I used to teach in-person then online courses, and one of the most popular was my worldbuilding course. Though it’s been a while since I’ve actually taught these courses, one of the exercises continues to stay lodged in my brain. This one serves a dual purpose, which is to add richness to both characters and the world they live in, and it can happen simultaneously. It goes to the nature of the culture of the world, the lifestyle of its people, and what grounds your characters in that world.

Starting with yourself, not your protagonist, the exercise asks a simple question:

What groups do you belong to?

Spend five minutes making a list. Go as fast as you can and do your best to open up that definition of “group.”

A group doesn’t have to have any formal initiation or membership process. In this case I mean group to be anything that separates you from people who aren’t…? This shouldn’t be a list of what makes you you, but a list of things that make you one of a community. Open your mind to groups beyond the big obvious things: I’m an American, I’m a citizen of the state of Washington… Students in my classes have come up with things like “Subaru driver,” and “Babylon 5 hater,” and “clown-phobic.” It’s those personal things—likes and dislikes, relationships and insecurities—that really start to tell us something personal, something deeper, about ourselves first, then about any character we create and by extension, the culture in which they live.

Really do this. Stop reading and come back in five minutes. Here’s an ad for one my books to fill the space…

Now that you have that list, read through it and circle the three that are most important to you. Then circle the three that are least important to you. What does this say about you?

That’s not a question I can answer, but this is the kind of thinking you want to do about your characters, human or otherwise, so make a similar list for each of your major characters and think about your world’s equivalent of “Subaru driver,” “Babylon 5 hater,” or “clown-phobic.”

Governments and religions tend to be the biggest, most obvious components to a culture, or can be shared by otherwise very different cultures in the same way that both Australia and India are democracies, but otherwise share very few cultural traits. The day to day lives of the average Australian and the average Indian share many human drives and reactions, but all of us can clearly detect a difference between them that goes beyond the color of someone’s skin.

Or an even closer example: The United States and France are both democracies with very similar governments, and both are majority Christian. So the question of governments and religions in your world would cover both with basically the same brush. So then what makes those two nations so different from each other, beyond both politics and religion? Language, definitely. Music, maybe. Food, sure… what else? This is what I hope you’ll focus on here, not what the law demands or what God expects, but what the average person does on an average day.

This will start to pull your worldbuilding out of the top-down aspects of who the king is and how he got there and who will be king when he dies, and into how you define the popular culture of a people: the way people in that world think, live, and interact with each other and outsiders on a day to day basis.

I have seen dozens of these lists and talked about them with students in detail and I can tell you for sure that I’ve seen it blow authors’ worldbuilding—and their characters—wide open.

—Philip Athans

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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. mjtedin says:

    Can I repost this on my blog? It’s a great character building exercise. I’ve been focusing on worldbuilding, though I haven’t written anything lately. I think this fits right in.

  2. mcc1789 says:

    Great advice. I certainly like these details often are neglected. A story feels enriched and realistic when they’re in it. To use an example, many fantasy stories have a fictional religion, but even when it’s central to the plot details are usually lacking beyond names or attributes for gods. However even if that’s not very important to a story mentioning details like prayers, holy items, mythology and the like can add to the verisimilitude. The same goes for the things which Phil mentioned of course.

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