It’s good to be God, isn’t it? To be up there on some high cloud, or a bicycle, or whatever else your godly environment permits, wiggling your fingers toward a dark corner of the Universe and have a new world spawn and take life under your eyes. It is good, and as a fiction writer, you get to be God every day. Sometimes on a smaller scale, sometimes on a larger scale. Sometimes your creations make you proud; other times, they turn out of control, and you must punish them. Still, you get to be God, and that is what world-building gives you — the satisfaction of creation, the power to make life and watch it play in front of you, without leaving your desk.
Chapter One: Geography and Natural Resources
Now, is your story the same as your world? The answer is no. Even in a milieu story, where the setting is important, you must never forget the other components of a complete story. Simply put, a story is a bunch of interesting characters involved in an interesting plot, raising a certain level of emotional response in the reader, while everything is taking place in an interesting setting.
Let me ask you: if you drop ‘interesting’ in any of the parts of the sentence above, do you lose the story? Well, if you drop it out of characters, you will wind up with boring characters. Boring characters can’t elicit an emotional response, so your entire world will fall flat.
If you take the interesting out of the plot, you will wind up with interesting characters doing something boring, and that’s no good either.
If you drop it from both, then why are you even writing?
On the other hand, if you drop the interesting out of the setting, you don’t necessarily wind up with a flat story unless you are writing fantasy or science fiction. Let me explain.
Let’s say you have a story set in New York City. Now, NYC is an interesting city, by all means, but it is still just that: a city on Earth. Unless you are writing an alternate history or post-apocalyptic situation, you pretty much know what to expect from a city. That’s what I mean by removing interesting. You don’t have to struggle to make it interesting. It’s already interesting as is, so your job is half done.
The same goes if you decide to write a new novel set in OZ. The premise of OZ is already there; you merely ride the wave.
But when the time comes to invent a world from scratch, whether it’s fantasy or science fiction, it better be fresh, interesting, and functional; otherwise, your story will not work well.
This series of posts deal with world creation, giving you tangible, step-by-step solutions on how to go about it.
And Then There Was Light…
How do you start a story? I’m sure you can think of several ways and various combinations of those ways. Usually, different writers love one or another or become more comfortable with one or another over time.
For example, you could start with one or a few characters; you can start with a plotline or think of a setting first. Either way, to get the complete story, you will still have to come up with all three and mesh them together in the best possible way.
Since one way to define ‘fantasy’ is something different than our reality, I like to start a fantasy story by looking at the world. There are many books on plot and character, and you can take those rules plus your own and apply them to any genre, from science fiction to romance and so on. The difference in a fantasy or science fiction story is that the world’s specifics are critical and often define the story.
So, I find it very useful first to define and understand the world, and later on, let the characters play the plot in that world to shape the full story.
Since the Universe—any Universe—is infinite, any subset of the Universe is a Universe in itself. I like to break them down into two concepts: Macro-Universe and Micro-Universe. When I create my world, I always start with the Macro-Universe and walk my way down to the Micro-Universe. Your story world will be somewhere between those two. Once I get that down, it’s a lot easier to work on the plot and the characters since knowing where they are and what to expect from the environment will influence how they act, what they do, and what is possible or acceptable.
Think about some of the stories that you’ve read in the past and see if you can visualize the plot and the characters in a different location than the one in the book. Of course, you can; that’s why there are so many modern variations on the Wizard of OZ. Strong characters and powerful stories can happen anywhere. But a lot of times, just like in Oz, or Lord of The Rings, the story world is so strongly intertwined with the plot that it becomes unique and immediately recognizable, and that is what you want to shoot for.
This being said, I like to begin my worlds by thinking about the outer shell and working my way toward the inner shell.
In some instances, you may not need to go as far. As we will see later, the geographical world is not something fixed in space and time. There are history, genesis, and interactions that made the world be what it is. You need to decide how important those are to your story. If they’re not, don’t spend lots of time on them. Maybe do it just for your own sake, to help you later on (remember the reader should only know 10% or so from the entire idea behind your world).
Just note that this becomes increasingly important if you are working on a series. Think it through from the start, so you don’t find yourself in a corner three books into your series (and have to use tricks such as ‘and a wizard came from the sky and changed everything.’)
To begin, answer the following questions:
- Is it important to know how the physical world came to be? Was it created by a deity, was it a result of some scientific evolution?
- Is it important to know the place in space and time for this world, or do I only need to know my world within its boundaries?
When you discuss the map for your world, which we’ll get to in just a moment, how do you picture that map? Is it on a planet, is it suspended in some unknown structure, does it simply exist, and no one knows or had ever wondered what lies beyond its boundaries?
Most of the time, especially if a deity created your world, it’s beneficial to have some answers to these questions. Especially if you will introduce religion and magic into your world, later on, those concepts are usually significantly influenced by the way your world was created and where it exists. Just like humans are constantly preoccupied and searching for the origin and reason for life, your story world can go through the same turmoil, adding tension and drama to the world.
Let’s think about the Macro-Universe first, and for simplicity, I’ll call this Universe (anything that is outside of the reach of your world). At the end of the day, your story will take place within physically limited bounds, such as a galaxy, planet, country, land, field, city, fortress, etc. Somewhere where characters can move, interact, and where things can happen. That part is what I call the micro-Universe, but again, for simplicity, I will refer to it as ‘story world.’
In your case, the Universe could be very fuzzy if it is unimportant to the story. For example, you may have some land delimited by the “Boundaries of Doom.” What lies beyond those boundaries? We don’t know because we don’t care.
Your world will have characters in it, interacting, as we said. So, you need to draw a parallel between our real world and your imaginary world and see how many of the things we experience here on Earth can be applied to your world and how many are worth changing.
Let me try to enumerate some of the things that come to mind:
- Is your world underground, above ground, underwater, or in the air?
- Is there a day/night concept?
- What is the source of light? Do you even need light? Is there a star (or more) similar to the Sun?
The easiest way to think about a Universe is a globe or a sphere. It’s true that in reality, an infinite Universe doesn’t have a center because it is infinite, but to create a Universe for a story, think of it as a giant sphere. Your world is somewhere inside that sphere. Giving it that shape will make it easier for you to picture it.
Once you established the idea of your Universe and gave your world a place inside it, now you have to start building the physical part of your world. I’m talking about your geography and natural resources.
You will probably revisit this many times and make adjustments required by your plot, but it’s a good idea to establish some initial rules.
Every time I have to create a new world, I struggle with this idea: how big should the world be? Let me teach you a little trick.
Think about Earth and do things relative to familiar earthly notions. Do you envision a world that is roughly as big as Paris, or as big as Europe, or as big as Africa, or maybe even as big as Earth, or perhaps twice as big as Earth? Either way, narrowing down the approximate size and finding a matching size on Earth will help you tremendously.
Once you have a mental approximate size for your world, think about a few aspects that will influence the way you define your world:
- Can your characters transport over water? Do you want water?
- Can your characters fly?
These two will influence the way you create your map. If there are ways for your characters to travel by water, with ships or other means, you could create oceans and seas between your lands. If your creatures can fly, you can create tall mountains or deep canyons, but if they can’t, be careful; you might make parts of your world inaccessible.
Another important aspect is how advanced is your society. If it’s a primitive world, they might not be able to build bridges and tunnels or even know the wheel. We’ll deal with technological advances soon, but for now, think of an era in human history and picture the things that were possible back then and align your world as such.
Before you start drawing your world, let’s briefly touch on a few aspects that will come into play later, but they are worth mentioning now. These are elements that will influence the way your map will look in the end:
- Political System and Government
- Races and their effect on the environment
- Fauna and Flora
So, how do you start planning your map, especially if you are not too good at drawing, like me? This is what I do: I first decide the general size of my world, as explained above, and then I open Excel (or any other spreadsheet program, like Numbers or Google Sheets), and I create a matrix of narrow rows and columns. When I say narrow, I mean 1-2 millimeters on your screen. That will give you a square matrix.
To do so, open a new document, and select multiple rows and columns and resize them down to obtain a small grid. Depending on the size of your world, decide on a scale for each cell. For example, let’s say we are talking about a world that is 2000 miles wide and 2000 miles long, so about the size of the United States (The actual size of the USA is 3.794 million miles). We’ll say that 1 cell is 50 square miles. That gives you a 40 x 40 matrix.
Ensure you select the entire matrix and add borders all around each cell to make it easier to read.
Now that you have this grid, start representing your world’s various parts by using squares with different colors. Don’t worry about overlapping or the fact that they are not the right shape; aim for the size. What you want to do here is scale various parts of your world. Since you know one cell is 50 miles, a 3 x 3 square will be 150 x 150 miles, such as a 22,500 square miles area, about the size of West Virginia.
If your world is huge, you can create multiple sheets like that and join them together.
To make this easier for you, I have created a template that gives you a 40 x 40 matrix, an 80 x 80 matrix (roughly size of Asia), and a 100 x 100 matrix. Download it here, and use it freely. It is an XLSM file, so a Macro-Enabled Excel file for Excel 2010. The Macros are needed because I have a few tools to help you calculate areas.
Once you completed this part, you should probably print it. Now you have a simplistic, birds-eye view of your world, rectangular and unrealistic, but still a decent start.
Here’s what I do next: I put a blank paper over the Excel printout. If I have semi-opaque paper, I use that; otherwise, I put the papers on top of each other on a window facing out, so I can see the Excel drawing through the paper. Using a pen, I start to trace the map by using the squares as guidelines. All you have to do is make sure that in your drawing, you draw the map line as much on the outside of the squares as you reduce it on the inside. When you have many squares clustered together, they might be a part of the same continent, in which case you draw all around them.
To understand what I mean, when you finish reading this, look at the demo page associated with this post to see how I did it. (Link at the bottom of the post)
Oh, and here’s a tip: Use a pencil and have an eraser close by. No map comes out the way you want it from the beginning.
Once you are done, find out the scale of your map. To do so, use a regular ruler and measure how many squares on the Excel sheet you have in one inch. Let’s say you have 10. This means that one inch on your map is equivalent to 500 miles (50 x 10). At this point, you have a very rough shape of your map. The sizes of land and water are now starting to be clear. Before you move to the next step, look at the map and answer these:
- Is there enough land for your story to take place? Remember, one inch is 500 miles (in this example), so measure your land and see how big the distances are.
- Is there enough / too much water in oceans and seas? Are the lands so far away that it would take a ship too long to travel between them?
This is paramount because if your distances are too large, you will wind up with transportation problems later on (the last thing you want to do is have two cities so far away that they break your plot because your Prince Charming cannot gallop fast enough to save the princess…) Some of this will be solved later when you deal with magic since magic can be used to avoid all transportation problems.
So, what we’ve done so far is create a two-dimensional world. Now it’s time to give it some height, and you do that by adding mountains, hills, and valleys.
It’s not easy to depict your heights on a hand-drawn map, so one trick I use is a numbering system from -10 to +10, where -10 is the lowest point, like a valley or the bottom of a canyon, and +10 is the highest point, such as a mountain summit. Put numbers on your map to define the height in different areas. This is totally optional, and I usually skip this step, but if your map is extensive and complex, it might be a good way to keep track of heights.
Now that you know where your mountain ranges are, draw a closed area with the pencil and slightly gray it out. Do go crazy with the shades; it’s simpler to use the -10/+10 method to mark the height difference.
Once the mountains are established, put some rivers and lakes. Here are some rules:
- Generally, rivers spring from mountains.
- Make sure your rivers flow into an ocean and try not to make all rivers flow “down your map.” It’s tempting, but your map is seen from above, so ensure that rivers flow in all directions.
- Use a thicker or thinner line to identify wider or narrower rivers, respectively. Often, thinner rivers will merge with wider rivers.
- A river usually breaks into a few smaller ones or a delta before spilling into the ocean.
- Lakes are often found along rivers or near rivers.
Now, use your pencil and draw some rivers and lakes on your map.
Directions and Seasons
At this point, you are looking at a very simplistic land. You have given your world a little bit of a shape; you have decided where the land and waters are and dropped a few mountains, lakes, and rivers. We won’t add any vegetation yet; we’ll discuss this in the Flora and Fauna chapter.
Before we move any further, let’s talk about something important: directions. Because we are working in a two-dimensional environment (the drawing on a paper), your map has an “up and a down” and “a left and a right.” What are those? On Earth, we call them North, South, East, and West, and the absolute position on the planet is given by latitude and longitude. You need to provide a similar system for your world so the reader can understand what is what and where it is.
The easiest way is to call it ‘North, South, East and West,’ because it makes sense and because their name doesn’t really affect your plot, in most cases. But if you want to invent new names for the directions, make sure you make it very clear and mark them on the map. If somebody is walking towards “Sunrise” or the “Boundaries of the Gods,” where is that on the map? Is it up, down, left, or right? You need to define the system that allows people to know if they are holding the map upside down and understanding where somebody is heading.
The next things to take into account are seasons and temperature. You may have to revisit this based on your plot but put some ideas down now. On Earth, North-most and South-most areas are frozen and cold, whereas it is always hot at the Equator. How is your world?
Depending on that, you may have areas that are constantly frozen or areas that are constantly hot. In your fantasy world, you may have parts of the world that are forever on fire or parts where the temperature depends on something, maybe magic or people’s faith.
Either way, brainstorm about that and write down what comes up. You can draw little bubbles and write ‘cold,’ ‘hot,’ ‘medium,’ to mark the relative temperature on your map. I say relative because what we consider ‘hot’ on Earth might not be perceived as ‘hot’ in your world.
Another thing to take into account is seasons or temperature cycles. On Earth, we are used to having parts of the world with four seasons, other parts with two seasons, and others with just one. What is the situation in your world? Depending on that, you will have to draw your map at some point in time: Is it wintertime, when mountains are covered with snow, or is it summertime when the fields are filled with trees and crops? This starts to tie-in with the beginning when you answered the questions about your world’s place in space and things like day/night concepts.
Mapping Your World
Now how do you go about creating an actual cool map from your draft? If you know how to draw, you are probably skipping this part already. If you know somebody who can draw, you should probably call them. But what if you don’t?
There are a few software packages out there that can help you create your maps. And behind those software packages, there are groups of people who enjoy creating maps and might do yours for free or for a small fee.
If you want to have a cool map, probably the software is the way to go. None of these applications are tools you can start using overnight; however, they are not impossible to grasp.
Here are the ones that I know:
- Campaign Cartographer (http://www.profantasy.com/)
- Inkarnate (https://inkarnate.com/)
- Wonderdraft (https://www.wonderdraft.net/)
- Fractal Mapper (http://www.nbos.com/products/mapper/mapper.htm)
- Dundjinni (http://www.dundjinni.com/)
- AutoREALM (http://autorealm.sourceforge.net/index.php)
- Tiled Mapeditor (http://www.mapeditor.org/)
Are you surprised there isn’t a lot more? So was I.
Of course, you can always choose to use one of the major graphics programs, such as Adobe Photoshop and the like. But for people who can’t draw, using one of the programs above is the only way to go.
Personally, I have only used Campaign Cartographer, and I have to say, the maps that come out of that software are pretty sweet. Take a look at the gallery below to get an idea:
Copyright notice: All images are copyright ProFantasy Software (http://www.profantasy.com/evidence/gallery.asp)
Now, before you go, I have…
3 Questions For You
- How much importance do you put on describing the setting in your stories?
- What are some of the most evocative settings you’ve seen in popular literature?
- When you write a story, do you envision it as a movie?
Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!
Hi there! I’m Iulian, and I want to thank you for reading my article. There’s a lot more if you stick around. I write about personal development, productivity, fiction writing, and more. Also, I’ve created Self-Growth Journey, a free program that helps you get unstuck and create the beautiful life you deserve. Enjoy!