Building a Fantasy World by Catharine Bramkamp

Let’s welcome back monthly columnist Catharine Bramkamp as she shares with us “Building a Fantasy World.” Enjoy!


How do you build a whole world?

Lord of the Rings, Disc World, Game of Thrones, Handmaid’s Tale — These fantasy series are as much about their world as they are about the characters and story. Done right, the world itself becomes reason enough to read the book. That is why world building is important and daunting.

Readers love their fantasy worlds, and if the writer is lucky, the world takes on a life of its own. Readers become fans. Then they become critics. If the author does get the world right, readers will tweet.

World building is so important it may even take longer than seven days.

Now that I have freaked you out, remember that your world doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to make sense within the frame work of your story and the world itself. If you keep with the physics of your world, you will avoid the naysayers, picky readers and snarky tweets.

Like any genre, it would probably behoove you to follow some of the tropes of the genre. You can challenge typical genre assumptions, like Terry Pratchett did, but do so knowingly with a wink and nod. Genre fans read a lot of books, they understand the boundaries of their genre world, both the classics and the new. They are not tolerant. Miss step and you will lose your reader. You can add, mess with, and make everything crazy, but know what you are doing, because your readers will certainly know.

You have two world building options:

Build the world completely, then people it.

Draw the maps, block out all the descriptions, create full backgrounds and history of every tribe. Give your elves, fairies and robots full backstories. Now you are ready to plot.


Build the world as you go.

Start with the adventure and make notes about your world as you go. Record enough detail so you remember in chapter one fairies can’t fly when they are covered in dew, so in chapter twelve, that fairy lifted off first thing in the morning. Make notes so you don’t break your own rules.

Now that you have your full imagined world, resist the urge to fully explain it.

The biggest mistake made in creating the first book in fantasy or science fiction series it to take a great many pages setting up the world. Don’t. Once you have written, say nine books in your fantasy series, only then will your fans want to read all about your world. Only then can you use all those excellent notes to create the World Companion Book. Until then. Don’t.

If you are introducing a whole new world, and this is your initial book, remember the first rule of novels. Jump in with action: a knife fight, a prophesy, the first dangerous mile of a long journey. Fill in, every few pages, a couple of sentences about the world and build it up for the reader, as you go.

So why even make notes about the world if you can’t blurt it all out in the first chapter?

The more you know about your world, the easier it will be to reference it in a natural way. In order to keep the action moving, a character can, with great authority, comment about the damp, grounded fairy and be done with it.

World building is interesting, crazy and fun. Want to build a pineapple under the sea? Go for it. Want to create a flat world on the back of a turtle? Great. Believe in your world, make more notes than will ever, ever be published and remember that for all the world, it will still be the characters, the journey and the plot that will sell the second book.

Need some help with your story? Visit



When she’s not pulling her mother out of traffic, Catharine coaches and teaches fiction, non-fiction, and journal writing.

Catharine Bramkamp is an author and writing coach -- visit her at Bramkamp is an author and writing coach — visit her at She has written 17 novels and 3 books on writing. Her poetry appears in over a dozen anthologies including And The Beats Go On (she was editor, as well) and the chapbook Ammonia Sunrise (Finishing Line Press). Her current book, Don’t Write Like We Talk, is based on her co-producer experience creating 200-plus episodes of the Newbie Writers Podcast. She is the Chief Storytelling Officer for technical companies because everyone has a story.

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  • michael finberg says:

    You create your characters FIRST, then the story worlds to fit THEM.

  • Good point, the story is all about how the protagonist changes, so starting with that character in mind would work beautifully. Thanks for your comment!

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