5 World-Building Principles

How to create story worlds that readers love.

Some writers love worldbuilding. Some writers couldn’t care less for it. But one thing is for sure: your story’s world plays a huge role in your reader’s experience.

What is a world? Your story’s world is its lands, cities, societies, governments, technologies, climates, and cultures. A world can be exactly like our reality (e.g. in The Great Gatsby), a plausible but different place (e.g. in Nineteen Eighty-Four), or somewhere entirely fictional (e.g. in The Lord of the Rings).

In this article, we’ll look at 5 principles for creating realistic worlds. I attached an infographic at the bottom of this article. It’s yours to keep!

#1: Climate Matters

Climate is more important to us than we realize. Climate determines how we sleep, what we eat, what we do, how we dress, and how our societies are organized. Our holidays and festivals are deeply rooted in Earth’s cycle of seasons. Even our bodies have climate adaptations, such as our ability to sweat and our lack of hair.

Here are three other examples:

  • Lore: Japanese stone monuments mark the historic heights of tsunamis. One stone reads: “Do not build any homes below this point. High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants.” (link)

  • Building patterns: Buildings in hot and sunny climates, such as those in Ancient Rome or the Middle East, are designed to stay cool. (wiki) Buildings in cold climates, like igloos, are designed to insulate and conserve heat.

  • Food habits: People in warm climates eat more spicy foods. One possible reason is that chili peppers make you sweat, and sweating cools you down. Another reason is food preservation: the antimicrobial and antiparasitic properties of chili peppers protect people from spoiled foods. (link)

Your world will make more sense when you take climate into account. A good example of this is Avatar (the James Cameron movie). The characters dress and act like they’re from a jungle environment.

N.B.: Climate zones should also make sense. Too many novels have deserts, rainforests, and glaciers all within spitting distance.

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#2: There’s Logic to City Placement

Real-world cities often have very good reasons to be where they are. For example:

  • Shanghai began as a group of settlements as part of a thriving fishing industry, ideally situated near the Yangtse River estuaries. By 1291, these villages had amalgamated into a city of 300,000 people. (wiki)

  • New York City began as Fort Amsterdam, located at the strategic southern tip of the island of Manhattan. The fort was meant to defend the fur trade operations of the Dutch West India Company in the Hudson River. It later became the world’s hub for trade. (wiki)

  • Istanbul, or Constantinople, as it was then called, was the converging point of trade between Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. The city’s geographic location allows it to control maritime trade in the Black Sea via the Bosphorus Strait. (wiki)

Think about why your city is where it is. George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series has great examples of city placements that make sense. For example, a lack of mechanized agriculture meant that all the major cities in Westeros had to be port cities along the coast. Without efficient overland transportation, it would be difficult (if not impossible) to support large inland populations.

#3: Places Have Personalities and Quirks

Countries, states, and cities each have unique personalities. For example, in North America:

  • Calgary has an Old West small-town feel, despite being a 1.5 million person metropolis. It even has a two-week summer Rodeo festival when the entire city comes to a standstill. “Residents describe Calgary as having a small-town feel with big-city amenities.” (bbc)

  • The West Coast is more laid back than the East Coast. Nature, health, and wellness are bigger priorities for people in California than New York. While the east was a busy financial hub, the early west had an innovative spirit that still remains to this day. (link)

When writing places, ask yourself: what is the personality of this place? Does it match the behavior of the residents? Avatar, The Last Airbender (the other Avatar) had wonderful personalities for their places. The fire nation is uptight, rule-abiding, and industrious. The water tribes are communal and tight-knit.

#4: Consider the History

Our world’s features are intricately tied to our history. Your story world should work the same way. For example:

  • Politics and culture in Quebec: Quebec cannot be separated from its fascinating history of British conquest. The effects of history are still felt today, with its civil law system and restrictive French language rules. (wiki)

  • Pockmarked fields in Verdun: After 4 years of shelling during The Great War, the landscape in Verdun still bear the scars of war. One Redditor wrote: “I know a lady who went hiking in France and she drank some water from a pond. Now she has some serious illness, [the doctors think] the pond water was still bad due to mustard gas.” (image)

#5: Take Inspiration From the Real World

World-building is hard. You don’t have to do it from scratch.

It’s okay to take inspiration from real world places. What should a cold, island nation look like? Take inspiration from Great Britain or Iceland. What should a medieval city feel like? Take inspiration from ancient Damascus.

It’s your world. You’re in charge.

Infographic: Creating Worlds 🌎 — Making lands, cities, places, and climates that make sense.

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