Fictional World-Building Begins With Imagining
How to Build an Imaginary World
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 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 an 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.
Why build a fictional world?
Why have you built a fictional world?
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How to Start Building Your Imaginary World
Begin by gathering the ideas for your world. Start 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 smartphone 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 underrate the art of daydreaming 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
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 newborn 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 envision happening to your world in the future?
Use Writing Games to Imagine Your Fictional World
- Make a list of words that come to mind as you think about your world.
- Describe your world, or draw it. What does it look like? If you viewed it from space or afar, what do you see?
- Hypothesize: create a list of true and false statements about your world.
- Write down short dot points about your world’s:
- World compounds (minerals, chemicals and geographical science)
- Land formations
- Sentient life forms
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-playing 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:
- Steam Punk
- Alternative Earth
- Post Apocalyptic
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
Record Concrete “Facts” About Your World
As you create your world, you will form ideas about its appearance, history, fauna, flora, gases and chemical 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:
- What is the shape of your world?
- What is the size of your world?
- How did your world form?
- Where does your world exist?
- How did life begin on your world?
- What minerals exist (discovered or undiscovered)?
- What chemicals exist (discovered or undiscovered)?
- What is the history of your world?
- How many ages have passed before present day?
- Draw a map of your world in present day.
- Describe your world’s external environment.
- What species of animals live on your world?
- 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 microenvironments 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 pastime, caution is advised. Don't forget to come up for air occasionally.
Questions & Answers
© 2010 Tina Dubinsky