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Fictional World Building Begins with Imagining

Updated on July 07, 2016
Tinsky profile image

Tina's passion for creative writing and fictional worlds began in her teens. 30 years later she is completing a Master of Arts (Writing).

Building an imaginary world, from the bottom up

From the Bottom Up describes my process for building a fictional world.
From the Bottom Up describes my process for building a fictional world.

Why build a fictional world?

Why have you built a fictional world?

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Building an imaginary world generates hours of creative fun. There are many ways to build a fictional world, and many different reasons why you might want to build one. The art of fictional world building is used for a variety of entertainment mediums including science fiction and fantasy books, movies, plays, games and hobbies.

Though there a few different methods for building a fictional world, there is no one way, or right way to build a world. Some world builders choose to start building a world by dreaming about it, while others begin by drawing or mapping the geography. If you want to create a traditional Earth like world, you might begin by researching the sciences and religious texts. Alternatively, you can start with an empty space, and build your world from when it first came into existence. I like to call this process, From the Bottom Up.

The defining element of how you build an imaginary world will come from its purpose. A fantasy writer may choose to create only the segment of their world that they will write about, such as a specific geographic location, or a particular era or age. Whereas a hobbyist with unlimited time can explore their fictional world thoroughly with infinite topics and detail.

Creating a fantasy world does not need to be expensive project. Pen, paper and creative thought form the basic tools for traditional world building. More elaborate designs are published as books or evolving websites. Fantasy worlds can be expressed with paper mache and cool-lite models, sketches and sand sculptures.If you desire a professional and lasting output, fictional map making programmes like Fractal Mapper and CC3, can help to lift the veil on cartography for an affordable price.

The country, Sparatus from the fantasy world, Azur during the Age of Ahnicus.  This creative map was made with Dunjinni mapping software.
The country, Sparatus from the fantasy world, Azur during the Age of Ahnicus. This creative map was made with Dunjinni mapping software. | Source

How to start building your imaginary world

Begin by gathering the ideas for your world.

By starting with an empty space, consider how your world is going to fill it. What caused your world to come together or pop into existence? Write about your world's birth.

Keep a journal, or create a central place to store your idea scraps like a folder or Microsoft’s OneNote. When you have an idea about your world write it down. Take your journal with you so you can easily record your ideas as they come to mind. Alternatively, use a recording device like a smart phone to capture ideas.

When riding the bus, relaxing at home, going to sleep, making snow angels, or soaking up the sun on the beach, close your eyes and imagine.

Don’t under rate the art of day dreaming for growing and exploring your fictional world. Imagining can provide you with ideas and images of your world that you can capture and interpret through writing or art.

The birth of a new world

Looking at fantasy art and pictures can help to stimulate your imagination.
Looking at fantasy art and pictures can help to stimulate your imagination.

Brainstorm ideas

Set aside 30 minutes to brainstorm your ideas every day for a week.

Collect images, phrases and single words that come to mind. Write freely, without judging your own ideas.

Consider the following imagination exercises:

  • Complete this sentence, 'In the beginning....'.
  • A new born creature opens its eyes on the world, describe what it sees.
  • How old is your world? What ages and important events have led up to present day?
  • Imagine you can hold your world in your hand. Look down at it. What features stand out the most?
  • Imagine you are lying on the surface of your world looking up. What do you see?
  • Civilizations can make or break a world. Are there any that have left any lasting legacies, good or bad?
  • Describe a major world event happening right now.
  • What do you invision happening to your world in the future?

Use writing games to imagine your fictional world

  1. Make a list of words that come to mind as you think about your world.
  2. Describe your world, or draw it. What does it look like? If you viewed it from space or afar, what do you see?
  3. Hypothesize: create a list of true and false statements about your world.
  4. Write down short dot points about your world’s:
  • Cosmology
  • World compounds (minerals, chemicals and geographical science)
  • Environment
  • Land formations
  • Sentient life forms
  • Resources

Where to find inspiration

Just like writing a book, inspiration for creating a world can waiver. Visual and audio stimuli can boost your imagination. Gaze over fantasy art or build a map of your world to rejuvenate ideas. Look at astronomy or fantasy pictures. Watching science documentaries and science fiction and fantasy films can expand ideas, while music massages the imagination.

An important message for builders of imaginary worlds

Spherical worlds not necessary

When creating a fictional world there is no requirement that it must be a spherical planet, though many creators use this standard characteristic.

The word, World has a diverse use in the English language. The word may be used to refer to a planet such as Earth, or it could be used to refer to a segment of that planet, such as the outdoor world. It also refers to a defined area of existence and it also refers to a singular experience, or an area of shared interest, such as the Western world.

Why you need to set limitations for your world

Limitations define your world by creating sets of rules on various topics. They provide guidelines for what can and can’t be done in your world. They help to keep world events and stories consistent. Lose consistency and your world becomes less believable.

Even fantasy worlds imbued with magic need limitations. Limitations form the laws of science for a world, they create boundaries and provide challenges.

In a role-play game setting limitations for a fictional world can restrict the use of god-modding.

For a writer, exploring and knowing the limitations of your world can reduce conflicting statements in your writing and reduce editing headaches.

Limitations come from the genre you choose for your world and from associated topics such as the formation of your world, fauna, flora, civilizations and sciences.

How genre influences your choices

Genre categorises fiction. Genres give audiences an expectation, and genres have their own set of limitations often called tropes which influence setting, background and style.

Popular genres include:

  • Futuristic
  • Fantasy
  • Realism
  • Medieval
  • Steam Punk
  • Alternative Earth
  • Post Apocalyptic
  • Supernatural
  • Mythical

Cross genres of two or more genres permeate fiction. Consider the setting for the popular television show (originally a comic), ‘The Walking Dead’. It could be categorised as Alternative Earth, Supernatural and/or Post Apocalyptic.

Realism centres on creating a world that mirrors real life. Your world might borrow aspects from real life creating a more acceptable explanation for the way things work, rather than asking your audience to suspend their beliefs.

A rocky water world might borrow aspects from real life

To create an Earth-like world, you might borrow aspects from real life.
To create an Earth-like world, you might borrow aspects from real life.

Record concrete “facts” about your world

As you create your world, you will form ideas about its appearance, history, fauna, flora, gases and chemicals compounds, minerals, civilisations, societies, people, technologies and knowledge. Set your ideas into place by recording these as facts.

Imagine a world called Trix, where everyone breathes in a gas called ditrixum to survive. Destrel, a native of Trix meets Joe, an alien visiting from the planet, Earth. Unless Joe gets help, breathing in ditrixuim will kill him. The help could be magical or technological.

Establishing the fact of ditrixum as the main gas in my world’s atmosphere, creates a limitation that I must work with when introducing aliens into my world’s environment.

To get your fact sheet started, try answering these questions:

  1. What is the shape of your world?
  2. What is the size of your world?
  3. How did your world form?
  4. Where does your world exist?
  5. How did life begin on your world?
  6. What minerals exist (discovered or undiscovered)?
  7. What chemicals exist (discovered or undiscovered)?
  8. What is the history of your world?
  9. How many ages have passed before present day?
  10. Draw a map of your world in present day.
  11. Describe your world’s external environment.
  12. What species of animals live on your world?
  13. What species of plants exist on your world?

Recording facts about your world will help to define it, setting it apart from other worlds, even through subtle variations. To easily retrieve your world's facts, create your own alphabetical encyclopedia. By recording these facts, you are less likely to run into issues of inconsistency or confusion later on.

“Those worlds in space are as countless as all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the earth. Each of those worlds is as real as ours and every one of them is a succession of incidents, events, occurrences which influence its future. Countless worlds, numberless moments, an immensity of space and time.”

— Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934 – December 20, 1996), American Astronomer

Why Create & Build a Fantasy World

Fictional world building is not just fun, it can also be educational. To create an Earth like fantasy world, learning about our planet, its sciences, history, geography, civilizations and cultures establishes a realistic starting point for something less familiar. Even if an imaginary world does not have the same fundamental scientific structures as Earth, understanding how Earth functions can provide a starting point for the beginning of a new world.

In 2015, Kepler's discoveries of alien worlds number in the thousands with more waiting to be found. Our evening skies and astronomical discoveries present world builders with an unlimited pool of worlds waiting to be imagined. Looking to the stars for inspiration takes fictional world building to an entirely new level, helping us to understand the diversity of our Universe.

Building an imaginary world can be time consuming. Especially, if you are having fun moulding the shape and layers of your world, constructing its core and geographic resources, creating unique species of fauna and flora and choosing the evolutionary steps to their existence.

If you're a hobbyist, your fictional world does not need to be a static environment or a cross sectional representation. You can explore its different ages and aspects. These may be similar or extremely diverse to those on Earth, including intelligent life forms that develop social habitats, bizarre religious beliefs and technologies that are out of this world. You can design micro environments from minute organisms to independent ecosystems and include fascinating information on the external influences that surround and effect your world either passively or directly.

Fantasy world building is addictive. If you choose to partake in this potentially self absorbing and fun past-time, caution is advised. Don't forget to come up for air occasionally.

Comments

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  • attemptedhumour profile image

    attemptedhumour 6 years ago from Australia

    Hi trinski welcome to hubpages, one of the great things about this cyber world is that you never know what's going to pop up. I'm a bit old for fantasy worlds but not too old to read about them. I was always glued to pinball machines and space invaders when i was your age, but if i was your age now i'd be glued to my computer playing all 'your' games. It sounds fun although a bit addictive, like hubpages is. So bash out a few more hubs as your first one is a good start. Cheers from Melbourne.

  • Tinsky profile image
    Author

    Tina Dubinsky 6 years ago from Brisbane, Australia

    Thanks for the welcome! I'm already planning some more hub topics - so I guess I am hooked already?! This place is full of information and advice, I'm can't seem to surf away from it.

  • profile image

    surlyoldcat 6 years ago

    Well, a fgellow weirdo (as prescribed by society...or are we nerds? Hmmm...needs further inspection.) This is quite the hub, you have here. I look forward to reading more. I have a feeling you'r going to stik around for a while..or is that gas? Damn, I can never keep those straight.

  • toyboyclip profile image

    toyboyclip 6 years ago from India

    Nice hub

  • DStettler profile image

    DStettler 6 years ago

    Ver nice hub. Informative and a good read. Nice work.

  • Nellieanna profile image

    Nellieanna Hay 6 years ago from TEXAS

    An interesting itdea, presented from a somewhat technological perspective, which of course is almost synonymous with fantasy.

    I guess it's what I DO. In fact my personal belief is that everyone LIVES in a subjective world or universe which is virtually inescapable. What we think we observe of the "outer world" comes in via our own senses and is thoroughly filtered through an obstacle line in our brain cells, where all we've ever experienced, thought or felt is stored and challenges incoming information. Almost inevitably, the subjective of each of us IS "fantasy" - at least when compared with any or all others! When we make an attempt to enter a mutual one, it is still each of our own inerpretation.

    I just watched "Finding Neverland" for the umpteenth time and again was entranced by Barrie's marvelous imagination. I suppose you're familiar with it. He created "Peter Pan" and the story is about his creating it, and Johnny Depp plays the writer.

    Glad you've joined us here on HP - welcome and thanks for following me.

  • Tinsky profile image
    Author

    Tina Dubinsky 6 years ago from Brisbane, Australia

    Yes, I love Finding Neverland and I like your view point Neillieanna, its a very interesting (and true) perspective.

  • Nellieanna profile image

    Nellieanna Hay 6 years ago from TEXAS

    Ah! There you are! I was beginning to fear you were giving up on Hubpages! Don't ever do that! Thanks for the reply! :-)

  • pennerstories profile image

    pennerstories 6 years ago

    Thanks for the informative hub. I love reading and writing fantasy. The links for world building sites are interesting...I think I will check them out and have a look.

  • Tinsky profile image
    Author

    Tina Dubinsky 6 years ago from Brisbane, Australia

    I find them very useful for my own world building which is my biggest pastime.

  • li smith ion-eco profile image

    li smith ion-eco 6 years ago from Hermanus, South Africa

    A well written and insightful hub on a subject close to my heart! Thank you for sharing.

  • Docmo profile image

    Mohan Kumar 6 years ago from UK

    Loved this hub. I am working on a series of stories based on a fantasy world and trying some world building like some of my favourite authors have done ( JM Barrie, Ursula Le Guin, JK Rowling, Tolkien, Orson Scott Card etc. etc.) Your hub has certainly given some ideas. Thanks for sharing.

  • Tinsky profile image
    Author

    Tina Dubinsky 6 years ago from Brisbane, Australia

    Very glad to hear it was helpful! I am a very passionate Geofictionist myself and sometimes find myself 'studying' and researching its art form more often then developing my own fantasy world. Docmo I love many of the authors you have listed. Writers are generally not encouraged to emmerse themselves in the world building aspects of their creations (even though some do), that way the end result being their book will actually get completed.

  • bonny2010 profile image

    bonetta hartig 6 years ago from outback queensland

    very interesting hub, well written and very informative...i would be intrested in reading more on this subject .

  • arthurchappell profile image

    arthurchappell 6 years ago from Manchester, England

    Great approach - I've always been of the pen, paper (and keyboard) creation of realms approach but it is fascinating to see the range of fantasy world making tools available out there

  • Tinsky profile image
    Author

    Tina Dubinsky 6 years ago from Brisbane, Australia

    Hi Arthur, Yes! I prefer more traditional methods myself for creating a fictional world though my interest began through an interest in free form community based online rpgs, so I also enjoy using the map making tools.

    Bonny2010 - I am hoping to have my next conworld related hub out in the next 24 hours!

  • M. T. Dremer profile image

    M. T. Dremer 5 years ago from United States

    I made my fantasy world for the purposes of a novel and it's surprising to me that people would create one just for fun. That's not to say that I don't find it fun, but I do find it incredibly time consuming. While I know that the geography and history I create will ultimately help the book, it's hard to feel like I'm working towards a career unless I am working on the novel. Maybe the next time I set out to create a world, I'll start by building it first, rather than the story that will take place in it.

  • Tinsky profile image
    Author

    Tina Dubinsky 5 years ago from Brisbane, Australia

    Hi M.T. Dremer. You've provided an excellent example of what makes writing a geofiction different to writing background material for a book, time has to be a consideration. Some writers though do spend endless hours on their worlds like JRR Tolkien.

  • iqbalrazon profile image

    iqbalrazon 5 years ago from Bangladesh

    this is a very important and interesting Hub. I Like it...........

  • profile image

    KDuBarry03 4 years ago

    Lol! I love your last line: make sure you come up for air. I've been making fantasy maps ever since I was 12 and yes, it is very addicting; I have been working with fantasy maps for 8 years! What I found very useful, since you noted about knowing about scientific laws and geography, it would actually help any fantasy writer to take a mapping class of some sorts to get a further understanding on creating maps.

  • Tinsky profile image
    Author

    Tina Dubinsky 4 years ago from Brisbane, Australia

    KDuBarry03 - Yes! Mapping classes can help especially if you have a mapping programme which is frustrating you like CC3. I recently came across Jonathon Roberts web site (fantasy map maker for George RR Martin's Game of Thrones and other notable works of fiction). If you haven't visited it already - its worth a visit and he has some excellent advice and tips for fantasy map makers.

  • profile image

    KDuBarry03 4 years ago

    Yes, that map is definitely beautifully drawn out. I am even a fan of the maps in the Inheritance cycle (those maps were extravagantly tedious to create. Currently, I am actually using ArcGIS (a geographic information systems program) that helped me create my maps and get more scientific data from them. Do you have the link to Robert's Website? I would absolutely love to see the tips he gives!

  • Dan Barfield profile image

    Dan Barfield 4 years ago from Gloucestershire, England, UK

    Well written! A topic that is very meaningful to me as I grew up reading fantasy, and when I first got into writing it was all I wrote about. I soon discovered that world building was central. Any aspiring writer of fantasy fiction should look to the originator, Tolkein who even went to the extent of inventing an entire functional language in his development of the fantasy world he named 'middle earth'. I have never had the patience or linguistic skill for that... but the world building itself? Love every second of the creation process!

  • Willsummerdreamer profile image

    Will English. 3 years ago from Marietta, Georgia.

    great advice. Good hub.

  • The Examiner-1 profile image

    The Examiner-1 2 years ago

    This showed me potential Tina since I was thinking of beginning to compose in the heavenly body of fantasy. The only problem is that I do not have adequate imagination so I might turn towards action/adventure, but your Hub still shows possibility to assist me. So I give it a thumbs up and I share it.

    Kevin

  • Tinsky profile image
    Author

    Tina Dubinsky 2 years ago from Brisbane, Australia

    Hi Kevin, I am glad you enjoyed the hub. Many fantasy writers use alternate Earth worlds for their geography, tweaking a few differences here and there. Harry Potter, Twilight, True Blood and The Hunger Games are a good examples of stories that use alternate Earths. You might prefer to utilize this subgenre of fantasy world building, rather than create your own fantasy world from scratch. Just remember, as a writer, you can sometimes get too engrossed in the world building and put off writing the story. Happy writing.

  • MizBejabbers profile image

    MizBejabbers 2 years ago

    Sounds like fun, and it would be an essential part of fantasy writing. The setting of The Game of Thrones was such that at first I couldn't tell if it was a fantasy world or an alternate time on earth.

  • Tinsky profile image
    Author

    Tina Dubinsky 2 years ago from Brisbane, Australia

    Hi MizBejabbers. When I find our copy of the first book of The Game of Thrones, I'll let you know if the setting is clear as apposed to the TV series. I am writing (editing stage) my own fantasy novel at present and I am finding the balance between writing the story and describing the setting a fine balance.

  • ACSutliff profile image

    ACSutliff 9 months ago

    Tinsky,

    This is a great hub for fantasy writers! I especially like your tips on using music and pictures to inspire, as well as day dreaming. (Don't all writers get tired of hearing their significant others say, "Hey, you were day dreaming again. Stop that!" I know I sure do!)

    I'm also interested in the Game of Thrones conversation, because I love the Song of Ice and Fire and the show is one of my favs. Did you feel like the setting was more clear in the book? I found myself constantly wishing there was a map! (Things to think about for my own fantasy book. People like maps! A map could help clarify if this is an ancient version of Earth or a completely different world.)

    Are you still writing a fantasy now? Good luck with it!

    Cheers!

    A.C.

  • Tinsky profile image
    Author

    Tina Dubinsky 9 months ago from Brisbane, Australia

    Hi A.C.

    I felt it was easy to create an image of the settings and to get a perspective of the world from George R.R. Martin's description in the books. If a story has a map, I will peruse it though while reading. Love the TV show too - though we're just catching up Season 6 (waited until we could purchase it). Glad you enjoyed the article!

    -Tina

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