World building is the art of convincing a reader that a fictitious place exists. What do you do if you don’t know where to start creating that illusion? Well, to get you going, here’s a list of 20 world building questions you can ask yourself to get started.
What is the geography like?
Don’t fall into the Star Wars Trap of having mono-climate worlds (Tatooine = desert, Hoth = ice, Endor = forest). Consider the climates of your world, and where your story takes place. You don’t have to use the whole of your world, but there should be a sense that it’s more than a little patch of forested countryside with a city or two.
Why is that city there?
Cities happen for reasons. Access to fresh water, arable land, mineral resources, and fishing waters are influential in whether an area can support a large number of people. As society becomes more advanced, trade and commercial considerations come in as well. War-like people will make city-building decisions with defensive considerations as well.
What do people eat?
If your world contains fantastical creatures, consider which of them are edible. If so, then there is some culture out there that considers it either a staple or a delicacy.
The first person to discover a creature is either a scientist or an explorer; the second is invariably a cook.
If your world is more Earth-like, take a cuisine appropriate to your climate and adapt it to your world. Leaving a cuisine untouched will make a statement that you are using that as an in-world analog for the culture you are borrowing from. Food names also carry that implication. You can have your characters eat seaweed and rice wrapped fish, but the moment you call it sushi you set your story in Japan.
Who or what do they worship?
Was your world made by one or more gods? If so, odds are that the inhabitants of their creation have taken up some form of worship. If your world wasn’t created by divine powers, people most likely have invented them. Having a setting explicitly devoid of both deities and worshipers makes a statement. If you’re not looking to make an anti-deity statement, include at least oblique references to religious institutions or practices existing.
How do they express that worship?
Are there organized religions? Is there one monolithic religion that dominates all others? How much influence does religion have in daily life? Consider what rituals and practices may have arisen.
Is there magic and how does it work?
Magic is a complicated topic in fantasy, one that will be a defining characteristic of the work. I have a whole separate article that goes into the basics of determining your magic system.
What languages are there?
If you have more than one sentient race, each probably has their own language. However, humans developed hundreds (if not thousands) of languages on Earth, so the one language per race trope is a bit simplistic. You can choose to either address this issue, or let it slide to the background. Not every reader will notice or care, but some will.
What level of technology does the world possess?
In a world of magic, science still exists. I go into quite a bit of detail on the subject of how magic and science interact, but suffice it to say that unless your story is about primitive hunters, killing with their bare hands, you have some technology in your world.
King, emperor, high priest, president … someone has to be in charge. The political structure of a society ripples out across the land. Peasants will be better off in a democracy than an empire, but the clergy benefit most from a theocracy. A “traditional” fantasy monarchy is usually assumed if you don’t get into detail on politics.
How do the lower classes live?
As related to the question of rulership, you need to address how the bottom rung of society lives. Are there slaves, serfs, peasants? Is the working class well off and comfortable, oppressed, rebellious or broken spirited? If your characters arrive at a farm seeking aid, will they be taken in, or chased off as threats?
Are magic users accepted, feared, or persecuted?
Magic is powerful. It sets its users apart from the rest of society, because the laws of physics no longer apply equally to everyone? Are these gifted individuals looked upon as boons to their communities: protectors, sages, visionaries? Are they looked upon with scorn and fear, to be driven off when found. Are they the ones doing the ruling?
What sorts of laws are there?
Generally you can gloss over laws, but there are opportunities to introduce conflict in unjust or ridiculous laws, or even just laws that have recently changed. The upset to society can provide friction between those who have to obey the new laws and the ones who now have to enforce them. Laws that restrict freedoms or forbid things that are essential to the characters are the most likely areas to bring laws to the fore.
How do people earn their living?
This ties in with geography and technology, and to a lesser extent with government. People will buy what they don’t have nearby and sell what they have or make in abundance. If your countryside grows wine grapes, someone probably makes a living exporting wine. In an oppressive society, the rulers will see all the benefits from this. In an open society, you will develop a merchant class who profits from the local resources.
What do people do for amusement?
At the personal level: Card and dice games, gambling, and literature.
At the society level: jousting tournaments, plays and opera, sports, and gladiatorial games.
What sort of architecture is there?
Architecture tends to track will with the advance of civilization. You can lend permanence to a setting by making the buildings ancient but still functional. You can make a setting seem new with in-progress construction of great works. A society in decline lets buildings and infrastructure fall into disrepair, while a thriving one will create new and better, seeking to outdo the old standards.
Even at a simple level, seeing how people adapt their buildings to their environment tells you a lot about them. Living in a rainy land with leaking roofs is an unmistakable sign of a primitive or destitute people. Living in a harsh environment and shrugging it off by ingenious building is a sign of a more advanced people.
How do people dress?
This is mostly a matter of practicality. People dress for their climate. However, you can also use clothing to differentiate between classes and religious beliefs, as well as profession. Also bear in mind that people will most commonly dress from materials that are readily available in their region. Don’t dress everyone in wool if sheep only live on another continent.
What is the political climate?
Just because there is an established hierarchy doesn’t mean that everyone is satisfied with how it works or their place in it. Utopian politics have their place, more often it’s useful to have the friction and conflict of intrigue and rebellion.
Is there a war ongoing, or upcoming?
A society at peace will behave much differently from one that is fighting a war or preparing for one. Fear of spies will make outsiders less welcome. Travel will be restricted either by decree or practicality. The cost of certain items (weapons, armor, imported goods) will rise dramatically. A city under siege is a prison that contains thousands.
Are there races besides humans?
Not all fantasy needs to have elves, dwarves, and orcs. It may not even be advisable. If you want fantastical races, the best route is to create your own. Keep in mind all the above questions for them as well. There is no limit to the creativity you might employ in devising a non-human race.
How many people live in this city, country, world?
A town of a thousand people has a different feel to it than a village of a hundred, or a city of ten thousand. Anonymity goes up with population, as does access to various goods and services. Smaller settlements have a more intimate feel.
For countries, the larger the population, the more cities, the more bureaucracy to keep it all running. The larger a land, the more opportunity for corruption, inefficiency, and operating without the knowledge of those in charge. The smaller the land, the more it will be reflective of the leadership of its ruler.
Your world may be packed with people, such that there is little wilderness left. You can also have a world with vast, unspoiled frontiers yet to explore. Pick whichever you feel fits your story better. Bear in mind that in an old world with few people, the settled areas will be only the choicest, since there is little competition.
Hopefully these 20 world building questions give you some inspiration on where to start on your next best-selling series, but I’m sure there are plenty more. Come up with another must-consider question? Leave a comment and share with others!
Nice post. I'm in the midst of a HUGE world building experiment and this is good food for thought. Thanks!
I am pretty sure I have seen this list before in some form or another, but from the RPG Game Master advice point of view. It is a nice reminder that a lot of that stuff is really helpful to writers as well.
The only difference between a writer and a Game Master (Dungeon Master, if you're old-school) when it comes to world-building are the game-rule restrictions. Most games come pre-packaged with their own fauna and magic systems. The creation of an immersive, believable world is the same concept for either one. I've found gamers to have a bit of a higher tolerance for imperfect worlds, but the experience is always better if the setting feels real.
Thanks for posting this. It gave me some questions that I hadn't stopped to think about, such as what the people do for amusement and actually giving more than just a cursory thought to the different classes and how they live. Thanks for this!
You're welcome. I enjoy the broader aspects of world-building because I don't keep my stories relegated to either the upper or lower classes. I have a tendency to using multiple POV in a story, so I like knowing what else is going on in society.