Living the Fantasy: Worldbuilding 101

What Is Worldbuilding? 

Worldbuilding, or the process of constructing an imaginary world or setting, is an essential part of creating believable and compelling fictional universes. It is most often used and associated with genre fiction, such as science fiction and fantasy, but can be an important aspect of almost any kind of storytelling. Without worldbuilding, a story will lack context and consistency. The world your story lives in provides a foundation for the rest of the story, and helping your audience understand that world will encourage them to continue interacting with the story. 

Here, we’ll dive into the essentials of worldbuilding and how to do it effectively. 

When to Worldbuild 

Many stories take advantage of worldbuilding, although it most notably appears in science fiction, fantasy, or historical fiction. However, even stories set in a familiar place to the audience and the modern day require some worldbuilding. You have to craft where a person lives, how they make money, who their family is, and what their culture looks like. Depending on what genre your story lives in, this could be relatively simple and recognizable when compared to the real world, or it could be completely made up. But thoroughly building your world from the foundations up will help it feel real. 

When getting started with worldbuilding, ask yourself these questions: 

  1. What genre is my story? If your story takes place in a sci-fi or fantasy world, you’re going to have a lot more work to do as you have to create technology or magic for it.
  2. Where does my story take place? Determine the specific setting of your story so you can begin to build around that. For example, if your story takes place in a made-up city, the city needs a name, buildings, a reason for existing, and more. Figuring out all of these things can help you get started on crafting your world from the ground up. 
  3. Who are my characters? This can be an important question in determining how your characters fit into your world and vice-versa. If your world has magic, is your main character familiar with that magic or do they have to be introduced to it? Sometimes, it’s a good idea to have at least one character who is, for whatever reason, completely unfamiliar with the world you’re building so that they can ask questions the audience might also have. 

Once you have these basics down, you can begin to stretch your imagination and continue building out your world. The more thorough your worldbuilding is, the more real it will feel on the page, so don’t be afraid to know things about your world that don’t even appear in the story. Maybe you have created three different religions for this world, but not all of them appear in the text. Knowing that there are at least three, and how they work, can help you create cultural aspects of your world that go along with these religions, even if they aren’t explicitly stated on the page. 

How to Worldbuild

Aside from answering the questions above, there’s a lot to consider when building your own world. Keep a document that is somewhat separate from your actual story as you determine details about the world you’re creating, but make sure everything is in one place—the same folder, a document with multiple pages, et cetera. Staying organized will be a huge help in bringing your world to the page. 

Creating Effective Magic Systems

If you’re creating a fantastical world where magic exists, you’ll need a “magic system.” This is how your world’s magic actually works. Think about the magic in the Harry Potter series versus in The Lord of the Rings. Sure, these stories take place in very different worlds, but they both have magic. The difference is in how the magic works in each of them. 

Magic systems also come in hard magic and soft magic. Hard magic is when the system is explicitly defined and has concrete rules, like in Avatar: The Last Airbender and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn. In these worlds, only certain kinds of people can use certain kinds of magic. For example, in Avatar: The Last Airbender, firebenders cannot bend water. 

Soft magic, on the other hand, is present in stories like The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Fire and Ice. The rules are less clear and the magic is more imbued into nature and the world itself. Oftentimes, the major difference between the two is that hard magic can be more overtly used to solve problems. Soft magic, on the other hand, can’t really be used in that way. It usually exists as a source of problems. Sometimes it happens to help solve them, but generally speaking it cannot be wielded to do anything specific.

When choosing between the two types of magic for your own story, as Brandon Sanderson says, it really comes down to what helps tell your story best. Once you’ve determined that, consider the three major elements of magic systems:

  1. Rules: These are going to be the governing tenets of your magic. How are spells cast? Do characters have to say magic words in order for them to take effect? What is needed to enable magic and who can use it? For example, in Harry Potter, the characters need wands and only certain people have magic. 
  2. Abilities: These are the actual things you can do with the magic in the story. Harry Potter can create a Patronus to drive off Dementors. Radagast the Brown can commune with and control animals as well as use herbs and his powers to heal people. What does the magic in your world enable characters to do? Can they raise the dead? Can they wash the dishes without lifting a finger (a personal dream of mine)? 
  3. Restrictions: Magic without limitations in a story has the potential to cause a lot of problems on a basic storytelling level, as it can mean that characters have unlimited power, or at least a confusing level of power. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, waterbenders cannot produce their own water. This is a limitation that requires characters like Katara to carry water on themselves at all times or find other means to produce it. It also means that if they are completely separated from water sources, they can more easily be controlled. If, in your story, you wish to explore the idea of “absolute power” by giving a character no restrictions in their magic, it can be a compelling conflict. But not all characters can be at this level. By building in restrictions to how and why your characters can use magic, you create more opportunities for conflict and resolution. You also avoid completely confusing your audience. A good example of this is Michael Myers from the Halloween horror film series. His magic allows him to travel great distances and appear anywhere the victimized characters are effortlessly, and this power functions well in the series by creating a sense of true fear, anticipation, and suspense. In Star Wars, however, the worldbuilding around the Force feels muddy at times. It’s unclear if there are true restrictions and, if there are, what those restrictions truly entail. What can you do and not do with the Force? Is it entirely driven by little creatures called Midichlorians or is it accessible to everyone? 

When it comes to magic systems, one thing you can do to get better at creating them is simply by experiencing more of them. Aside from the examples we’ve already mentioned, check out this media for examples of magic systems: 

Hard Magic Systems: 

  • Allomancy from the Mistborn books by Brandon Sanderson 
  • Alchemy in Fullmetal Alchemist, an anime and manga series created by Hiromu Arakawa
  • Bending in Avatar: The Last Airbender
  • The Grishaverse from the Shadow and Bone trilogy by Leigh Bardugo
  • Daemons in His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
  • Superhuman abilities in The Witcher (games and books) by Andrzej Sapkowski
  • Chakra in Naruto as created by Masashi Kishimoto
  • Role playing video game Persona

Soft Magic Systems

  • The world of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin
  • Magic in The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
  • The Once and Future King by T. H. White
  • The worlds of Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy, and Dragon Age
  • The Lord of the Rings by J. R.R. Tolkein


  • Vampires and other magic from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guinn
  • Supernatural, the TV series
  • DC and Marvel comics
  • The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

For short stories, flash fiction, and poetry pieces that feature magic systems, check out what F(r)iction has to offer!

4 Rules for Effective Worldbuilding

As you set out to build your own world, here are a few “rules” to keep in mind: 

  1. Establish internal consistency. 

The number one thing that will pull an audience out of your world is if they notice that things don’t make sense. Once you’ve set a rule in your world, don’t break it unless it’s necessary for the story—and even then, you must have a really good explanation to do this. 

In Avatar: The Last Airbender, it’s a “rule” that, when separated from earth itself, Earthbenders cannot use their bending. This rule is important because it means that the Fire Nation has a means to subjugate Earthbenders. However, (CW: SPOILERS AHEAD!) Toph later breaks this rule by learning how to metalbend. Despite this “rule breaking,” it still makes sense in-universe and in the story itself to have her discover how to do this. Nonetheless, the limitation on Earthbending remains for most benders throughout the series.

  1. Balance realism and creativity. 

This is your world, so you get to be as creative with it as you want! But you still need to ground it in some reality, or else your audience may not buy it. Every rule in your world should make sense on multiple levels—why can one character do magic and another not? Why can’t magic be used for X [bringing people back from the dead, healing a wound, flying]? More than that, it should feel like the magic is being used in a way that feels real to how humans really work. It would make sense for it to be exploited sometimes and for it to be used for good other times. 

  1. Avoid common pitfalls.

The major issues that people run into with worldbuilding are: 

  • Info-dumping. Building in exposition is already difficult for writers, but when you’re introducing an audience to an entirely new world, it can be even more so. Although you may be tempted to put everything you know about your world on the page as quickly as possible, resist this feeling. It will feel more natural and make for a better story if information about your world is revealed in a way that makes sense based on the plot, setting, and characters. 
  • Exorbitant worldbuilding. Expanding on that, there is such a thing as too much worldbuilding. While it’s good to know as much about your world as possible, it’s not always necessary for all those details to go on the page. Only include the details necessary to telling your story. It’s easy to get caught up in frivolous details when you’ve spent so much time building your world, but really think through every detail and why you’re including it. If the reason is simply that it’s interesting and you thought of it, that might not be enough. Worldbuilding details should always have an impact on the story and characters themselves. 
  • Making purposeless choices. If you don’t know why you’ve made a particular choice, then you should probably reconsider it. Every part of your world needs to make sense for the story and the characters. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a world that doesn’t fit your actual story or a story that doesn’t fit your world. It will be difficult to have characters make reasonable decisions or experience conflict that has meaning. 
  • Lacking rich description. When building your world, don’t be afraid to describe it—literally. How does it smell, feel, and taste? What is the weather like? What time of day is it when your story starts? While not all of these details may make it into the final draft of your story, it’s important that you know they exist and those that do will help your audience feel like they are a part of the world you’ve created. Read our blog on mastering figurative language for a better understanding of how to write unique and detailed descriptions.
  • Lacking diversity. One of the greatest things about our real world is how diverse it is—there are multiple kinds of people, cultures, languages, religions, traditions, foods, policies, and more. When creating a fantastical world, make sure it’s not all the same: one kind of people, one kind of culture, one kind of language. Even if your story is focused only on one part of a larger world, leaving out any signs of diversity will make your world feel unbelievable and unrelatable. 
  1. Have fun!

Most importantly, you should love the world you’re building and want to build it out even more. Even if some of what you know about your own world doesn’t actually make it onto the page, knowing it should fill you with a sense of accomplishment and awe—you created that!

Online Resources for Worldbuilding

Don’t be afraid to use all the resources available. There are so many tools out there to help make worldbuilding easier and even more fun. Take a look at these resources as you get started on building your own world: 

  • ChronoGrapher: A worldbuilding webtool for writers and game masters that allows you to write detailed articles to keep track of everything in your world, create your own world wiki, link all of your articles together, and even save things to GoogleDrive.
  • Inkarnate: A website that allows you to build your own maps of fantastical worlds. The free version includes over 700 HD art assets and the ability to create up to ten different maps. 
  • World Anvil: Provides a set of worldbuilding tools that helps you create, organize, and story your world setting. Has features such as wiki-like articles, interactive maps, an RPG campaign manager, and full novel-writing software. 

Another important resource to utilize in worldbuilding is other people. There are plenty of communities where you can ask questions, discuss your world, and get feedback on your projects. 

Launch Your Own Worldbuilding Project

Now that you know more about worldbuilding, how about getting started on your own? Don’t forget to take advantage of the resources linked above and to consider all the questions asked in this blog. As you get started on writing your own world into existence, continue checking in with Facts of Fiction for more articles on writing basics. We can’t wait to get immersed in your world!