Worldbuilding Template for Fiction Writers
Learn topics to consider and questions to ask when making yourself a worldbuilding template.
I’ve had an awesome idea for a trilogy of fantasy books on the backburner for quite some time. It’s a story about political intrigue and dark magic that has dangerous deceptive plots sprinkled in with some great found-family moments and epic fight sequences. I’d love to get to writing it, but there’s one small problem I have to deal with first.
The world that it’s set in? Doesn’t exist yet. I still have to finish building it.
If you find yourself in a similar predicament, I’ve got some worldbuilding tips that I think will help us both out. Here is your world-building template, from how to get started to how to get it into your finished manuscript, as well as some helpful tools to keep you on track.
The five steps of the world building process
World building is, in fact, a colossal task that has lots of moving parts to keep track of. So, let’s break it down into five steps, roll up our sleeves, pull out our notebooks (but hopefully not our hair), and get to work.
Pinpoint your inspiration
There are lots of different kinds of worlds that your story can be set in, but the two main categories are, to put it as simply as I can, Here and Not Here.
Stories set Here happen either directly on the little blue-green planet we call home or in an extremely close approximation of it. They follow the same basic rules that we do - physics, primarily - and have similar histories to us. Stories set Here might diverge from Earth in very specific ways, or introduce us to a world that’s hiding inside our own and happening in parallel. Consider the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson series; the fantastical elements of their worlds are contained within ours, happen at the same time, and happen in familiar places like Scotland and New York City.
So if your story isn’t set on Earth, where is it? Not Here stories are stories set on completely independent fantasy or science fiction worlds that follow totally different rules. Their laws of physics might be different - maybe people can fly and things can just blink in and out of existence - and magic or different scientific elements suffuse the surroundings. These Not Here places have vastly different histories and cultures built around the things that are unique, which influences how the story is told. Think of things like Star Wars and its wide array of planets and stations full of alien species and cultures.
If your story is Here, then you need to figure out whether it’s going to be obviously Here (set in a specific country or even a specific city, during a specific historical events) or vaguely Here (it’s probably the Middle Ages and maybe somewhere in Europe?). The more specific you get, the more research you’re going to have to put in for accuracy.
If your story is Not Here, you’re going to need to figure out exactly where it is, but more on that in a moment. For now, it’s enough to know which category you fall into.
Research, research, research
If you’re writing a Here story, then you’re going to need to research the general time and place that you’re using as a setting. Read up as much as you can on the geography, culture, political landscape, and major events of your chosen setting so that you can accurately use (or intentionally disregard) them to inform your plot.
For instance, if you’re writing a piece set in late 1800s France, then you’ll need to know at least a little about the dawn of the Third Republic post-Napoleon, the development of the Impressionism and Post-Impressionism movements, the popularity of imported Japanese decor, and the impacts of the Franco-Prussian War. It’s…a lot.
Now, that doesn’t mean you have to know every single detail about every major person and event, but it does mean that you’ll have to go relatively in-depth if you’re planning to be realistic. If you’re setting up in a pseudo-France, you’ll have to know the basic big picture, but the wonderful thing about pseudo-settings is that you can cherry-pick your favorite cultural and historical moments.
Answer the big questions
If you’re writing a Not Here story, you’ll need to ask some bigger questions and get a lot more detailed, and it’s going to be a little more difficult than the research you’re doing for a Here story as it’s all coming out of your head.
I’ll go into more detail below, but for now, the general questions you need to ask to create your fictional world are the five W’s, as well as two extras:
- What kind of world are we in?
- Where are we geographically?
- When are we historically?
- What kinds of science and technology exist in this world? Are we talking about steamships or spaceships?
- Who’s in charge?
- Why is this story historically important?
- Magic or no magic?
- How big is the story?
Create a world outline
Okay, I understand - lots of us are “pantsers,” or writers who fly by the seat of our pants when it comes to drafting our stories. But believe me when I say that if you’re building your own world, you definitely need an outline of some description.
It doesn’t have to be anything super-specific. All you really need are the basics:
- A map, to tell you where you are in the story
- A timeline, to tell you when you are in the story
- Profiles for major characters (monarchs, religious leaders, major heroes, major villains) so that you can reasonably reference them in your story
Having this information on hand can help you quickly add details to your scene without having to spend a lot of time digging through old drafts and random notes. Of course, you can add more detail to your outline as you see fit, but it helps to have even just a quick one-page write-up so that you can keep your story organized and consistent.
Build your characters into the setting
Now that you’ve got a world, you’ve got to put people in it, right? Your characters may be cool on their own, but if they don’t work in this world you’ve just spent so much time creating, there’s no point to all of the hard work you just did.
Start with the big picture. Are your characters an appropriate species for this world? Where do they come from geographically? Are they an adult or a child in their culture? For instance, it’s going to be hard to explain a wizened old tree elf with magical powers in normal 1920s New York City. Make sure that your character makes sense on a very basic level.
Now comes the fun part. Start digging deeper into what these big questions mean for your character. Think about how their upbringing in a certain society would shape their views of the world and their values. Are they religious? Are they politically active? Are they jaded? Are they sheltered? You’ll also want to consider their geographical location; characters from big port cities might be more familiar with sailing and merchant slang than characters from secluded mountain towns, who might be more resilient in difficult terrain and handle pressure better.
You might even tie some characters into the larger history of the world. Include royalty as a major character and explain how court politics have shaped their need for adventure, or write about the great-great-grandchild of some big hero struggling to live up to their legacy. Connecting your characters on a personal level to the larger world plot can lead to both grand-scale epic scenes and bringing the big problems down to an individual level that your audience understands.
Questions to ask when building a fictional world
I’m going to go ahead and stick to the most basic structure I can with world-building questions: the five W’s. Who, What, When, Where, and Why – not necessarily in that order. This will help give you a general sense of what your world is going to look and feel like.
But, because nothing can ever be easy, I’m going to throw in a bonus sixth question that’s absolutely essential to ask before you start writing.
What kind of world are we in?
This is your basic Here or Not Here question.
If we’re Here, is it precisely Earth or just Earth-like, to be built on later? Decide how much of Here you’re porting over, and where exactly the world is going to change if it’s going to change at all.
If we’re Not Here, then decide where we are. An alien planet? A fantasy world? Are we on a planet at all? Is this happening in the void of space? If so, what kind of society are we working with? Get down your basic idea for how different your Not Here setting is, and what specifically makes it different, from magic to tech to different species interacting and anything else that isn’t going to be instantly familiar to your audience.
Where are we geographically?
Okay, so you’ve got a basic world idea. How are you going to visualize that? Having a physical map can help you keep track of your story’s movement and action by making the details of it more realistic by factoring in climate and physical distance.
I recommend studying real-life maps when making your own, and incorporating real natural patterns into the map so it makes more sense on a physical level. If you're including mountain ranges near the sea, then the side facing the sea is going to be more lush and vibrant. Societies are most likely to pop up and grow near water sources, so put your major cities near your lakes, rivers, and oceans, or give them a backstory for why they’re further away. Think about the natural resources each society would have access to, and what they might need to trade for from their neighbors.
When are we historically?
Every world has a history. It kind of has to - something interesting exists there, so they must have gotten there somehow and built up a society in some way. Your job now is to figure that part out. In terms of this world’s history, where are we? Are we at the dawn of civilization? The end of it? In the middle of a major conflict, or at its beginning or end?
Creating a rough timeline of events is key, especially when you’re telling a big story with lots of moving pieces or one set in a Not Here setting where we, the average person reading, wouldn’t be familiar with the general history. Start your timeline at the first major event - the creation of the planet, the first settlers, something like that. You can finish it either at the point where our story begins or, if you’ve already got a plan, after the last major event in your story.
For instance, if I was going to make a timeline of Narnia, I’d put the events of The Magician’s Nephew at the very beginning, and the events of The Last Battle at the very end. If the story I was telling was The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, then it would be near the beginning of the timeline, so I would treat the world as if everything were still settling into place…which is exactly what CS Lewis does.
Given this example, I feel like I should note that it’s perfectly acceptable to create a timeline that spans your story and your story only, especially if you’re creating a big, long-running series. For smaller stories, though, having a general idea of what’s going on in the world and when can help you give more context to the characters.
Some things to note in your timeline:
- Major events like the creation of a world, a massive natural or supernatural disaster, and major conflicts
- The reigning eras of different political factions
- The division and reconnection of nations
- The births and deaths of big historical figures like monarchs and heroes
Who’s in charge?
So we’ve got a world, and we know where and when we are. Awesome! The next step is to figure out who lives here.
Start big. Is this a world with a single sapient (read: capable of thinking rationally and communicating in larger societies) species like Earth (as far as we know, humans are the only things here with large scale cultures), or is it a world that’s got multiple sapient species vying for resources?
Think of that second option as worlds like Dungeons and Dragons’ Faerun, which has various “races” that control different parts of the setting. Dwarves control the mountains, elves the woods and far North, halflings have Luiren and later Amn, and humans have settlements somewhat all over. The rest of the sapient peoples don’t have particular strongholds of power but they do coexist across the entire world, if not always peacefully.
Once you’ve figured out who’s there, you have to think about who’s in charge. What is the political structure of each sapient species’ nation? Who’s at the top of that structure? How long have they been there?
Some of the most common setups for political structure in fantasy worlds are monarchies, democracies, and theocracies.
- Monarchies are easy to set up because they (usually) follow one family line back centuries. You can adjust them to make them more interesting with coups and shocking weddings (the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones being one infamous example) or you can leave them relatively simple to make room for your story’s plot.
- Democracies are a little harder because they tend to change leaders more frequently and more randomly. Decide on a couple of key political parties and figure out who’s in charge when based on what you want the country to look like now.
- Theocracies are governments run by a specific religious ideology. They tend to operate similarly to a monarchy, but follow a line of religious leaders rather than a specific family. This is a touchy one, especially if you’re modeling the religion off of a real-world faith. Use at your own risk.
Why is this story historically important?
Let me start this section by saying that the story you tell doesn’t have to be historically significant. You are in fact allowed to write cute little slice-of-life stories and personal narratives that never touch the big plot of the world’s history beyond peripheral references - that’s perfectly okay! Writing on the small scale can be just as interesting and fun as writing on a big scale, and as long as you’re excited about your story, whether or not it’s a big, epic adventure that affects future generations is completely up to you.
That being said, if you do decide to write a historically significant story, you’ve got to establish how it’s significant. Note down exactly who and what this plot is going to affect. Are national leaders going to get involved? Are big natural or unnatural events going to change the face of the world? Is there going to be a major conflict like an international manhunt or a war?
You might choose to create a little mini mind map here. Put your character in the middle, and draw branches out to everything they affect directly. Then, draw branches from the affected parties to what they affect, and see if you can connect them. This will help you keep track of the domino effects of your plot.
Oh, and remember to write these events down on your timeline!
Magic or no magic?
Here is the bonus sixth question I mentioned, and it’s a big question for fantasy writers especially: is there magic in your world, or not?
If there are magic users of any kind in your world, you’ve got to ask yourself a few more questions to build a framework for it that your audience is likely to believe. After all, limitless magic completely negates conflict; if everything can be solved with the flick of a wand, why wouldn’t it be?
Here are some questions to help you establish a magic system:
- What exactly is the magic? Where does it come from? How does the magic work?
- How is magic used? Is it an everyday convenience or reserved for the rich and powerful?
- Who can use magic? Is it an inborn thing or a learned skill? Can it be bottled and sold, like potions?
- Are there religious or cultural beliefs / superstitions tied to magic?
- What is the cost of using this magic? Does it drain you physically, mentally, or emotionally? Does it pull from something physically limited?
- Is there anything that magic can’t do? Why?
There’s something very important that I feel like I need to say here: no matter how your magic system works, be consistent about it! Have the same kinds of magic show up, the ways magic is acquired should stay the same, the people who use it should stay the same, and it should never do something you’ve already stated is impossible.
If you’re going to break a rule in your system, do it on purpose and make it part of your plot. Then make sure you explain how the rule was broken and why. This gives your readers something interesting to investigate and theorize on as they read.
How much planning is needed to build a fictional world?
It’s tricky to say exactly how much planning you’ll need to put into a world before you’re ready to start writing, because every author’s worldbuilding process is different. Some people are fine having a general idea in their head and answering questions as they come up in the story, while others prefer to have a fully fleshed-out world to drop their characters into and see what happens. Most people are somewhere in between; they like having some idea of where they’re going but are open to changing things up once the draft starts shaping up.
Personally, I like having a fairly good idea of how the world works before I start writing in it so that I can break those expectations in the most interesting way possible. I play a lot of Dungeons and Dragons, so I’m used to slotting a character into a complex, pre-written world with established rules and histories that are subject to interpretation. In my writing, though, I like to have a simple backdrop for a not-so-simple story, so I don’t tend to do a lot of detailed world-building before I dive into my first draft.
Honestly, the amount of planning that you need to do to build a fictional world depends entirely on what you feel most comfortable with and what will help you tell your story most effectively. If that means building a complete world from the ground up, so be it! But it’s also fine to figure your world out as you write it. As long as you’re able to keep track of what you’re building, the way you build it is up to you. (However, don’t allow yourself to get mired in worldbuilding forever. At some point, it’s time to start writing that sci-fi or fantasy novel this work is meant for!)
How do you reveal details about your world in your fiction?
You’ve got this beautiful new world. It’s got the perfect map, a rich history, a thriving culture, an intriguing political landscape, and a whole host of tiny little details that make you want to shout about them from the rooftops. You’re all set up to write your story and tell your reader every aspect of your world.
Whoa! Stop! Stop right there! You may be doing exactly what most readers hate: infodumping.
When it comes to reading, infodumping is an instant story-killer. This is when the writer gets so excited while telling us about their world that they completely forget to move the plot along for paragraphs, pages, or even chapters at a time. It’s one of the reasons that people find Tolkien’s work to be a slog; to read Lord of the Rings, sometimes you just have to sit through an entire chapter of Ent history and philosophy lessons.
That’s not to say that telling us more about your world is a bad thing. It most certainly isn’t! Sometimes writers dedicate entire books to their world’s lore and history, and that’s perfect for fans of a series who want to know more. It’s a win-win for everyone: the writer gets to gush and the readers get to explore a vast and interesting setting. That’s what many Dungeons and Dragons books do - they build up a setting and let you make up the plot.
If, however, you’ve got a story to tell and only a book-length space to do it, you might want to be careful with how you introduce your world to your character. You’ve got to give some context about this setting you’ve so lovingly created, so how do you do that effectively? Well, you can try a couple of convenient, tried-and-true ways.
The first method is what Brandon Sanderson calls “maid and butler dialogue.” This is essentially when characters have conversations about things that the reader doesn’t know about yet. They might talk about So-and-so’s torrid affair with What’s-her-name long before either character is introduced, as a bit of background gossip, or talk about their cousin’s great trip to Something-or-other Mountain and the traffic that held them up in that one port town that your main character will later discover has a massive terrible secret hiding underneath it.
This is a concept that is similar to Chekhov’s Gun in that these little tidbits given throughout the story should probably come to fruition later on in order to reveal their importance to your setting. It’s also fairly realistic; people talk about their world all the time, from the weather and the local market to major political events and scandals.
The second method is by offering your readers an audience insert. This is when you’ve got one character in the story that’s just as unfamiliar with the world around them as your reader is, who is learning as the story progresses and would realistically need to have some things outright explained to them. These characters might be your protagonist or a side character, but they’re usually fairly close to the main action so that the audience can follow them and make discoveries with them.
For example, our audience insert character in Percy Jackson and the Olympians is our beloved protagonist Percy. Percy starts the story as an average 12-year-old kid with some issues fitting in at school when he’s suddenly thrust into a dangerous world of gods and monsters. He’s learning at the same rate the target audience is; most Percy Jackson readers are also kids, who may go into the book with limited knowledge of Greek mythology. This means that everyone gets the benefits of the explanations from characters like Charon and Annabeth about how things work without feeling like they’ve been preached to in a literature class lesson.
Audience insert characters are probably the most accessible world revelation tools for new writers because they give you a chance to just talk openly about your world.
World building resources
If you’re ready to create your own fictional world, but still feel like you might need a little more help, here are a couple of tools that might be good to get you organized, inspired, and ready to write.
- Mythical Unicorn offers some fantastic templates and questionnaires for different areas of your magical world, from general lore to military structure to magic systems and more. Each option leads to a simple plug-and-play template maker that’ll help you create detailed notes.
- World Anvil is a massively interactive suite of software specifically designed for helping you flesh out your world setting. They offer tons of features including articles for people, places, or events that can be linked into interactive maps, timelines, an RPG campaign manager, and full-on novel writing software. You can use this to basically create your own wiki for your world. This is one of my personal favorites, though I have to say the user interface is a little clunky at times.
- Campfire is, according to their website, “the most versatile writing software.” I’d be hard-pressed to argue with them; they offer an amazing suite of modular features in a pay-for-what-you-need model. Basically, you only pick up the features you really want and pay accordingly, and base accounts are free. Their tools include interactive maps, character profiles, family trees, timelines, relationship webs, magic system structuring, flora and fauna cataloging, cultural references, and more. And, of course, this all ties into a great manuscript writing program.
Creating an entire world from the ground up can seem intimidating; I mean, according to most cultures, it’s a feat only a god could accomplish. But it’s also one of the most thrilling things you can do as a writer. Having your own world gives you the freedom to do literally anything you want with your story. The only rules you have to listen to are your own, and you know the guy who enforces the rules; they’re a pushover when it comes to you!
The freedom to create anything you want, anything at all, is one of the joys of writing. It’s as close as we get to real-life magic, and, if you ask me, is definitely worth the time and effort that it takes to build your own world.