5 Worldbuilding Tips for Sci-Fi and Fantasy Writers
The goal for most science fiction and fantasy authors is to create an immersive, three-dimensional setting for readers to lose themselves in—but how do you do it? In this post, I’m sharing my top 5 tips to help you create an engaging story world. Let’s dive in!
5 Worldbuilding Tips for Sci-Fi and Fantasy Writers
#1. Go narrow and deep in your worldbuilding, not wide and shallow.
The very first tip I have for you is to go narrow and deep in your worldbuilding, not wide and shallow. And what I mean by this is that I want you to pick 2-3 worldbuilding categories to focus on and then go deep into those 2-3 categories when brainstorming and fleshing out your story world.
So, I’m going to assume that at some point you’ve Googled worldbuilding tips or worldbuilding worksheets, and maybe you’ve found these gigantic lists of all the things you can consider for your story world, and then maybe you get overwhelmed because how can you possibly figure out all those things, right?
But here’s the thing—you don’t have to have everything about your story world figured out to make your world feel immersive. Instead, if you pick 2-3 key areas of your story world that will be relevant to your story—and then if you flesh those out from there, your world will appear fully fleshed out, and it will feel immersive for readers.
So, for example, think about a story like The Name of the Wind. Patrick Rothfuss fleshed out a few key areas of his story world that would impact his protagonist the most—the University, the performing arts, and the folklore.
Most of Kvothe’s time is spent at the University, so Patrick Rothfuss had to flesh out what his world would look like at school. He built out Kvothe’s classes, his textbooks, his teachers, his classmates, where Kvothe would live while he was at school, how he’d pay for school, and things like that.
He also fleshed out the cultural significance of the performing arts—Kvothe plays the lute, he comes from a band of troubadours, he loves going to the Eolian, and eventually he gets his performers pin there. All of that is significant to the story. Also, the girl he has feelings for, Denna, is a performer, and she hangs out at the Eolian, too. So, this setting and this bit of cultural development brings them together.
The third thing I think of is all the folklore so, there are many stories and legends about the Chandrian, and things like the story of stealing the moon, or stories about the Creation Wars, etc. Again, those are all things that are relevant to the story, so Patrick Rothfuss obviously spent his time developing this area.
Now, what’s not really relevant to the story are things like the politics or the economy in this story world. Of course, they’re there, but Patrick Rothfuss didn’t need to go deep into those areas because they don’t affect the story.
So, to wrap up my first tip, I want you to pick 2-3 worldbuilding categories that you will go narrow and deep into—and then start fleshing things out from there. This will allow you to not only focus on what’s important but it will also help give your world a feeling of depth and realness, which is what we all want, right?
#2. Determine what kind of magic or technology will exist in your story world.
The second tip I have for you is to understand what kind of magic system or what kind of technology you’re working with in your story and flesh that out.
So, magic and technology exist on a spectrum. And I’m going to use magic as the example here, but the same logic applies to technology. So, if you imagine a line from left to right, we’ll say that soft magic is on the left-hand side of the spectrum and hard magic is on the right-hand side.
Soft magic is basically magic with rules that are unknown to the readers. So, in The Lord of the Rings, for example, readers don’t really know what Gandalf can do. We don’t know how a wizard’s magic works, right? But we don’t need to know how it works in order to understand and enjoy the story.
On the other side of the spectrum, we have hard magic, or magic with clearly defined rules. So, for example, in the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson, there are clearly defined rules—only certain people can burn metals, and only certain kinds of people can burn certain kinds of metals. It’s clear to the reader what it takes to use magic, and also what the cost of doing magic is.
Now, between these two extremes—soft magic, or magic without rules known to the reader, and hard magic, or magic with rules clearly understood—is a whole spectrum of possibilities for your magic systems.
So, for example, Harry Potter falls somewhere in the middle between soft magic and hard magic. Some things in the Harry Potter universe have very clear rules and boundaries, while other parts of the magic system do not. For example, we know that you can’t conjure something out of thin air, right? That’s a very clear rule that exists on the page that the reader understands. But beyond what affects Harry’s day-to-day, there’s a ton of other magic in the wizarding world that we don’t understand as readers.
So, zoomed in, the magic system in Harry Potter is a hard magic system. But zoomed out, the magic system is soft. And this is a really nice balance that allows the author to use magic in the plot and conflict yet maintain a strong sense of wonder.
And the same idea goes for technology. So, you can use the same terms if you want—are you writing more of a soft science fiction story where the advanced technology of whatever it is exists in your story, but it’s not integral to the plot? Or are you writing more of a hard sci-fi story where the rules and the details are really important because they are integral to the plot.
So, you need to decide where your magic system or where your technology falls along the spectrum before you dig into developing the nuances of your magic or technology. Once you know the answer to this question, you can start to drill down into the specifics.
#3. Avoid generalizations when it comes to the people or creatures who populate your story world.
The third tip I have for you is to avoid generalizations when it comes to the people or creatures that populate your world.
For example, you might have some combination of humans, fae, demons, merpeople, elves, trolls, androids, giants, witches, or aliens in your world. Within those groups, there should be different races and cultures, as well as well-rounded individuals.
The reason this is important is because you don’t want to end up with a group of humans, elves, or witches that are all the same, or feel the same, or have the same characteristics. Have you ever read a book where all individuals from a group are carbon copies of each other? Where all trolls are ugly, gross, and mean? That’s boring, right? And that’s not how real life is. There are all kinds of people in real life, and there should be all kinds of people in your story—whether those people are human or not.
A good example of what I mean by this is in the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas, she has humans, fae, witches, wyverns, and demons. In general, all Fae possess supernatural senses and strength, but there are different groups within the Fae, and each individual Fae has his or her own personality, belief system, worldview, history, etc.
It’s the same with the witches in her world. There are two main groups of witches with different cultures, belief systems, fears, hopes, dreams, and values, but within those two main groups, there are cliques and individual witches with their own personalities, belief systems, fears, hopes, dreams, and values.
What all this does is help you to avoid making generalizations AND it helps us create a realistic world with unique and interesting characters.
So, you’ll want to ask yourself what kinds of humans or non-humans or creatures will exist in your world and then consider how you can create well-rounded races, cultures, and individuals within those overarching groups.
#4. Your story world needs its own internal logic—for every cause, there’s an effect; for every action, there’s a reaction.
The fourth tip I have for you is to make sure your world has its own internal logic. Internal logic means that everything in your world hangs together internally. So, for every cause, there is an effect; for every action, there is a reaction.
This means that whatever changes you make in your story’s world—so, however it differs from the real world—you have to think of the consequences of that decision.
For example, in A Game of Thrones, the seasons are uneven. There can be winters or summers that last for years. As a result, the characters in the story have to prepare for the change of seasons. I mean, think about something simple like growing food. If you can’t do that in all areas in the winter, what does that mean? And how does that affect whoever you might end up trading with? Things like that.
So, long story short, whatever you change in your world, think of the ramifications of those changes and consider how that will play out in your story.
This will help you craft a cohesive world AND it will help you avoid building a world that just doesn’t make sense, or that doesn’t hang together internally.
#5. Use your target audience’s age range to help inform your story’s learning curve.
The last tip I have for you is to consider your reader and their learning curve. Every story has a learning curve. A learning curve is basically how long it takes the reader to get up to speed on the nuances of your world.
So, for example, a story like Harry Potter has a shallow learning curve. First, we learn Harry’s a wizard, and we see Hagrid do a little bit of magic. Then, we go to Diagon Alley where J.K. Rowling introduces one new thing at a time so as to not overwhelm the reader. Once we get to Hogwarts, Harry (and the reader) learns a new type of spell or magic or something to do with the world every few pages. J.K. Rowling doesn’t dump everything on readers at once—and part of that is because Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a book for middle-grade readers.
Imagine if you dumped a whole bunch of worldbuilding information on a 10-year-old… that probably would feel challenging for them and really overwhelming, right?
You can also think about the learning curve of the books within a series, too. Books that are further along in a series can have a steeper learning curve because the reader has already been immersed in the world for at least one, maybe two books.
For example, by the time readers get to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling can introduce a bunch of new things because the reader is more familiar with the wizarding world than they were in book one.
My point here is that you need to consider your reader and the effect you want to have on them. Books targeted at younger audiences will want a more shallow learning curve than books targeted at adult readers. Books that come early in a series will have a more shallow learning than books that come later.
So, there you have it—my top 5 tips for building an immersive story world! By following these five tips, you’ll craft a rich and engaging story world that readers will eagerly immerse themselves in, embarking on unforgettable journeys through your imagination. Happy worldbuilding!