A painting of a refugee woman holding her two children in debris surrounded by vibrant candles.

World Building 101

So you wanna design a world, eh? But don’t know where to start? Well I’ve got just the thing for you!

World building has always been one of my absolute favorite pass times. It’s something that has been inherently part of me since my earliest memories. I was never one to just simply play with toys or follow the instructions on a play set. Instead, I can remember spending hours as a young child crafting entire cultures and civilizations out of things like Legos and Bionicles. I would play out entire stories and histories with whatever pieces I could find. As I grew older, I turned to video games like Minecraft and Skyrim, but I still held on to my roots of creating stories and imagining vast empires. I’d design everything from the largest of battles and most pompous of kings all the way to the smallest shops and taverns. My mind has always run wild with ideas and worlds. It’s just who I am, and it’s something that has always been a part of me. Today, I’m currently in the progress of writing an entire novel, so I decided I’d share some of my experiences in doing so.

Sadly, world building does not come as easily to everyone as it does for others, and for some it can be an arduous and even frustrating task (especially for those who have designed characters, OC’s, or something similar, and want to create a world for them to live in). So, today, I would like to lay out a simple guide that will help you if you’ve been dreaming about building a world, but don’t really know where to start. Whether you are looking to create a comic, make a video game, write a DnD campaign, or just mess around with places your OC’s could live, this guide will hopefully be able to guide you in the right direction (hehe it’s a guide because it guides people  😁 ).

To start out, the way I see it, is that there are three camps to world building. There are those who build top down, those who build bottom up, and those who prefer a hybrid approach. I personally prefer the hybrid approach, but any way is fine. It’s whatever works for your situation. I will go over each one in the order stated above.

Top Down Approach

A painting of a refugee woman holding her two children in debris surrounded by vibrant candles.
A woman holding her two children in debris, by Sam Perin.

The first approach to world building would be the top down approach. This technique mostly works best for those who have characters, organizations, or some sort of object in the world already designed. The way it works is that you take the object or element you’ve already designed, and then create the world centered around that object or element.

For example, let’s say I designed a character named Yixith. Yixith is a hardcore demon hunter who has gotten himself involved with the wrong group of people. He is now being hunted by a terrifying satanic cult. He’s got a cloak, and uses a crossbow for most of his work. He’s got leather clothing, and a pointed Van Helsing hat.

Now, let’s say I’ve had this character designed for a while, and want to finally build a world around him or create some sort of story. I have a couple of options in going about it. The first thing to do is latch on to key concepts that are already present in the character. For example, he is a Demon hunter, so whatever world we are designing will obviously have some sort of fantasy or magical undertone. He’s always been portrayed as wearing leather and uses a crossbow, so it is fair to assume that the world he lives in primarily functions off of a similar fashion of technology. Additionally, we already know that he is being hunted by an evil cult, so perhaps his world is shrouded by a mysterious evil cult that is trying to control society.

Moving from there, we can start to manifest the rest of the world into existence. We can draw out a map that is either based on real life geography or something completely made up! We can then place towns and cities and go from there to create the world’s cultures. We will use our original character’s known experiences and assets to fashion the rest of the world’s design. Let’s say he comes from a country. His country is one that is full of darkness. Their government is run by a satanic cult. Perhaps he became a vampire hunter in order to stop said government from destroying people’s lives. Let’s say there are other countries too — some which are controlled in a similar way, others which are in opposition, and others which are neutral. We can just keep going and going and going. The process can be endless if we let it, because it extends like a pyramid, getting more and more detailed as it progresses.

The main point to remember is that if you have a pre-designed character or group of people, the best way to fashion a world around them is to latch on to key ideas and concepts about that group or character and build off of it. Take it one step at a time, and you’ll surely have a world built in no time. Sometimes it can be really helpful to design a backstory around your group or character first as well. Designing some sort of backstory, even if it is vague, can help get the gears turning for designing the rest of world and its people.

Bottom Up Approach

The bottom up approach to world building is the exact opposite to the top down approach. This approach encompasses designing the entire world before designing the characters. If one chooses to follow this design style, they may find it easier to naturally implement the characters into the setting, but feel more limited in their freedom of design of said characters.

The best way to start a bottom up approach is to start big. Start as big as you can. Make an entire country or continent. Perhaps draw out a map, or create some sort of structural hierarchy. Make continents, then countries, then cities, then towns, then people. You will find that as you continue working, the world will start to naturally fall into place as it should. It’ll become easier and easier to fill in small gaps after you have the biggest main ideas already created.

The bottom up approach is great for people who don’t have specific characters in mind, but have an idea for a world they want to design. It is best for those who wish to create a DnD campaign or perhaps write a video game.

Hybrid Approach

The hybrid approach is my favorite way to approach world building. It allows a natural mesh of character creation and world design. I’ve found it works best for people who specifically want to craft an elaborate story from their world.

The way this approach works is by combining both the top down and bottom up methods. You would start by designing vague ideas of characters and a world for them to live in. Then you would develop the characters, their cultures, and their world simultaneously. This approach requires a lot more organization than the first two, because it is much easier to create logical facilities within the world’s bounds, but I believe it is the best method to use in order to design the most realistic and natural world. Following this approach will allow one to seamlessly integrate the story, characters, and world all into one nice package.

A beautiful vibrant beach sunset painting with palm trees and grass and waves.
A painting of a beach sunset, by Sam Perin.

World Building Basics –  Tips, Tricks, and Resources

Now that we’ve discussed the three main methods I’ve found for world building, let’s get into some really important things to keep in mind while you are designing your world.

Tips

  • It can sometimes be incredibly daunting to design an entire world. You could be overwhelmed all too quickly if you don’t break it up into smaller chunks. Don’t be afraid to start small and work your way out. Creating a world isn’t some magical task that only some people can do, it’s something that anyone can do with just a little bit of out-of-the-box thinking. The best way to train your mind to create a world is to learn to think randomly. Not everything in the world has to be perfectly planned, sometimes the most natural worlds are designed because someone said, “eh, I think an inn would go nice there… Ooh and maybe a well over there… The tavern goes here… And I’ll flip a coin for whether this is a hotel or a house.” It really is as simple as you make the process.
  • Cultures follow geography. It doesn’t make sense to have a group of people who are nomadic and fashioned to live off of the mountains with goats, living in the middle of a desert island. Try to keep this in mind when you are creating the various cultures of your world. Sometimes cultures can be completely random and unique, but try to craft them around the geography surrounding them, or craft the geography of the world around the culture that resides within it.
  • Sometimes we can get too caught up in small details, when larger, all encompassing ideas are much more important. Don’t let yourself get caught up in designing every tiny aspect of your world. Instead, focus on larger broader aspects, and allow the smaller details to fall into place naturally.
  • Additionally, creating histories for the worlds you are designing can be incredibly beneficial in creating the political and cultural scene of the world. The history you create can be as long or short, or as detailed or vague as you wish, but it is something that I think is really important when designing elaborate worlds. The world’s history is what shapes it in the present day, so doesn’t it make sense for that history to actually exist somewhere? Even if no one else ever sees it.

Tricks

  • Take inspiration from real life cultures, but don’t directly steal.
  • Earth is covered in strange and amazing animals, plants, and geography. Don’t be afraid to draw from everything and anywhere. Even places like your own backyard can do!
  • Sometimes names will come naturally after you’ve designed everything else. But, other times, names can actually help facilitate the design of entire places. For example a place called Dewborn Valley will obviously be very different than a place titled Hitori Confederacy.
  • It’s usually really helpful to keep a physical and highly organized journal with you that has all of your thoughts and ideas in it.
  • The more organized you are, the better! In many cases you will be creating an entire world, with histories, people, cultures, governments, and wildlife, so it can get messy really easily.
  • I like to use this site for name inspiration. Additionally, searching for map ideas and other pieces of material on Google can be really helpful when trying to create continents and countries.
  • Have fun! World building doesn’t have to be a mundane and arduous task, it’s supposed to be fun, so let go, relax, and let the world design itself!

Conclusion

In conclusion, world building can be a fantastic and wonderful experience, but it can be frustrating if you don’t really know where to start. However, there are many techniques you can use to begin your quest into the unknown, from the top down to bottom up approach, there is surely a way that will fit for what you need. If you have any further questions about world building, or would like some help, feel free to drop me a message on social media or email. I hope that you now have the tools necessary for turning your dreams into a reality. Have a wonderful day!

 

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