Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing: How to Build Fantastic Worlds

So, you’re ready to write a science fiction or fantasy novel. But where to start? Here's how to create your fantastic world by starting with a single character.
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So, you’re ready to write a science fiction or fantasy novel. But where to start? Lots of writers begin by creating a map, or researching some distant heavenly body. Six novels into my speculative fiction career, I’ve discovered that I create my best work when I begin building my fantastic worlds by starting not with magic systems or geography, but with a single character. Here’s why this method has been so successful for me.

This guest post is by Kameron Hurley. Hurley is the author of the essay collection The Geek Feminist Revolution, as well as the award-winning God’s War Trilogy and The Worldbreaker Saga. Hurley has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. She was also a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Nebula Award, and the Gemmell Morningstar Award. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, and many anthologies. Hurley has also written for The Atlantic, Entertainment Weekly, The Village Voice, Bitch Magazine, and Locus Magazine. She posts regularly at Her latest novel, The Stars Are Legion, is out now from Saga Press. Connect with her @KameronHurley.

Kameron Hurley featured
Kameron Hurley building fantastic worlds

Asking the Right Questions

When you begin your worldbuilding process by creating a character first, then asking what type of world created that character, you focus on the parts of the world that matter most to the people in it. That means spending less time on research that you ultimately aren’t going to use. I look at my worldbuilding and character creation processes as interconnected. They don’t – in fact, can’t! – exist independently of one another. As I flesh out a character, the world, too, will come into sharper focus. If I create a skilled government assassin who’s tasked with bringing in deserters from a centuries-long war, I have to ask myself what the war is about. If it’s about a lack of resources, what does that world look like? Dry, dusty, low in metals? If a planet was low in metals, how would their technology progress? What would they use to power their vehicles? If they had crashed there on a big generation ship, what was the likelihood they would ever get back into the stars, and how would that change their religious philosophies?

Overcoming the Gauntlet

Most approaches to building new worlds ask you to fill out long questionnaires about geography, magic systems and technology levels, social structures, governments, how people greet one another, the languages they use… the list goes on and on. But how much of that are you really going to squeeze into your novel? How much is relevant?

The first fifty pages of a science fiction or fantasy novel are what one of my editors calls “The gauntlet.” It’s in these vital first pages that readers must orient themselves to a new world, complete with unique societies and ecologies. Dumping all of this information onto readers in long narrative chunks up front overwhelms most readers. Few will be able to get past those first fifty pages.

To dissuade this tendency to dump information onto my reader up front, I only map out my worlds in broad strokes before I start writing. I knew that in my recent space opera, The Stars Are Legion, there would be a legion of living starships that each had independent ecological systems. I knew the worlds would be inhabited entirely by women, whose bodies the living ships relied on to birth vital pieces of themselves. I wanted the two primary societies to be surface-dwellers who organized themselves into authoritarian states. But the nitty gritty details of how people ate, what they wore, and how the ships themselves functioned was something I left for myself to discover during the writing process. By doing this, I was able to convey details about the world to the reader in manageable bites.

[4 Ways to Create Believable Urban Fantasy]

Action Over Exposition

Centering your characters in your worldbuilding process will help you get across details of how the world works without a great deal of exposition. In The Stars are Legion, I focused on describing what my characters were doing and what was driving their stories instead of relying on long expository descriptions about their surroundings. Showing how they interact with the living organic starship gives the reader information about their surroundings without stopping the story’s momentum.

Consider this passage, when Zan, who has awakened without a memory among strangers, runs away from her captors to explore the ship and finds herself in a hangar full of vehicles:

The vehicle looks at me with its one orange eye. I feel pity for it, huffing here alone in the hangar, leaking vital fluid. I walk over to the workbench, and just like in the training room, my hands move of their own accord with some latent memory. I know how to fix this sad vehicle, and that knowl­edge gives me far greater pleasure than knowing how to hit someone.

I cut and stitch and smear salve across a long length of the vehicle’s tubing. It has a texture and consistency somewhere between intestine and an umbilical cord; the knowledge that I know the texture of both is sobering. There’s a heap of tubing in a warm bin on the workbench. I know where everything is, and I know the names of the tools: scalpel, haystitch, speculum, forebear.

These observations show us a lot of information about both the world and Zan’s misty past. We learn that these vehicles are organic: they have eyes and leak “vital fluid.” Zan discovers she has been present at births and violent deaths, because she knows what both intestines and umbilical cords feel like. Also notice how any made-up words I introduce in this world are given within context to make them easier to understand. We know that “haystitch” and “forebear” as used here refer to types of tools, without explicitly describing exactly what they look like or what they do.

Connecting the Dots (In Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing)

It can be tempting to drop modern-day characters with modern-day sensibilities into your carefully constructed world. Resist the temptation! What your characters find strange—or normal—will tell you a lot about the world around them. [Like this quote? Click here to Tweet and share it!] If your character comments on how odd it is for water to come out of a tap, but doesn’t bat an eye when a knee-high insect crosses the road ahead of them, it tells you something about their world.

Throughout your writing process, also keep in mind that the societies you create and the geography they inhabit will affect one another profoundly. If you create a world where women go to war alongside men in equal numbers, you’ll need to answer the question of who is back at home doing the hard work of feeding those armies, making their weapons, and birthing those soldiers. If you create an ice planet warmed by a distant star, you’ll need to answer the question of how these people feed themselves and stay warm. The more connected your world is, the more likely you are to engage a reader for the long haul – and inspire their sense of wonder.

[Online Course: Worldbuilding in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing]

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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