Worldbuilding—the creation of completely imagined settings—is the cornerstone of the fantasy and science fiction genres, and the exercise can be enormously fun and immersive in its own right. In fact, the biggest challenge for most genre authors isn’t “when can I stop worldbuilding?” but “how can I stop worldbuilding?” There’s always another question to be answered, another secret ritual, another set of military or political ranks.

In my eight-week Worldbuilding class, I break the task of building an SF or fantasy world into six broad categories. And though the class is about how to build compelling settings, I try to keep circling back to what I insist is at the heart of the whole enterprise: story.

A story is characters in conflict. Stories are about people doing things. And as storytellers we always have to start with characters, put them into an interesting situation, and think of even more interesting ways to get them out of it (plot). Setting is . . .

Was I about to say, “a backdrop”?

I kinda was, which is why I stopped myself.

If the story you’re telling can happen anywhere, you’re not telling that story well. If the characters can have come from anywhere and seem to be living anywhere, your characters will lack some depth.

We’re all products of the world around us. Humans tend to look at each other, communicate with each other, based on groups. Sometimes this is negative: We only allow white customers in our diner. Sometimes this can be positive: Anyone who thinks [insert local sports team here] is awesome, show up for a rally at noon.

We say funny things based on where we come from, like my Chicago-born wife asking waiters in Seattle where the washroom’s at and they look at her puzzled until I translate: “Where’s the ladies room?” We do weird things—my parents’ generation, born in the Great Depression, seem genetically incapable of throwing anything away. Baby Boomers simply will not stop complaining. People from the generations before and after the Baby Boomers will not stop complaining about all the whining Baby Boomers.

You get what I mean.

There have been authors who have become known for their connection to a place, and their ability to communicate not just the story (characters in conflict) but infuse both characters and plot with a distinct and tangible sense of place, like Faulkner’s Deep South, Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, or J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

See where I’m going with that?

If your fantasy story can easily take place in any sort of generic medieval fantasy/Dungeons & Dragons setting, you’re cheating yourself and your readers. The Sound and the Fury couldn’t have been set in Manhattan, any more than The Catcher in the Rye could have been set in Cambodia.

I’d recommend a seemingly simple exercise that might end up taking you into some very complex thinking, but thinking that will enrich the core of your story: your characters.

Write down this list:

Magic & Technology

Monsters & Aliens (animalistic predatory things)

People (elves, Vulcans, etc.)


Government & Religion


Then write four sentences for each character under each heading, one each describing how that aspect of the world effects, informs, limits, and empowers that character.

So, “How does magic and technology effect Paul Atreides? Paul, if indeed he is the Kwisatz Haderach, must combine the Truthsaying powers of his Bene Gesserit mother with the high technology of his Imperial father—and this push-and-pull takes him into one dangerous situation after another.”

That’s a pretty broad simplification of a complex and brilliant book by Frank Herbert, but at this point, you aren’t yet writing the novel, what you’re doing is exploring ways in which each character interacts with the world around him, her, or it—and you can start to see why this character couldn’t live anywhere else, and this story could only happen in this specific place and time.

And when you have this done, at least for your primary protagonist and primary antagonist, you’ll start to see where you’ll need to concentrate your worldbuilding energies. No character particularly motivated or effected by religion? Okay, then no need to spend creative energy creating the Church. All these characters keep coming back to the need to prevent the Horrible Disaster? Then make sure that Horrible Disaster is both truly horrible and Biblically disastrous.

It’s your world, after all, and you can blow it up if you want to.


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. That’s well-considered. Thanks, Philip.

  2. abuzzinid says:

    Again, I wished I lived close enough to take that class. More, please!

    Thanks, Philip! You are da bomb.

  3. Sean Durity says:

    This sounds like workable, well-honed advice. Thank you for sharing it with us. There is a difference in RPG world building (where the characters interact to build a story) and story world building (where the author should control the characters!).

  4. Don says:

    This is really helpful instruction, thanks Phil. I found myself wondering some of these same thoughts recently. I just reread The Hobbit for the first time since junior high and was looking at one of the maps in the book that mentioned a place called Withered Heath which is noted as where the dragons came from. It had me wondering more about what such a place would be like, and then I recognized the significance of what Tolkien had done. He hadn’t developed that location at all in the story, but by giving it a descriptive name and a one-phrase-tagline descriptor, he’d told me all I needed to know about it to get my mind racing. Simple and brilliant worldbuilding. He focused on the settings that were critical to the story and threw in some other colorful locations to make the world feel complete without needing to describe every nook and cranny. I think GRRM has done a good job of this as well with his series by briefly mentioning places like Yi Ti and Asshai (the land of shadows). We don’t know much about those places, but we do know they are present in the world, and it makes the world feel like a whole world without having to know everything about it.

  5. Susan says:

    I’m trying to work on my worldbuilding right now — your categorical breakdown is very helpful. Also, I agree wholeheartedly with this: “If your fantasy story can easily take place in any sort of generic medieval fantasy/Dungeons & Dragons setting, you’re cheating yourself and your readers.”

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