what the names are for each of these different continents. Like with the world overall, there may be multiple different names to refer to each continent depending on the language and culture speaking about it.
Now that you have an idea of what the layout of the world looks like, you need to decide on the climate. Is the planet blisteringly hot? Constantly covered in snow? Does it have a varied climate, with cold areas and warm areas? Are there natural disasters? What kinds? How often do they occur, and how dangerous are they?
You have to consider how the climate varies in different continents on the planet. Are some areas significantly warmer than others? Which ones? Make sure you take notes on the climate of each continent, as that will help you in the next section.
Now, obviously, an entire planet is going to have far too many geographic features for you to be completely familiar with every single mountain, lake, and waterfall. However, you do need to have a basic understanding of the distribution of these features. What kinds of features appear in the world? How large are they? Where are they located?
The climate of a region will help you determine what kinds of geographic features would appear there. For example, a rainforest requires warm temperatures and plenty of rainfall in order to thrive, whereas a waterfall requires both a body of water, and either deep caves or steep cliffs.
Take a look at your map and your notes on the climate of each landmass. Which of these features appear in each landmass? Make sure to mark where they are on your map.
- Coral Reefs
- Lava Lakes
- And more
Once you have an understanding of where these features are located, you should include a few that stand out. If there’s a mountain range, consider making one mountain much larger than the others, and giving it a name. Just like how we name iconic features, like the Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park or Mount Everest in The Himalayas, you should give names to not just the region itself, but to iconic features within it.
And finally, you should briefly consider if the history of the world has had an impact on the features present today. Has mankind (or whatever species is dominant) altered where things grow and thrive? Have landmasses shifted over time? Have there been any catastrophes that left their mark on the world, like a massive volcanic eruption or a meteor striking the planet?
Now obviously, you don’t need to do all this at once. The features of your world will likely evolve as you work on other aspects of it, since many elements of civilization, nature, and history influence (and are influenced by) the environment.
Fauna describes the living beings that will occupy your planet—mammals, fish, bugs, single-celled organisms, etc.
I already have an article about creating a fictional species, so I won’t go into the process as much here. Read that article if you want a more comprehensive breakdown of how to create a fictional species.
Once you have your fictional species, you need to decide what their place is, and, most importantly, how they interact with the other species in your fictional world. Where are they native to? What climate do they thrive in? Do they live in forests, mountain ranges, or underwater? How have they adapted to live in that particular region, and are there other communities living elsewhere that have adapted differently? What do they eat? Be specific about the exact organisms they eat, rather than just saying “plants” or “meat.”
Additionally, you need to consider how many species of one kind live in the same area. If more than one species living in the same region eats the same thing and burrows in the same places, then eventually, one species will die out. Ecosystems need to be balanced, and having too much competition in the animal world will eventually lead to one species adapting to get the upper hand, or migrating away to find less competition elsewhere. There is an exception to this rule, however. If the two species mutually benefit from working together somehow, then they may coexist.
Flora is an often overlooked element of creating a fictional world. Animals are seen as the more exciting option (and with good reason), so plants don’t often get the attention they need to be interesting.
I already have an article on the topic, Creating Plants for a Fictional World, so make sure you check that out for an in-depth guide on how to create a fictional plant.
Once you have a few fictional plants, you need to consider the climate and environment in which each plant thrives, as well as how they coexist with other living organisms in the same environment. What plants grow better together? Which ones are edible, and to which species? Are there any plants that are dangerous to other plants or animals? Which ones, and why? Do the plants only grow fruits during a certain time of the year? What other plants are available to eat when one plant is not fruiting?
Like with animals, you need to be aware of competition within ecosystems. If two large tree species grow in the same area, both species will compete to grow taller than the other to ensure they get the most light. If a tree falls, then whichever species that can grow the fastest is the one that takes its place. Different plant species that grow close to the ground will be competing for water or nitrogen, whereas plants that bloom at the same time will compete for pollinators or animals to spread their seeds. Plants can evolve in a myriad of ways to overcome this competition, such as producing flowers that smell sweeter, bigger leaves to absorb more sunlight, or vast underground root systems that can choke out smaller plants. In many ways, competition is what contributes to such a huge diversity of unique plants.
Like The Spice Melange in Dune, your world should have some natural resources that are considered important for one reason or another.
Your planet’s natural resources don’t have to be quite as dramatic as the example above, however. These can be things such as wood, minerals, plants, animals, fuel, ore, gas, and more. Basically, these are resources that are considered important and would form the basis of trade around the world (or within the galaxy). Important resources don’t even have to have a practical application since many herbs or other materials can be used exclusively for recreational or ceremonial purposes. To think of it simply, ask yourself: What is important on the planet, who considers it important, and why is it considered important?
Determine how the natural resources differ depending on the region, and how they can be utilized by not only the sapient species present in the world but also other animals as well. Remember to give these different resources names, especially if they will be referred to often.
Wherever there is life, there is illness, so you may want to consider what kind of ailments will be present in your fictional world.
I already have an article on this topic, so you can do some more reading about it here: How to Create a Fictional Illness for Your Story. That article will walk you through the process of creating a fictional illness step-by-step, so I won’t cover it here. Make sure to read that article if you want to include some ways for characters to get sick in your fictional world!
Now that you have a fictional disease, you need to decide who it affects. This is especially important in worlds that contain multiple different sapient species, like how most fantasy settings include elves, dwarves, halflings, and a whole host of different intelligent species. If the illness affects elves, does it only affect elves? Can they spread it to members of a different species? Does the disease vary in presentation or severity depending on the species of the affected person?
There is no real limit to how many different diseases can be present in your fictional world, so feel free to keep adding new ones over time.
Now that you’ve figured out the basic natural elements of the world, you can move on to organized society. There are many things that go into making a fictional civilization, let alone an entire world populated with different nations, cultures, and potentially, species.
Nations and Countries
Countries are defined by borders on a map. These borders can be fuzzy or tightly controlled and are often designated by governments, colonizers, tribes, or anyone else in a position of maintaining or seizing control over a region.
Consider how many distinct countries you want your world to have, then take out your map once again. Where should each country be located, how big should they be, and how should you draw the borders of those countries? Borders often follow shorelines, geographic features, or straight grid lines on a map. Keep in mind that countries can have hugely diverse sizes as well. Russia takes up roughly 11% of the world’s land surface area, but other countries, like Maldives, are so small they’re barely even visible on a map. Country borders may also extend into the ocean around their shores as well.
As always, you should be thinking about naming each country and even naming regions, towns, and cities within those countries. Sometimes, a country may have the same (or similar) name as the landmass it occupies, but it can also be something completely different.
Language can be a challenging thing to figure out, especially for written works. It’s certainly easier to simply have everyone speak English (or whatever language you’re most familiar with), but some fictional stories have had a lot of success with developing or differentiating between different fictional languages. The most prominent examples that come to mind are Klingon, a language spoken by an alien species of the same name in Star Trek, and the host of different languages spoken in D&D.
Of course, you do not need to become fluent in fictional languages just for the sake of playing a D&D character accurately. Nor would you be expected to create and formalize a language from scratch in order to include that in your fictional world. If you want each nation to have a different dominant language, you merely need to give it a name and have a general understanding of how it sounds when it is spoken, and how it looks when it is written.
While on the topic of language, it’s important to point out the impact that culture has on language, and vice versa. Consider which of our words and phrases stem from things in our world. Everything from the names of foods and places to simple words stems from a culture’s history, shared experiences, and overall dynamic. What would champagne be called if France didn’t exist in your world? What about French fries? French toast? Even the word “bath” originates from an ancient Roman city with the same name. History has a huge impact on language, and though you can’t be expected to change up every single word with regional context, it’s an important thing to keep in mind.
Rather than seeing that regional context as a problem, you should see it as an opportunity! How many creative ways can you utilize that concept? What things in your world will be named after fictional cities? What metaphors can exist within this fictional context? How can people in this society communicate in unexpected and culturally relevant ways? Consider what makes the society unique, and how that would influence their use of language.
Culture is a huge category comprising multiple different ideas and concepts. Culture determines, and is determined by, everything that makes a society unique: music, clothing, history, food, entertainment, religion, government, social problems, and so, so much more.
It’s probably no surprise to you at this point that I have another article that goes in-depth on this topic: Creating a Fictional Culture: Step by Step. Since that article is already pretty comprehensive, I won’t waste time repeating myself here.
Since you’ll likely be making multiple different societies for your fictional world, you should take the time to make each one distinct. How would their greetings differ? What is considered rude in each culture? What are their behaviors, biases, and beliefs? What are the ways in which cultures would clash or fail to understand each other, and how can you use that for disastrous or comedic effect?
Another fun thing to consider is how a civilization’s culture has been influenced by the environment around it. Climate and weather can influence fashion and the food available for recipes, while the animals and geographic features could have an impact on religion or superstitions. Something like a volcano could have serious implications for a civilization that believes in divine wrath, after all.
Food is an important thing to consider for any fictional world. What are the ingredients used? What are the techniques employed? What are the dominant flavor profiles? How do these things differ between nations, which may have different ingredients available, and cultures, which may have different methods of cooking? Just as we on Earth have distinct ideas of what constitutes French, Italian, or Mexican cuisine, you should strive to give each of your fictional cultures a distinct style of food.
It’s also important to keep in mind, especially for less technologically developed worlds, that many foods will only be available during certain times of the year. This is what has contributed to pumpkin being a fall flavor, watermelon being a summer barbecue favorite, and chestnuts being associated with Christmas. Based on seasonality, what are the flavors that your world would associate with different times of the year, and how would that differ in different parts of the world?
Your fictional world could be primitive, using only basic farm tools and horse-drawn wagons, or it could be highly technologically advanced with hoverboards and personal spaceships—or, of course, it could fall somewhere in the middle.
Technology determines a lot about a world. It helps establish the overall setting, and in many ways, it determines what the society is able to accomplish. Technology can influence what food is available, how individuals travel, what weapons they are able to use, and what their methods of entertainment look like. Shakespearian theater wouldn’t be the groundbreaking cultural phenomenon it was in its time if it had to compete with video games. The way wars are fought will look different depending on if the soldiers are fighting with swords, guns, or huge robot mech suits. You get the idea.
In addition to considering what technology exists in the world, you should also consider who that technology can be used by. What technology is affordable, and what is only available to the upper class? Are there certain pieces of technology that are illegal or controlled by the government? Are some countries more technologically advanced than others? Why isn’t that technology being shared? How does this contribute to imbalanced power structures? How can this technology contribute to the betterment or detriment of the world?
Occupations are an important part of living in a society. In order for civilization to operate, people need to be available to handle the creation and distribution of food, maintenance of shared spaces, government, and more.
Obviously, you don’t have to list every single kind of job that a person could conceivably have in this world, but you should consider two things: what are the most important jobs, and what are the most unusual or unexpected jobs.
The types of jobs that are considered important in a society will depend on many different factors, but in general, important jobs are those that achieve necessary or culturally significant outcomes. For example, a city that lives near the water may have built its economy around it. They could subsist on fish and have a robust import/export system utilizing trade ships. They may even power their technology using hydropower, such as with waterfalls, waves, and running streams. The important jobs here would include fishing, shipping, dock work, sailing, or maintaining tidal turbines and dams. Alternatively, an overtly religious society may place high importance on religious work, such as that of priests, shamans, and oracles.
Consider the different aspects of your fictional civilization: history, location, food, government, religion, natural resources, and more. What jobs would be required in order to obtain, create, or maintain important things based on those factors? What jobs would be required to run the government? What jobs would be required to ensure people live in safe and comfortable conditions? What jobs would drive the economy? Those are the jobs that are important.
But what about jobs people in our world have never heard of before? Jobs that are, perhaps, unusual or unexpected? In many fantasy settings, there will be occupations that do not exist in the world as we know it. If your fictional world includes jobs such as “alchemist” or “stardust collector,” then you should make note of those and ensure you have good descriptions of the details of those jobs.
Money is often considered the basis of civilization, but what it looks like depends on where you are.
You’re going to need to think about what the currency is like in your fictional world. Lucky for you, I have (you guessed it) an article on this topic already: Tips for Creating a Fictional Currency. You know the drill by now—I won’t waste time repeating myself here, so check out that article to get an idea of how to go about this.
Keep in mind that currency is not likely to be universal. While you certainly can have a standardized system of currency that everyone in the world uses, it’s more likely that different countries or continents use different currencies. If you do decide to use multiple currencies in the world, you’ll have to decide where each currency is used, as well as what the exchange rate is between different currencies.
An important part of civilization is how it operates politically. There are many different kinds of governments that you can apply to (or take inspiration for) your fictional civilizations. Remember that each region does not need to operate under the same kind of government—one country can exist under a strict monarchy, while its neighboring country is a free democracy. Or, the entire world could be under the command of a single dictator.
Which of your regions do you want to be governed by royalty? Which should have elected leaders? How do these societies operate, and what makes them different from one another?
Here are some examples of government structures and political organization strategies you could use:
Of course, you can also use a structure that is entirely fictional, like a hivemind or rule by a deity or other higher power.
In addition to the structure of government, you should also consider if there are specialized departments within that government to handle different aspects of life. Make sure you write down what those departments are called, in case you have to refer to them at some point.
Finally, you need to think about each country’s legal system. What are the laws of each region, and who enforces them? What are the consequences of breaking the law?
Any time you’re dealing with multiple communities, whether neighboring towns or inhabited planets in the same solar system, you need to think about how those communities interact with one another.
There are obviously many factors that go into establishing a network of foreign relations between all your fictional cities and nations, but here are a few questions to get you started.
- What are the political ideologies of each community? How do these ideologies clash with one another?
- How united or divided is each country? How united or divided is the entire world?
- What are the commodities each community has an abundance of? Which commodities is each community lacking?
- Which communities are newly established, and which communities were established long ago?
- Is there a unified religion, or does each community have its own religion?
- How technologically advanced is each community? If there is a large disparity, why is this technology not shared?
- What time period is the world based on? Technologically advanced worlds are more likely to be more unified due to access to global transportation, whereas medieval populations will be more divided.
Once you get an idea of which nations could peacefully cooperate, ignore one another, or clash, you can start to consider what their relationships will be like. If a community is severely lacking in fresh produce due to poor soil conditions, and another country has an economy based around farming, it’s natural to have trade routes going between the two communities fairly regularly. If two communities disagree on religion, rights, or politics, they may go to war with one another, or (to a less dramatic degree) institute restrictions on trade and travel for citizens of the opposing community.
Of course, international relations can get complicated. Two communities could be at war, yet both trading freely with the same third party. Multiple different communities can band together to form an alliance to hold each other to certain standards. Entire communities could be conquered by a different government. Allied communities could be called in to assist with a war effort.
Not to mention, these relationships can change over time. Two countries that were once allies may sever ties due to disagreements. Two warring nations could sign peace treaties and trade agreements to bring an end to the fighting. A country that used to exist may fall into obscurity, or a new country could gain independence. It may seem complicated, but just remember to keep your notes organized and you’ll be okay!
History is probably the most daunting part of writing a fictional world, and honestly, it’s likely you’ll never actually finish this step if you obsess over figuring out everything that’s ever happened. Trying to write down every single event that has happened in an entire world over the course of its existence, which could be billions of years, is just flat-out impossible.
Instead, you should focus only on the major events, as well as how those events helped to shape the world into what it is today. Major events are things like:
- The rise or fall of different civilizations
- Changes in government and power shifts
- Natural disasters
- Major migrations
- Mass extinctions
- Major scientific achievements (such as the first moon landing)
- The creation or deconstruction of a religion
- Major advancements in technology
- The deaths of major historical figures
- Major policy changes
- Major economic recessions
- Geographical changes
This is, of course, not an exhaustive list. This is just to get you thinking about what kinds of events will be important to keep good documentation of. If a historical event has an impact on the political, social, cultural, scientific, or biological advancement (or decline) of a civilization, or an event changes something about the world in a major way, that constitutes a major event.
Over time, you can continue to fill in the gaps in history between major events. Doing so will make your world seem more established and complex, but again, this undertaking would likely never truly end.
Religion is a major part of life in most communities. It often dictates fashion, food, culture, burial customs, politics, and more. When you throw in the possibility of deities being a real part of the world’s canon, then the role religion plays becomes even more important.
Since religion is such a large topic, I covered this in a previous article: Creating a Fictional Religion for Your Story.
Regardless of whether you intend for this religion to be true history for the world or mere fiction invented by the people living in it, you should approach the creation of that religion in the same way. However, if you do intend to have gods and higher powers exist for real, you need to consider what role they play in the world. Do they simply observe the world, or do they interfere directly with it? Are they benevolent? Absent? Cruel? Indifferent? How does their involvement (or lack thereof) influence the way people view them?
Keep in mind, when religions are subjective, there are only two groups of people: believers and nonbelievers. However, in a world where the existence of a deity is an indisputable fact, those groups change, since it is no longer a matter of believing in some unseen power. Those groups are worshippers and those who oppose or disagree with that deity. With both examples, neutrality is also a possibility.
Magic and the Supernatural
If your world contains magic or supernatural elements, then you’re going to need to figure out how it works.
Since not every world is going to include magic, I decided to split this part of the article into its own dedicated post. You can find it here: How to Write About Magic. Check that out if you want to continue reading about how to create a unique magic system for your fictional world.
Some Parting Tips
Creating a fully realized world is not something that is going to happen overnight. If you’re really serious about creating an entire fictional world, then it should be something you work on for years to come. You may never be completely finished with it, since your world can continue to evolve as you have more ideas and new stories to tell within it. There will always be aspects of your world that can be expanded—but that’s sort of a good thing, isn’t it?
Don’t get discouraged! I know it’s hard, but I believe in you! And trust me, it will be worth it.