Berley’s Top 10 World Building Tips for Sci Fi or Fantasy

Like I have mentioned in past blog posts, it took me ten years of writing and collecting rejection letters to get to level I am today. And even so I’m still working and still climbing. Always working and always writing to improve my craft. The bad part about going through those ten years is obvious, even the annoyingly cliche parts. The form letters, the future uncertainty, people not interested in looking at your work, people telling you you’re wasting your life and you should do something else. But believe it or not, some good things came out of those ten years. I learned to be a better writer, I developed thick skin, and I learned more or less how to market myself and my work and on top of that I learned how to world build. Like I said before my techniques might not work for everyone. But before you choose whether or not to take my advice ask yourself these two questions: Would you rather take business advice from a self made billionaire or a guy like me? and, Would you rather take writing advice from a published author or a non-published author? Since J.R.R. Tolkien has yet to rise from the grave but somehow has a Facebook page, I guess I’ll have to fill in for the time being. So this week I proudly present you with, in no particular order, Berley’s Top 10 World Building Tips for Sci-Fi and/or Fantasy.


1. Size

Believe it or not few people put very little thought into the size of their book’s personal universe. Some give it a passing thought but few actually take the time to really ask themselves the really important questions. Does my world take place in one country? (Panem – Hunger Games) One large continent or land mass (Most fantasy stories, Lord of the Rings, Wheel of Time series, Inheritance cycle) One whole planet (Avatar – The Last Airbender) One galaxy (Star Wars). Or all of time and space (Dr. Who)

The size of your world is not only very important, it’s more important than you think. The size of your world ultimately determines how long your series is going to be, where your characters can go, the size of the population and opens up a world of a number of possibilities or limits them depending on the size. Most fantasies prefer the general land mass which they fill in with monsters, magical castles, bridges, mountains, caves, kingdoms, abandoned towns and all that jazz. Sci-fi tends to go bigger, some use one or two planets while others use an entire solar system (Firefly) and some do one planet plus colonies like the moon colonies in Robert Heinlein’s the Moon is a Harsh Mistress or the space colonies from Gundam Wing. How big you want your world is your business but keep in mind, readers have certain subconscious expectations when it comes to the size of the world they’re reading. If you do the one land mass/continent thing, AND you draw a map and fill it in with all kinds of goodies, be ready to use every bit of that map or at least mention it when you write your story. I promise you, when readers finish a story or a series and they see one part of the map that hasn’t been used or mentioned, they will say something. So unless the series is just that popular, almost always it’ll have a negative reaction. With larger worlds that you can’t possibly fill in you have more elbow room but be ready to travel. If you write about a sci-fi world where it’s possible for your character to reach other planets and you decide to stick to just one or two, prepare to have your book hated. In Star Wars you NEVER just go to one planet, you go to several, each with different climates, animals and people. So my advice, plan out the size of your world first, then plan how you want to fill it.

2. History

Save the groans for when you have to pay for you’re kids’ college education. Whether its our world, a version of our world or a completely different world, universe, time, space, whatever, unless you’re retelling the genesis of the world or universe (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Magician’s Nephew) 99% of the time it will have that past. While I’m not the world’s greatest history buff, I do know this, unless you’re character’s aren’t human and are basically gray blobs with no language, no money, no government and no religion, whatsoever, who all look and sound alike, there’s a 110% chance that your world’s history has violence. While you don’t have to write about a bunch of old men sitting around a table making decisions, (I highly advise against it) you can (I highly recommend) write about the other stuff. Wars, Empires, Conquests, spreading of religions, spreading of languages, Holy Wars, Crusades, Epic Battles (300) and pretty much all the bloody, violent reasons we go to the movies or watch late night cable. Although I’m not saying to write about the long history of your world, like most fantasy epics, but it is nice to mention how and why your world is the way it is.

3. Culture

Culture may not be the thing fantasy and sci-fi ignore but it tends to get overlooked quite a bit. In most fantasies the kingdom is usually Medieval European in inspiration and, all neighboring kingdoms look alike, everyone in them sound alike and the only kingdom that dares to be different is the Evil Wizard’s layer which is usually black, and big and dangerous. I’m not saying that this can’t be done right. But I am saying that is HAS BEEN DONE. One of my favorite things about Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is that his kingdoms aren’t all the same. They’re different. So different in fact that die hard fans of the series can tell you the place you’re talking about just by describing the buildings, the people or just the culture in general. Culture doesn’t just mean operas and music. It means sports. It means art. It means architecture. It means fashion. If you’re characters are in warm climates, that means less clothes and lighter fabrics. If the country or planet is pretty much the Arctic or Hoth, that means heavy clothing and convenient access to heat. Remember 99% of writing is rewriting and 99% of action is reaction. We don’t wear clothes for no reason. The clothing you wear, unless you’re a nudist, is a reflection of your time period, your country, your style, your climate, your population, your money and monetary system, and even the choice to be a nudist reflects what kind of culture you’re in. Like most things on this list, it doesn’t have to be perfect but it does have to make sense. FYI, if you’re willing to have an interesting culture, be prepared to explain the history behind it.

4. Dominant Technology (my personal favorite)

For those of you who’ve watched the God-awful 2006 Superman Returns probably remember this quote from Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor: “You see whoever controls technology controls the world. The Roman empire ruled the world because they built roads. The British empire ruled the world because they built ships. America; the atom bomb.

Technology is what makes a dominant country/empire dominate. And it doesn’t really matter what the technology is. It could be the Roman roads, British ships or the US atom bombs or it could be the One Ring, or the Death Star or red matter, or Materia, or the Internet, it doesn’t matter. It just needs to have one thing: It’s easily accessible to a lot of people. What it does to those people is up to you. The Death Star can kill a lot of people. The Internet and the cell phone connects people all over the world instantly. Roman roads helped to connect the empire and its citizens used them for travel and trade all the time. And it applies to fantasy as well. Sauron has, or needs, the One Ring. In the Sword of Truth series, Darken Rahl, one many bad guys, has access to lots of magical people, items and artifacts. In Mistborn, the Lord Ruler found a way to live forever. So if your world has a dominant empire or a rising dominant empire, make certain there’s a reason for it. A strong army can only do so much.

5. Governments (My least favorite)

Thomas Paine once described government, even in it’s best state, as a necessary evil. That unfortunately also applies to world building. Even if your world is comprised of nothing but wandering nomads or tiny villages, even wandering family have rules, punishments and a chain of command. Remember, people can chose to follow or not follow a religion. As for government, if you live in the country, you have no choice but to follow their rules or suffer the consequences. As for money, the greatest of the three ‘necessary evils’, your only choices are either stealing or buying. And if you steal, you also risk breaking both religious and government rules. Which pretty much means you have no choice.

So when it comes to government, what are your choices? Empire? Religious Empire? Country? Democracy? Republic? Dictatorship? Slavery? Cultural hierarchy with royalty, nobles and peasants. Is it militaristic with a General Commander instead of a President or a King? Or does the country have a prime minister and parliament with the descendants of the former monarchy serving as mere figureheads while elected officials make government decisions? Keep in mind there’s a reason why the government is the way it is. And the reason why this is my least favorite is because, as far as I know, this is the only topic that encompasses everything on this damn list! Not that big a surprise considering the fact that 99.99% of the human population in the last 100 years have lived within some form of government. I’m sorry but because of that fact you have no choice but to include in your story. You don’t have to get into an insane amount of detail but your readers will need to know how the world your characters live in. Not just the physical world, but how they react with other people. What are the rules and laws that citizens obey and which ones do citizens break and why. In Hunger Games, poaching is against the law but most people do it anyway. Even the police. In Harry Potter the 3 Unforgivable Curses gets you a one way ticket to Azkaban Prison. In Mistborn if a nobleman gets a skaa (peasant) pregnant, he is required by law to kill her. (If you want to know why, read the book). My best advice for dealing with governments is try to be unique and try to have fun with it. One of my favorite example of this comes from Final Fantasy VII where the world is controlled by a ruthless corporation as opposed to any individual government. Even the mayor of Midgar, the world’s largest city is nothing more than a powerless wimp who spends most of his day in corporate building’s library. Not only is that unique it tells you what kind of world your characters are living in.

6. Transportation

Another thing that some authors tend to overlook and many great authors always include is transportation. How do the people in your world go from point A to point B? Horse and carriage? Tauntaun? Starship? Gate? You can always tell the strength of a country by the type of transportation they have access to. Do they use airships or airplanes? Horses? Ships? Cars? Trains? Teleporters? Time Machines? Underground drills? If a country is wealthy enough, they’ll have access to most of these things and then some. If the country’s poor then it’ll show in their technology and especially their transportation. Remember, trade and commerce isn’t just about how cheap the product is to make. It’s also about how fast the product can get to the customer. The kingdom with access to teleportation technology will have a great advantage over horse and carriage any day. But of course you already knew that.

7. Magic System/ Sci-Fi Technology

While they may not be the same they both come with the same punchline; power. The reason this gets a different heading is because I’m not talking about the one thing that helps one empire dominate or the transportation the empire and it’s subject have access to. I’m talking about everything else. You can tell a nation’s power by the technology the government has access to and the technology everyone else has access to. Can people in your world heal wounds with special items? Can they heal wounds with advanced scientific medical technology. The how makes all the difference. Remember, Luke Skywalker had robot hand grafted to the rest of him after Vader cut it off. Harry Potter had to drink Skele-grow. Both solutions to a somewhat unique and slightly similar problem both make sense in their story’s respective universes. But it’s not just limited to medical uses. Harry Potter uses magic to play Quidditch. Star Wars has Dejarik (Google it, I’ll wait). It’s pretty much the holographic game R2D2 plays against Chewbaca. There’s also the training remote but Dejarik is so much fun to type. The main story may sell the novel but its those little details that make the world believable.

8. Religion

Some writers tend to avoid this and for good reason. The topic tends to make both writer and reader alike uncomfortable. Although your world doesn’t need religion, if you do decide to include it, you need to do it right. Rather than go into a long boring explanation I’ll break it down into three questions. Monotheism? Polytheism? Atheism? But if you’re really creative you can base a religion around ancestor worship, star and sky worship, energy and motion and even scientific discovery. You can make a religion around anything. All you need are the following: believers, benefits and routines. ALL religions have believers, benefits and routines. Hence term, ‘to watch religiously.’ How  often do the followers worship or meet and how do they worship? The beliefs and routines don’t have to make sense but the reasons why people follow those beliefs do. If the religion doesn’t benefit the followers then chances are they’re going to convert or change the religion all together.

9. Currency (My second favorite)

Whether it be Dollars, Dineros, Franks, Euros, Boxings (Mistborn), Gil (Final Fantasy) Crowns (a lot of fantasy novels), credits (a lot of sci-fi novels) gold pieces, and so on, unless your world is some kind of weird utopia, chances are people need money or some bartering system to buy the crap they need. This is also one of those annoying things weak writers then to forget to mention. Every character is always able to get just what they need and never pay for it or they always have the right amount of money or more than enough. I’m not saying it has to be detailed like in Harry Potter or unique where time is money like in the movie (In Time) but it HAS to be there and mentioned. Money tells the reader what kind of world its is. If they’re bartering chances are the place your character lives in is poor or the population is scattered with no centralized government. This can work in both sci-fi and fantasy. In sci-fi credit card like tools where all the character’s money is digitally stored is also popular. If you’re going more Industrial or modern then paper bills are a must. Just make sure you think about who’s face goes on them and why. Then there’s the good old, gold, silver and gems that fantasy tends to use, and occasionally overuse. Whatever you chose make certain that it fits your world’s environment. If you have different countries and/or cultures in your world, chances are they have different currencies or at least different exchange rates. I hate it when I read a story where two totally different cultures not only use the same currency but the prices are also the same. It doesn’t have to be perfect but it does have to make sense. Always try to chose a currency that fits the mood. My current favorite currency is the one in Hunger Games. People still use money but the poor trade food and venison for other essentials. Not only does that system makes sense it adds to the mood of the story and its characters in so many ways.

10. Food

This is another thing poor authors ignore and great authors bring out. Food. I’ve had the (ahem) “pleasure” of reading several novels where the main character, and sometimes all the characters never eat. EVER. The never sit down to eat or mention that they’re eating and if they do say they’re eating they never really elaborate on what they’re eating. In a fantasy universe or a sci-fi world I can imagine your local McDonalds isn’t just around the corner. Even Luke Skywalker drank blue milk, had a drink at Mos Eisley station, eat with Yoda and… that’s all I can remember. I’m not saying you should include every meal the characters eat but it is nice to know that they CAN eat. And in fantasy/sci-fi it’s always nice to know what kind of flora and fauna the characters can consume. And if you’re really brave, describe the taste. Does it have a nice salty flavor? Or does it taste like chicken because everything just has to taste like chicken. Does your world have it’s own candy like Harry Potter? What about fruits and veggies? Are they same? Are they different? Some fantasy novels give their fruit magical properties. One of my favorite examples is Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, In the New World, red fruits  like apples are fine but most red fruits are poisonous. Try not to get too crazy but ALWAYS try to be creative.

World building is never easy, but it can be fun if you try. Here is a link to swfa.org

http://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/

This link asks pretty much every world building question you need. I just gave you the crash course. Take a look, have some fun, and remember to ask yourself ‘why’ just as much as you ask yourself ‘what’ and ‘how’. Take care and thanks for reading. I’ll see you next week.

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About berleykerr

A Steampunk Author from Los Angeles.
This entry was posted in My Writing Process and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

47 Responses to Berley’s Top 10 World Building Tips for Sci Fi or Fantasy

  1. ladynamedd says:

    Reblogged this on Dreamscapes In Wonderland and commented:
    Actually really great advice.

  2. kyomarose says:

    Found this due to ladynamedd’s reblog. Thank you for putting this up, I’ve needed a kick in the rear for some time and this will really help me get things back on track.

  3. Sorry I had to stop reading after the second time you wrote “you’re” instead of “your”. I also disagree completely with points 1 & 2. Building a large fantasy world sets the context for your story and adds to immersion – you’re not obliged or expected to include the whole mapped area in your novel. Although personally I would create history before I write a novel, it’s not necessary and can even be harmful to some writers. Some writers may find it easier to just mention historical events in their story as they become relevant, and then fill them in later.

    • berleykerr says:

      While I disagree with you as well, clearly my blog isn’t for you.

    • GottfriedAlexander says:

      Even if you explain it later, you still have to create at least a template at first, so you might as well get it over with. And you cant say “Jacksonville was attacked in 1857” without explaining where it is, thus making a temporary “map”. and this is a blog, not an English class.

  4. Pingback: World-building toolkit « amuteforamuse

  5. Thanks for your marvelous posting! I actually enjoyed reading it, you will be a great author.I will ensure that I bookmark your blog and will come back in the foreseeable future.

  6. GottfriedAlexander says:

    Thank you for posting this. I have always wanted to make a fantasy series based in part off of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but make my own world and story for it. This template is very helpful.

  7. AAAAAA this is awesome, thank you. I’ve been having a really hard time trying to prioritize what to work on after I’ve sorted out the land masses and how the areas look. This is a really good breakdown and although a lot of it feels like it should be obvious I…neglected to really think about it. And yeah, I know a lot of people who do too. I guess it’s too easy to get wrapped up in all the exciting stuff that we forget the essentials.

    I’ll be linking it to anyone who needs advice on world building in the future yes. :>

  8. Bryan says:

    After I saw this post searching for an inspiration of fantasy writing and saw Thomas Paine being referenced, I knew I had to speak to you. Do you have e-mail?

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  11. Love this! Thank you so much for posting it up, I have favourited it so that I can return to it again to use as a tick list for my own fantasy world 😀 Although you have also highlighted to me that I really have to do some more work on the history of my kingdoms :S

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  13. Shea Cummings says:

    Great post! Thank you!

    I have been in the process of redesigning my world. After a few chapters I started to see that the world I had envisioned could not quite contain the story I wanted to tell. So here I am back at the drawing board. Thanks again 🙂

  14. Pingback: Guest post: What is this ‘world building’ thing anyway? | LETTERBRANCH

  15. Sam Worseldine says:

    Thank you for the advice. I’ve been world building for a while now and I recently got stuck. I was focusing too much on the big picture which limits ideas and creativity. This blog made me realize I need to start on details now. Well, since reading this I haven’t stopped writing. So much, in fact, that my hand hurts. I’ll blame you for my future arthritis issues (best compliment I can give you).

  16. Joshua M Swenson says:

    I’ve been writing short stories and toying with the idea of finally attempting a novel. I brainstormed and thought I had a pretty decent story idea. But when I sat down to write, all of these questions started popping up… what about the technology? what do they eat? And suddenly it seemed impossible again. I knew I needed a better framework, I need to build my world before again attempting to jump in. You’ve done a great job of providing that! Thank you very much! 😉

  17. Joshua M Swenson says:

    Reblogged this on Joshua M Swenson.

  18. Robert Pimm says:

    Fascinating stuff; worth reading and digesting fully.

    As it happens I am publishing a sci-fi novel “Biotime” (in free excerpts on my website robertpimm.com) which adheres to many of these rules – a world history filled with violence and conflict; new technology which transforms everything (and makes all other technology work backwards); new types of crime which generate new forms of violence; and so on. Even the scale question in pertinent: mine is a single world (more dystopia than sci-fi, think 1984 with more jokes) but I make maximum use of everything from California to Cambodia via Harlem and Haarlem. Of course old sci-fi buffs will think of Asimov’s Foundation series with its endless galaxies and star systems…

    In short, Mr Kerr, you make some excellent points. Thank you.

  19. moonlakeku says:

    I’ve tagged this article in my Favourite folder for a while as personal reference and just recently come back to it now that I’ve started an actual novel, I’ve created my own blog during a more extensive visit on this blog a few days back and just posted my very first post on wordpress today. Just want to say hi and thanks for the effort gone into this blog and for somehow inspiring me to create a means of making my creative endeavours somewhat public.

    Will be re-blogging this on my own Moonlake’s Fiction Space.

  20. skipmars says:

    ‘Preciate you recognizing Dead Wood with a nod while you were passing through. I can ‘amen’ the process part of writing, though I would like to point out that MANY famous writers were rejected over and over again. Something about persistence. Then there is Harper Lee, who is the curve breaker. No one ever says of her, “But what have you done lately?” That would be sacrilege.

    Thanks for helping me find your site. I’ll return indirectly to graze and munch on your wisdoms and your work.

    — SM

  21. Tootie says:

    Interesting that Harper Lee apparently has several books done, but does not want them released until after her death. She apparently does not want to experience the commentary, comparisons to ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ etc.

  22. I love reading things like this and then comparing the point to my own world, Lorata. Book One: The Champion of the Goddess made it to 540 pages because of the detail that I put into describing these points. When it’s apropriate, I describe what they are eating or wearing. The goverment (monarchy, really) is a big deal, and the history, religion, and magic are linked. I think technology can say a lot about a setting, and it can definitely affect the kind of transportation is available. Lorata is one planet in a solar system, but a couple of my other stories work aon a larger scale. Amodern Legend, forexample, transported the characters from Earth to a magical world, and so far they are within one kingdom, and I don’t plan on saying that it’s part of Lorata. My sci-fi tory transports characters all over the galaxy.
    This was a great post for any writer, whether starting off (to know what to include) or experienced (to see how they’re doing). Thanks for sharing!

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  26. Jane Apricity says:

    Reblogged this on Cast and Role and commented:
    This has little to do with characters, but it’s some of the best worldbuilding advise I’ve read. It really helped me figure put why Sycamore was falling flat as far as it’s world went.

  27. Moy says:

    I’ve got a particular world in mind for a few characters, but figured I couldn’t exactly revolve the world around the characters so here I am. Thanks for the great advice, will definitely bookmark and keep on my notes.

  28. Pingback: Links to Some Great Posts on World Building | normajhill.com

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