How to Build a Fictional World

Authored by Neil Gaiman


As a writer, building a fictional universe is like playing God. While this might appear to be a daunting task, author Neil Gaiman provides some tools to use—and pitfalls to avoid—when bringing your imaginary world to life.

Part 1 of 9

Remember your childhood influences

Whether it’s J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis or P.L. Travers or Ursula K. Le Guin or even Neil Gaiman, think about the authors you read when you were young, and think about how they affected you on a primal and different level. Their worlds are places you’d recognize if you saw them, and you should strive to create something similar—something that feels like a real place.

Did you know?

Fight the urge to create from an already established fictional place, like Narnia or Middle-earth. This is a fan fiction urge, and while fan fiction is great in its place, it’s not appropriate here.

Part 2 of 9

Start with intimate details from your own life

Remember the places you’ve lived in and visited, even if they’re right outside your window. Then change them up a bit. You could modify your school so it’s the size of a city, or on an island, or floating in the sky—but it all starts with your real memories of your actual school.

Part 3 of 9

Ground it in realism

No matter how fantastic your world is, even if it’s a floating school, include real-world details that are weird and unusual—the smell of cooking cabbage or the scent of unwashed sports clothes in lockers, for example. It will feel real to the readers, but more importantly, it will feel real to you.

Part 4 of 9

Decide what’s important about the world

Even if your fictional world is really just a soap bubble that can easily pop, it must appear very solid and real. What’s important to you must be given importance in the story and then filled with people and characters who deal with these matters.

Part 5 of 9

Ask yourself weird questions

Even if you have no intention of including these details in the book, it’s good to know where the toilets are at this floating school, for example, or where the school gets its food from. The answers to these questions might create more details for your world.

Part 6 of 9

Do your homework

If your world is set during medieval times, research medieval times. If your book is set in a graveyard, visit as many different graveyards as you can. Learn their history, their function, and their form, and add these details into your story.

Did you know?

Neil Gaiman incorporated the ruined chapel in Abney Park and the topography of Glasgow Necropolis—both of which he studied during his numerous graveyard explorations—into his fictional graveyard in The Graveyard Book.

Part 7 of 9

Always carry a notebook

Whether it’s a physical notebook or just a voice app on your phone, you never know when you’ll be struck by an observation or idea. Taking notes is vital, even if you never go back and read them again—they’ll usefully rot away on the compost heap of your imagination, and they’ll be there if you need them.

Part 8 of 9

Know—but don’t necessarily tell—the rules of your world

This is especially important if you’re creating anything in the realm of the fantastic, where many physical laws might be different. Your world will have implicit rules, explicit rules, social rules, laws, customs, etc., and you should know what they are.

Part 9 of 9

Let your characters discover the rules by making mistakes

In the real world, we aren’t given a rulebook telling us how everything works. We must either be taught about gravity, fire, basic economics, etc. or figure them out for ourselves. The same is true of your characters. Let them bump into things, make mistakes, get burned—or perhaps subvert this by letting them occasionally take advantage of the rules—and the reader will learn them along the way.

Did you know?

It’s fine if your readers say, “I don’t really understand the rules of your world.” Nobody knows the rules of New York, either. They’ll eventually figure out what they are, either by hanging out with people who know what they are or by making mistakes.

masterWiki is
MSCHF Drop #27
is MSCHF Drop #27