Knowledge Base » Middle Grade & Young Adult » 5 Steps to Building a World in Sci-Fi & Fantasy


5 Steps to Building a World in Sci-Fi & Fantasy


Building worlds in science fiction and fantasy involves more than simply deciding upon the name of that world. It means creating a language, a culture, rules and mores, dress and styles, a past or history.


Does that sound intimidating?  It needn’t be.


Just as in eating an elephant (one bite at a time), let’s break it down in to manageable steps (or bites).


Language. No world can exist without some manner of language. Whether that language be English, French, Swahili, it matters not. In the fantasy world we are creating, we will assume that the language is English-based. Beginning fantasy or science fiction writers frequently make the mistake of trying to invent new words for common place items or activities. Don’t do it. Give your imagination free rein in creating new words for new things. Does your world include a race of people who are half-human, half-frog? Then by all means invent a name for these people. Does your world also include such common items as bread and milk? Forget coming up with a new name for them, unless these items are significantly different than that to which we are accustomed and unless they affect the way the characters interact.


Names. Closely related to language are names. It is tempting to name the characters of our newly constructed world exotic sounding names with many syllables and un-pronouncablee sounds. Re-consider that temptation. If a reader encounters a name that stops him each time he encounters it, trying to figure out how to pronounce it, you have broken a cardinal rule in writing: you have taken him out of the story. But I don’t want to name my main character a common name, you may protest. You don’t have to. Just make certain that the name won’t stop the reader or divert him from the story. What about Zara rather than Zar-him-lem-na for the heroine of your young adult novel? Zara is unusual enough to allow the reader to picture a girl from another world but is also still accessible. Are you getting the idea?


Rules, customs, and mores. It matters less what these rules, customs, and mores are than it does that they are consistent. Every world, every culture has rules. Even an anarchy has the “rule” that there are no rules or laws. Experienced science fiction and/or fantasy writers know that the more carefully you work out the rules, the more you know about the limitations placed upon your characters … and the possibilities those characters possess.The world you build, the stories you tell, will be dependent upon the decision you make about the rules. Parents know that consistency in applying rules is tantamount. We cannot tell our children that it’s all right to jump on the sofa one day and that it’s not all right to jump on it the next. It is the same with composing rules for your new world. If your main character can fly in one scene, he must be able to fly in the next scene. And so must the villain—unless you can provide a credible reason why only the hero can fly.


Dress and style. Is your created world populated by people who fashion their clothes from only plants and natural materials? Be sure you have thought through the implications of that. The characters must have the means to make their clothes. Does your new world dictate that the characters never cut their hair? Give a reason for this.


The past. Worlds, even made-up worlds, don’t spring up out of nothing. Whatever the present existence—how things are now—they used to be another way. Somehow, the world got from there to where it is now. An example is the United States. This country did not always exist. It was rooted in England and other nations. The newly created country—and its citizens—had a past. The same applies for the new world you are creating. Though it is new, it has a past, a history. That history influences everything about the new world, its inhabitants, from their code of law to their religious beliefs.


Allow your imagination free rein in creating your new world. Then get down to the nitty-gritty of making it believable, for only then will you be able to invite your readers to share it, to experience it as you do.

Jane McBride

Jane McBride has written 34 novels, primarily historical fiction and romance. Her work has also appeared in 16 Chicken Soup for the Soul Collections, two anthologies by St. Martin's Press (The Spirit of Christmas and Christmas Miracles), and many magazines for children (Friend, Alive for Teens, Children's Digest, Starsong), adults (Better Homes & Gardens, Family Circle, Woman's Day), and writers (Writer, Writer's Market, Romance Writers Report).