Thursday, January 21, 2021

4 Secrets to Successful World Building

By Laurence MacNaughton, @LMacNaughton

Part of The How They Do It Series

JH: A believable world is a must for a fantasy or science fiction author, but how much world do you really need to build? Laurence MacNaughton shares four secrets to craft a world readers will want to explore.

Anytime you write a story that breaks the boundaries of the "normal" world, you need to do what's called world building. Do it right, and you'll transport your readers to an amazing place they've never been. Do it wrong, and it will kill your story faster than a stake through the heart.

Whether you're talking about magic, monsters, aliens, space travel, whatever it is you want to write about, there's an art to world building. 

Here are four tips to help you do it right.

1. Let your curiosity about the real world be your guide.

The world around us tends to be even weirder than we think. Just look at the latest science news or archaeological discovery.

Scientists are constantly digging up the most bizarre things, and these make great fodder for science fiction and fantasy.

Don't confine yourself to science, either. Pay attention to weird headlines in business, crime, pop culture, everywhere you look.

An article about professional counterfeiters in Rolling Stone magazine inspired me to write my supernatural thriller The Spider Thief. That same book also included real-life weirdness about lost Mesoamerican cities, tarantula migrations (yes, that's a thing), and shellfish that cause amnesia. 

(Here's more on Worldbuilding Lessons From History)

2. Never build more world than you need.

For creative types like you and me, world building can be a dangerous hobby. Why? Because it's all too easy to fall down a rabbit hole, going deeper and deeper into imaginary intricacies that may never actually appear in your novel.

Or, worse, they do appear, but they are so convoluted that they confuse the heck out of your reader. You never want to do that.

World building can be super fun. But if you aren't careful, it can take valuable time away from actually writing your novel.

Besides, there is an even bigger hidden danger. 

Every time you define something about your world, it limits your storytelling possibilities.

If you try to establish everything possible about your world, it doesn't leave you room to improvise or come up with new ideas on the fly.

For example, let's say you're designing a magic system for your world, and you define The Four Schools of Magic. That's great... until you get an idea for a new character that uses a fifth school of magic. Now you can't use that idea unless you go back and change everything.

So, build just enough of the world to tell the story you want to tell today. You can always build more later, if you need to.

(Here's more on 6 Secrets of Science Fiction and Fantasy World Building)

3. Build unique challenges into your world.

When you do it right, world building introduces new problems for your characters to handle.

Everything that's weird in your world can potentially pit the characters against challenges that just don't exist in the normal world.

For example, in my Dru Jasper series, the main character is constantly recovering dangerous artifacts that could potentially trigger the end of the world as we know it. It's all very dramatic, but there is a practical question: Where do you keep this stuff? I mean, if you defeat an evil sorcerer and take away his magical amulet that triggers volcanic eruptions, where do you put it? In the closet? No. So this becomes a big (and darkly funny) problem for the main character.

Whatever the unique features of your world may be, spend some time thinking about all the different ways that they can create trouble for your characters. 

(Here's more on 7 Tips for Creating Believable Fantasy or Science Fiction Worlds)

4. Use character disbelief to keep your readers believing.

Science fiction and fantasy stories depend entirely on the reader's willing suspension of disbelief. These stories are packed full of things that can't happen in real life.

When things get too weird, you risk losing the reader's buy-in. We've all had the experience of reading a book or watching a movie and thinking, "Come on, that would never happen!"

But up until that moment, you were buying it — whether it involved dragons, aliens, zombies, or whatever. Until things got just a little bit too weird, and you stopped believing. Blame the storytelling.

So how do you avoid that fate for your own story? Have a character express vehement disbelief. 

Literally, have them say something like: "I don't believe this! You're telling me you were attacked by some kind of creature from space?"

And then (this is the important part) have them bring up something so far out that no one would believe it: "What's next, little green men from Mars?"

And here's the clincher to their tirade: "That stuff only happens in science fiction, kid! This is real life!"

Except, of course, that it isn't. This is a made-up story. But by having a character go all the way into exaggeration-land, you can reel the reader back in where you want them, and they will keep on believing. 

(Here's more on Going Beyond the Default in Your Worldbuilding)

Use the secrets to build the world you really want to explore.

Creating a new world for your story (or putting a supernatural spin on our world) offers you countless storytelling opportunities. Just take the time to do it right, and you'll avoid the biggest pitfalls.
  • Take inspiration from the weirdness that surrounds us in the real world.
  • Build just enough of the world to tell your story, without painting yourself into a corner.
  • Use your world building to create new challenges for characters that wouldn't exist in our ordinary world.
  • If things get too weird, put it all back into perspective with a character who disbelieves even more than the reader does.

Do all that, and you'll have no trouble building a breathtaking, epic, mysterious, brand-new world for your characters and your readers to explore.

What are your world building questions?

Leave a comment below or connect with me on my author website at

Laurence MacNaughton is the author of more than a dozen novels, novellas, and short stories. His work has been praised by Booklist, Publishers Weekly, RT Book Reviews, Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. He lives in Colorado with his wife and too many old cars. Try his stories for free at

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About Forever and a Doomsday

Crystal shop owner and quick-witted sorceress Dru Jasper is the guardian of the apocalypse scroll, an ancient instrument of destruction held in check by seven bloodred seals. All but one have been broken.

Now, a chilling cohort of soul-devouring wraiths has risen from the netherworld to crack open the final seal. If Dru and her misfit friends can’t stop them, the world will come to a fiery end. No pressure or anything.

These freakishly evil spirits can kill with a mere touch, making them impossible to fight by mortal means. To keep the apocalypse scroll out of their clutches, Dru must solve a 2,000-year-old magical mystery, find a city lost in the netherworld, and unearth a crystal older than the Earth itself.

Can she elude the forces of darkness long enough to save her friends and safeguard the scroll forever—before the undead break the seventh seal and bring on doomsday?

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound Kobo


  1. Dear Laurence MacNaughton, thank you for sharing with us; I look forward to reading more about you and your writing,
    For 20 years, by occupation, I was a Research Analyst, and although my research was more technical, I still enjoyed it—my love for digging why, where, when, and how started in childhood. Limited by polio (not complaining, I survived and recovered), I read all I could get my hands on. While writing my series, I perhaps spend too much time digging around, theoretically speaking, by reading and researching.
    Best to you.

  2. Like Marta C. Weeks, I love the world building and all the research that goes with it. I've built 2 fantasy worlds (well, perhaps 6 might be more accurate as there are 5 different worlds in my Elemental Worlds duo,) i also had to build real worlds from the past in my historical novels in order to give the readers a grounding in the societies of that time. (Roman and Viking Britain.)
    This post is most helpful and interesting. Thank you.