Writing fantasy is a deep dive into a newly created culture and world, full of magic and mythological creatures. It’s a genre that allows for expansive and explosive creativity. This can be super exciting! It can also be rather daunting, especially for new writers. And unless you’re doing an urban fantasy kind of story or one set on Earth, it can be really daunting when realizing you might need to create an entirely new world for your characters to play in. Admittedly I love worldbuilding. It’s fun for me, but I understand that the idea of creating a whole new world with its own infrastructure and magic system and varied cultures is overwhelming.
So where does a new writer start on building a world?
My suggestion? Start small. This may sound counterintuitive, because you will have to create quite a bit of the world by the end, but for right now, only create the area that your character starts off in. It doesn’t matter if that’s a house or a spaceship or a village or the middle of an ice field. Wherever your character starts their adventure is where you—the writer—would start to build.
How? Well, let’s work through a scenario. Say your main character starts off their adventure in the middle of an ice field. Terrible, right? Maybe…maybe not. How big is this ice field? Is it a clear, sunny day or cloudy and snowing? Are there any natural landmarks around—mountains, rivers, trees? Is there snow around that would make travel a little easier rather than slipping on the ice? Are there any creatures your character needs to worry about right now? Is your character from a winter-hearty culture so they’re dressed for the weather or is this super uncomfortable for them? Do they have some kind of magic to help them out of this situation—a magical dome to protect them at night, perhaps, or is their magic cold-based, so the ice doesn’t bother them in the slightest? Even though you’re focusing on this one area—and situation—your character is in right now, all of this builds out the world…and as you can see, it also builds out the character!
After you have the area your character is starting in—in this case, the middle of an ice field—then you can expand outward from there as necessary, or as you need to make sense of the world you’re building. Are there any remote villages around? Are those people hostile or friendly? Is there a giant ice palace right over the horizon your character is working toward? Or…is it actually a long stretch of barren ice that this character has to really struggle through? Maybe your character has to walk a really long time before they’ll see someone—or ride on an animal they tame? (I’m big on creating new animals for fantasy worlds!) Basically, as your character is traveling in this new world, create the world around them. Doing so might help you feel a little less overwhelmed.
A different way to “start small’ is by narrowing your creative gaze on one aspect of the world at a time. So instead of looking at the world as a whole, spend a few days focusing on the landscape of the world—the lakes and rivers, forests and mountain ranges, etc. Or spend a day only brainstorming the mythological beasts or figuring out how many cultures you’d want to include. One big thing to start small with is the magic system. How does your magic work, what are the rules, who has it, who doesn’t have it, how are those with magic treated? Starting small—focusing on only one thing in your brand new world—will ease you into thinking about the rest of the world.
My final tip for starting small in worldbuilding is simple: have fun! Worldbuilding may sound super intense and it can be overwhelming but think of it this way…you get to create any world, any setting, any universe you want to! You create all the rules and rulers, cultures and creatures. You get to decide everything. And that freedom is exhilarating! Expand your creativity and build the world your characters will love—or hate, depending on the story—to live in. If you want some more tips, feel free to connect with me on social media, I always love to chat about writing and worldbuilding!
Kellie Doherty is a queer author living in Alaska. When she noticed there wasn’t much positive queer representation in the science fiction and fantasy realms, she decided to create her own! Kellie’s work has been published in Image OutWrite 2019, Astral Waters Review, Life (as it) Happens, and Impact, among others. Her sci-fi duology—Finding Hekate and Losing Hold—came out in 2016 and 2017 from Desert Palm Press. She’s working on a five-book fantasy series. Sunkissed Feathers & Severed Ties (2019, Desert Palm Press) won a 2019 Rainbow Award. Curling Vines & Crimson Trades launched on November 30, 2020. Connect with Kellie on Twitter @Kellie_Doherty and visit her website at kelliedoherty.com.