Worldbuilding: How to Create a Believable Fictional World

Learn how to construct an immersive and realistic world for your next creative project.

Worldbuilding

Worldbuilding is an essential part of storytelling in any work of fiction.

Whether you’re writing a book or designing a video game, the world you create needs to immerse and captivate your audience. That is only possible if it looks and feels realistic, even if it contains supernatural elements such as time travel or magic. Building such a world requires a great deal of effort and attention to detail.

Let's dive deeper into what worldbuilding is and how it should be approached.

What is worldbuilding?

Worldbuilding is the process of constructing a fictional world. It can be as complex as creating an entirely new, unique universe with its own history and laws of nature. Or it can be as (seemingly) simple as slightly altering the details of our own world to fit the story.

Much like the world we live in, your fictional world is defined by numerous details and elements, including but not limited to:

Not all of these details may be directly relevant to the story, but defining them is nonetheless an important part of worldbuilding. The more intimately and intricately you know your world, the richer and more immersive your writing will become.

It’s fine if you don't know every single detail about your world from the start. Begin by defining the basics and let your world evolve and grow from there. The output of your worldbuilding efforts is usually a series of documents and creative assets (maps, sketches, concept art), best organized in a wiki.

Here's an example of what a worldbuilding wiki looks like in Nuclino, a collaborative documentation and mind-mapping tool.

Worldbuilding example

Game design document example (Artwork credit: Stephane Wootha Richard)

How to start worldbuilding

The worldbuilding process can significantly differ depending on your creative project. However you decide to craft your world, there are a number of worldbuilding best practices that can help you along the way.

Select a methodology and stick to it

There are two main approaches to worldbuilding:

The best approach depends on how developed your plot is before you begin building your world. Terry Pratchett, the author of the Discworld fantasy series, is known to recommend the bottom-up approach: "[In creating a fantasy city] you had to start out by wondering how the fresh water got in and the sewage got out... World building from the bottom up, to use a happy phrase, is more fruitful than doing it from the top down."

Start with a story, not a world

The world is there to complement the story and not the other way around. No matter how vivid your world is, your audience will need a captivating plot and charismatic characters to take an interest in it. The worldbuilding process and storytelling need to go hand in hand.

Use worldbuilding tools to keep your content organized

When you are just getting started, it may seem like a simple Google Doc will suffice. But as you make progress, and your world evolves and accumulates more and more details, things can quickly become chaotic. Make sure you keep your work clearly organized from the start. A private wiki such as Nuclino can be a great worldbuilding tool:

Worldbuilding tool

Find inspiration in existing works

The best worlds have a good mix of original ideas and familiar concepts. Your inspiration can come from anywhere – history, mythology, art. Let your world absorb existing concepts and form something new out of them. George R. R. Martin, for example, drew inspiration from the Heptarchy and the War of the Roses when he created the world for his "A Song of Ice and Fire" book series.

And as they say, "to steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research".

Write down everything

Any time you have an idea about the world you are building, write it down. A great deal of those ideas may not make it into the final iteration of your world – it's a natural part of the exploratory worldbuilding process. But not documenting them is a sure way to let great ideas slip away.

Worldbuilding concept art

Worldbuilding concept art example (Artwork credit: David Revoy)

Key worldbuilding elements

To build a realistic, engaging world, it's important to add enough detail, from something as high-level as geography and climate, to something as specific as the smell of the market near the protagonist's house.

While every world is different, core worldbuilding elements include:

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Worldbuilding is a long, exploratory process that can never be definitively complete, but not every element you add needs to be an explicit part of the story you're telling. Focus on crafting the details that meaningfully affect who your characters are and how they experience their world.

Nuclino: Your team's single source of truth

Nuclino

Nuclino is a unified workspace that helps you organize all of your team's work in one place. Instead of digging through the chaos of files and folders and drowning in endless meetings and notifications, Nuclino allows your team to break out of silos and collaborate more thoughtfully.

Try it for free

Image credit: Stephane Wootha Richard

Character illustration