How I built my fantasy world while staying in the story

You might have heard of “world-builders disease”. If you haven’t, then listen to this episode of Writing Excuses, from Season 5. If you have, but haven’t listened to that episode of Writing Excuses before, then I highly recommend you listen to it anyway.

Now, I personally hate the term “world-builders disease” because it implies there is something wrong with spending time world-building. I’m sure all you fellow fantasy writers in the crowd can relate to the struggle of knowing just how much world-building you must do before you feel you know the world adequately enough to start writing your book.

Today I’m going to share with you some of the techniques I have been developing during my latest foray into world-building, in the hope that it may inspire you in your own endeavors.

Developing a bottom-up, top-down process

I have been building my world for almost 23 years. I also have been writing the stories that accompanied this process for the same period of time. I started when I was in grade 8, a 13-year-old boy inspired first by the work of Dennis L. McKiernan, then Tolkien via The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

There was never a point at which I said, “I’m going to build my world so I can write stories set in it.” There was never a point at which I said, “I’m going to write stories so I can build my world.” The two happened all together. Every morning while delivering newspapers (I was a paper boy until I was 17), stories took shape in my mind. They were cinematic, but they were also expository. Some mornings I was discovering the stories of how gods and powerful wizards betrayed one another. Other mornings, I was wandering through enchanted lands hidden by veils of mist. Often, I heard languages.

The process of trying to write this all down was about a lot more than just trying to write a book or a short story. I drew maps as much as I composed prose. I wrote out charts for my languages and continued to make up new words for them, usually in my room at night while hovering before my humidifier. I annotated my maps, and stories lurked within these annotations. I started a story but it detoured into a chronicle of a new people I had not previously heard of. Years passed, I read more fantasy books, my work evolved, and it wasn’t until I was 26 that I finally completed a first draft of a novel. But not at all during that time would I have said I was not telling stories.

Instead, what I learned is that the world gives life to story, just as the story gives life to a world. It’s in the doing that both are created. And for writing fantasy, a lot of doing is needed for a truly lofty epic to come together.

I’ve come to think of this as a bottom-up, top-down approach to world-building. Bottom-up because, first and foremost, I discover my world through doing. I get my hands dirty, be it with trying new stories set in the world, or with simply finding new ways to explore my world beyond writing stories that follow novel or short story format (maps, languages, chronicles, glossaries, setting sketches, to name a few). Top-down because, as I move forward in this process, I employ world-building rigor to further grow my stories. But bottom-up, top-down because, in order to employ this rigor, I must start by creating and making a mess.

My process over the years then has been about learning how to make a mess and clean it up, and keep making more messes and keep cleaning those up, and get better and better at it as I go. It is, in a sense, about learning to create an ever-evolving mess-making-cleaning-up system.

Using a private wiki as a world-building tool

When I finished the fourth draft of A Thousand Roads, I allotted time exclusively for “world-building” while I waited on my editor. I went into this with no idea what that meant. The obvious starting point for me was to create an index of my notes, to bring them all together in one place, so that is exactly how I began.

I had done this, to some extent, with Blood Dawn. (You can read more about that here.) With Blood Dawn, I created a list and added to it every time I mentioned something in the draft relating to the world. As the manuscript grew, the list grew and I organized it into a directory to keep it accessible. I was using Scrivener, and though its tree display is convenient for me to quickly access the relevant location, eventually the directory got too large and it was cumbersome.

What was coming together was essentially a wiki, but Scrivener was the wrong environment for it. So, as I began this January to unify my notes during this exciting, long-awaited world-building period, I took a leap of faith and started my index in a private wiki. (Much thanks to my friend and fellow fantasy writer, and world-builder extraordinaire, Malkuthe Highwind, for his patience and guidance along the way.)

Now, for those who are familiar with wikis, I will clarify that when I say I created a wiki, it was not for the conventional use. I have set it all to private so that it functions as a extension of my writing notes. I can keep it open in an internet browser while I write, allowing me to access relevant articles and modify as needed.

My choice to keep this private was twofold. Mainly, these are my notes. I have details about future books, both as part of the articles under the “history” directory, and through character bio pages. I want to be able to dump in whatever I need to freely, without worrying that I might confuse future readers.

I also am chaotic in my notes. Sentences are half-completed in many places, or in point form. While consolidating three conflicting articles on magic, instead of belaboring over this task, I simply left a bold note to myself at the top that the material must be integrated at a later date. While nearing the end of this phase and realizing there was so much more to do (as in, if I got a magic ring and was able to live to 133, I would still be doing it), I simply resolved myself to setting future goals (likely between future drafts while waiting on editors or readers) to gradually iterate over the entire thing in stages, further unifying or expanding or correcting as seems fitting at such time. (For instance, I have put on my project board a future task, “consolidate magic directory” and would, during that project, focus exclusively on going over all my magic notes and emerging with my “notes to self” somewhat resolved.)

The other reason I’ve kept my wiki private is because usually, fans write wikis for the fantasy epics they fall in love with. For instance, Brandon Sanderson’s fans have built and maintain Coppermind. George R.R. Martin’s fans have one as well ( In neither of these cases did the author write their wikis. I prefer that, if the community of fans who gather around my work in the years to come wish to share their knowledge and passion for the books, they will do so without my interference. I might contribute here and there, but mostly I would lurk, as I’m sure they will find numerous inconsistencies or errors that I have missed, and this I will use to my (and ultimately their) advantage.

What I created in my world-building wiki

At first, I created chaos. This was due mostly to the fact that my notes were scattered all over the place. I had hand-written notes from A Thousand Roads from when I wrote the first draft. I had notes from the Scrivener directory file I created while writing Blood Dawn. I already had several disorganized articles on my wiki from when I was learning how to use it. I need not mention notes from 23 years of discovering this world (which I intend to, over the course of the next few years, append to the wiki during later phases of iteration).

But the wiki allowed me to dump in what I needed, and I organized as I went along.

To start, I created an index page where I would drop material if I didn’t know where it belonged. This wasn’t required for long. I quickly saw how my notes broke down into various categories, and subcategories, so I created pages for each of these.

For instance, I have many character notes. I organize my characters based on how important they are, the usual main, secondary, and tertiary. As I was transferring character notes, I created the character category. But as I have so many notes on characters, eventually I created pages based on whether they are main, secondary, or tertiary, as the note-taking system I employ for each differs (i.e. tertiary characters are usually passing people in a scene so I might only have a sentence or two about them to give me a deeper sense of the interpersonal or setting dynamics).

In the same manner, other categories came together: people, with subcategories lineages, culture, society, and organizations; life, with subcategories flora, fauna, and races (to be clear, I mean race in the traditional fantasy sense, for instance, humankind, the Dwarf Men, Dragons, and other sapient beings); constructions, with subcategories language, religion, symbols, art, measurement.

Sub-subcategories also came together within these categories as I proceeded further. For instance, the races subcategory breaks down quite a lot since of the two dominant races of the world, humankind and the Dwarf Men, both are unique species who have diverged into racial groups over time. The lineages subcategory is a whole universe unto itself as the various dynasties of both Dwarf Men and humankind are listed there, and these dynasties are specific to different nations and time periods.

As a rule, I tried not to impose too much top-down prodding at this point, so the resulting category, subcategory, sub-subcategory breakdown was an emergent property and not artificial. It was, strictly, me trying to organize my notes.

But I did do a lot of further writing as a result of seeing the larger structure coming together, and this is where the bottom-up, top-down approach I’ve employed all my life became manifest. For, it is inevitable for me to engage with my notes and my world and not explore a bit further.

Sometimes I saw that categories or subcategories, or sub-subcategories were missing, or I would create a brief note to summarize something (i.e. “The Black Faith” under “Religion” under “Constructions”, which I wrote a great deal on beyond my notes, and “The Old Faith”, which I discovered through listing out related religions that were not in my notes before but which came to me from this particular top-down view). Or, when filling in a given note on calendar systems and elaborating, I would discover a detail about cultural history behind that system and could now quickly access the part of the culture category that deals with that particular culture. As the system came together, it inspired me to write about the world from its own perspective in ways that my notes from the manuscript-writing process would not have.

I arrived at the end of this process greatly satisfied. Not only did I unify my notes, I also defined a process which will continue this objective, and I am now excited to return to it time and time again.

Taming the world-building beast

I could write endlessly on what I have learned about world-building from the last month alone, but I will close instead on the most important insight, which is the issue of how I jumped into world-building without losing my sense of “true north”.

In fact, I found the discipline I learned while working on the previous drafts of A Thousand Roads translated directly. Working on these drafts taught me to stay grounded on one thing at a time, and to do so with a governing objective, aka the “true north”.

In the case of the fourth draft of A Thousand Roads, I had an editorial letter from my editor (and the pressure of a publication schedule) to not just keep me committed to writing every day but also keep me on task. I could have tinkered and obsessed endlessly on that draft. But instead I learned to trust my editor’s edits and the specific revisions objectives I had to achieve, and, most importantly, to accept that the draft I would deliver back to him for the next round of edits was still going to need work; but that would be for the fifth draft, and I’d achieved what I needed to in the fourth.

Likewise, while world-building, I stayed focused on my objective of unifying my notes. I had in fact looked forward to this since the fall. Many times while stressing over revision in the fourth draft, I pushed ahead eager for the time to finally be able to put the draft away and work on something fresh and exciting—and what can be fresher and more exciting that pure world-building?

So I stayed grounded in this world-building process, and those many times along the way where I saw a rabbit hole, I tagged it as such and left it, knowing I would in due time come back to it. This gave me a sense of knowing when I would be “done” world-building, this particular time around.

Most importantly, I finished this task with my notes in one place. This will serve useful as I write the 5th draft of A Thousand Roads (as I can now access/modify my wiki directly as needed), and when I dive back in to pick up on the next “world-building” phase, after I am done the 5th draft and waiting on my specialty readers.

In fact, I have come to appreciate this world-building phase as somewhat of a discovered half of a wheel, whose turning has brought me back to the familiar other half, drafting. I will draft the 5th draft of A Thousand Roads now; then, completing that, roll over into the next phase of world-building, then roll over into the 6th draft. And on and on, and beyond A Thousand Roads there is the space between that and the sequel. In my mind, I get excited thinking of how this wheel will continually turn as the epic evolves, and the world itself will grow more concrete and loftier, how I will be, as I was 23 years ago, using many facets of creation to bring this world to life.

Now please, someone give me a magic ring.


About John Robin

John Robin is an epic fantasy writer, professional editor, and lover of imaginary worlds. He write stories about magic and myth, human suffering and the power to rise above it. He loves world building, coffee shops, mathematics, chess, and is an avid author community builder.
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6 Responses to How I built my fantasy world while staying in the story

  1. I have a divided note book full of my world-building. Now I’m heading into novel 3 of the series, it’s probably wise to use a different approach. Scrivener might be the answer.
    I agree with your bottom up method, in the beginning I wasn’t sure where the story was going, let alone the realms.

    • John Robin says:

      If you’d like to try a wiki feel free to email me and I can explain a bit more how to get started. Scrivener is helpful in the beginning, but as soon as you start getting notes that fit in multiple categories it gets difficult, especially when there is so much material it’s hard to remember where you might have left a particular note 🙂

  2. Pingback: The Art of World-Building by guest author Montgomery Mahaffey | John Robin's Blog

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