World Building with Mat McCall

26th Jan 2023

Mat McCall is Steampunk author. You can view more of his work here

An Old Duffer’s Guide to World Building.


I was asked earlier this year to present a talk to would-be SF and Fantasy writers. I thought you might like to read what I presented. I won’t presume to say I know everything about the process, but I do have a good idea of the kind of questions that an author embarking on the process should ask themselves.

You may have started, or you may have not even put metaphorical pen to paper, but there are a lot of things that it is important for you to think about before they crop up in your tale and derail the whole process.

So have a read and let me know what you think. I’m happy to answer questions both on this article and anything related to world-building.

A book like A Game of Thrones, a movie like Star Wars, or even a video game like Final Fantasy can make it appear their creators have effortlessly built a fantasy world out of nothing. Well, it’s a ‘fantasy world’ so anything goes…doesn’t it?

Sorry, no.

In fact, to be successful, you, as a reader, want these worlds to feel as real as the world you live in. How do they do it? More importantly, how can you do it?

Creating a successful immersive fictional world is never going to be easy. It’s an art, and in genres such as Fantasy, Science Fiction and Steampunk, world-building is more important than ever. It can make or break your story.

In this ‘rough guide,’ I’ll give you tips to follow and errors to avoid.



What exactly is  ‘World Building’?

Writing a story is much like building a house — you can have all the right ideas, materials, and tools, but if your foundation isn’t solid, not even the most beautiful structure will stand.

World building is how you create that foundation, the Where of your story. World-building involves more than just the setting. It can be as complex as a unique venue with exotic creatures, rich political histories, and even new religions. Or it can be as simple as tweaking the history of the world we live in.

You can go as big as you want but remember this world-building stuff is serious business. It is going to take a lot of effort on your part as an author/creator,

Create a world in which readers can lose themselves. Do this well and they become not just fans, but also devotees. Like those who obsess over:

  • Star Wars.
  • The Cyberpunk future of William Gibson.
  • Harry Potter.
  • A Game of Thrones.
  • Earthsea.
  • Thieves World.

I know that the last one is a shared world, but those authors hammered out that world very carefully between them.

Every author/creator team has a unique approach to world-building: Here are some examples.


  1. Real-World-based Fantasy, SF or Steampunk…

Here you set your story in the world we live in, but your plot is either based on a real event (The Roman invasion of Britain, The Atomic Bomb tests in Nevada) or is one in which historical events occur differently (for instance, had Germany won World War 2- Fatherland).

These are Alternate Histories which will be very much like this one, but with subtle changes and differences.

Conan is set in the mythical Hyperborean Age of this world.

The Difference Engine by Gibson and Sterling is Alternative History.

Or set completely in the real world; Stranger Things, ET, Independence Day.

Most of the works of Lovecraft, Wells and Verne, are SF-based Real-World or Alternative Histories.

There are also Future Histories;

Asimov’s Foundation.

Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.


  1. Alternate-World Fantasy

Here you create new lands, species, and governments. You also need to invent a world rich in its own history, geography, and even physics.

These are worlds built from the ground up. The author plays the role of God, the creator, and everything in it is their creation, from weather patterns to physical science, from races to languages, everything.

Examples include:

  • A Game of Thrones
    • The Lord of the Rings
    • Star Wars
    • Discworld
    • Eragon
    • Thieves World

This is the hardest to get right. Some novels combine the Real World and Alt-World Fantasy. The Harry Potter series, for instance, is set in a world we recognise but is set apart from ours with physical rules and history foreign to us.

The Chronicles of Narnia, Mythago Wood and Alice in Wonderland are also examples of this.

Your job is to take readers on a journey so compelling they can’t help but keep reading to the very end.

Remember if there is magic, however, you define it, in your world, then the laws of physics are completely different. Dragons as in Game of Thrones would never get off the ground in our world, and the kind of magic in Harry Potter could never exist, why? Our physical reality won’t let it, the laws of physics in our world don’t work like that. If they do in your world then something is very very different at a fundamental level, and that is going to affect everything in your world.

Step 1: Plan but  DO NOT Over-Plan

Planners prefer to map out everything before they start writing.

Pantsers (those who write by the seat of their pants) write as a process of discovery — or, as Stephen King puts it, they “put interesting characters in difficult situations and write to find out what happens.”

I, like most writers, am a bit of both. I like to have some idea of the outline of my world, the rules and history, but I never allow that to be too concrete or too restricting.

Build your world first, then you can better focus on your story. However, over-planning can also be a problem. Many fantasy writers become so engrossed in world-building that they find reasons not to write.

Frank Herbert’s Dune. Herbert was sent to write an article on the Sahara Desert and fell down a rabbit hole of information, strangely the article never got written. Years later he used that as inspiration for Dune.

World-building must not come at the expense of your story. If you’re like me, even as a devout Pantser, you may have to spend more time planning and researching than you ever intended to.

For The Dandelion Farmer, I spent what felt like a lifetime researching Martian climate and geography, Martian moon cycles, Martian this and that…along with biofuels and dandelions… You don’t have to be obsessive, but you want to get it right.

If you’re a Planner, draw a line under it and start writing as soon as you’re ready, even if you suspect you’ll have more research work to do as you go.


Step 2: Describe Your World


Once you’ve determined your genre, paint for your reader a world that transports them, allowing them to see, smell, hear, and touch their surroundings. Show them, don’t tell them.

Tolkien’s LoTR often reads like a Botanist’s Guidebook with far too much overly detailed information about the fauna and flora. It rapidly becomes boring. Even Tolkien diehards that have read the books, again and again, admit they skip those sections where he goes on and on about the flora.

Which idea for your new world excites you the most? An other-worldly landscape? A new language? Strange creatures? Build on that to give you the momentum you need when the going gets tough.

Worth considering is the impact of:

  1. Climate / Environment – Dune.
  2. Resources – The Road.
  3. Geography – LoTR.

How do these factors shape the world, the cultures, and your characters?

When James Cameron wrote the movie Avatar, he created countless reference books on Pandora’s vegetation and climate and even botany. Too much!!

In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the main characters live in a post-apocalyptic world covered in ash and devoid of life. Their entire journey revolves around finding food and water and how to stay warm.

In A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin went as far as creating maps.

As a long-time Tabletop Roleplayer, I love a map. But they are restricting.

A suggestion is to have a few sketches of the map of your world etc, but never produce the definitive map, until everything is written. This allows you some fluidity.

If you do have a map at an early stage – make sure you understand its scale, how far a man can walk in a day? How fast and how far a good horse can cover in a day? How far and how quickly a dirigible can go without refuelling? And over which terrains?

Are there roads? Who built them? Who maintains them? Are their turnpikes, border crossings, gates, and bridges?

Other stories that feature maps:

  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
  • Discworld by Terry Pratchett
  • The Princess Bride by William Goldman
  • Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne
  • A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin

I personally do not publish maps. Deliberately. I have maps of my worlds, but I will never publish them until every last word has been wrung out of those stories and I’ve treble-checked every detail.


World-Building Questions to ask yourself:

  • Was your world always the way it is now? If not, what was it like before and what caused the change?
  • How much of your world do you need to show to support the story? Will the reader explore the world through the characters?
  • How does the terrain influence your story?
  • What is the weather like, and does it impact your story?
  • How many mountains, oceans, deserts, and forests?
  • Where are the borders? National, natural?
  • What are the natural resources and how do they impact your story?

Be sure to focus on all five senses, not just seeing and hearing. Touch, taste, and smell will make your world feel real and familiar, even if it’s fantasy.


Step 3: Populate Your World


  • Are the inhabitants of your world human, but somehow different from you and me?
  • Are they aliens, monsters, or some new species?

In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien gave Frodo a past, personality traits, and morals. But he first determined what a hobbit looked like and how he lived.

But if you are creating other races think about how they are ‘other’ – i.e., are they just modern humans with pointy ears or teeth? If so, they really won’t work. They won’t be special or unique, or even believable. 


Having ‘Elves at the bottom of your garden’ was once not something anyone wanted… because they were mad, bad, and extremely dangerous to know. They were terrifying creatures, and they were not little and did not have wings. 

If you are using traditional races from various mythologies, then do a little research (go back to the sources) into what made them different, feared or loved, and use that to stimulate you to give depth and form to your races. It is the ingredient that can make them exciting to write about, and more importantly, to read about.

Such research can be useful for creating new races, alien races, new cultures, and societies… 


Imagine what ‘Space Vikings’ would be like if they were really that? The Vikings in Space… dear God! That culture; the late dark age Norse, was utterly terrifying, merciless, and totally alien to everything a culture like ours values or believes in. 

Do a little research. In several African mythologies there exist magical races equivalent to the Elves and Sidhe of northern Europe. But they are not ‘elves,’ though they may be ‘Elven Races,’ they are the Aziza, the Bakhna Rakhna and the Yumboes (among many others) and they have specific looks and behaviours and mythologies linked to their indigenous religions and cultures – so many lazy fantasy writers don’t know that…especially those writing for TV and film. I find that disrespectful.

Look at the current TV; House of the Dragon has put black characters proudly at the forefront of the story, with their own House name, culture, and history, while Rings of Power has just shoe-horned some black actors into the cast with little or no explanation.

I wonder in the future which of those approaches will be seen by following generations to be more respectful. In their sudden rush for so-called ‘inclusivity’ those ill-informed writers, directors and authors are still ‘whitewashing’ and devaluing whole aspects of Black cultures out of existence. In fact, they devalue all other cultures by Western Europeanizing them. Please don’t fall down that hole.


World-Building Character Questions to think of:

  • How big are these various populations (i.e., how big is your world)?
  • How did they become part of your world (their backstory)?
  • Do they have a class system? National identity? Politics? Religions?
  • What are the genders, races, and species?
  • ‘Elf,’ ‘Human,’ and ‘Dwarf,’ really have little meaning when you look at the diversity of human races and cultures alone.
  • Does everyone speak the same language? If so, why?
  • How do they get along? Is there racism based on differences in size? Culture? Skin colour? Ears shape?
  • Are there alliances?
  • What resources do they enjoy?
  • What resources do they lack?


Let’s look at those Elves, right? They’re elves. Basically, the same as modern humans, but they like trees, live a long time, have nice hair, pointy ears, and a penchant for bows and arrows. Pretty tree-hugging hippies that are a bit up themselves, right? Oh, and some are a bit mystical. We know this, we’ve all played D&D, right?

But is that as far as your imagination goes? Using Gary Gygax and Disney for inspiration? Some cod version of Tolkien? Really? Are they the Aelf, of the Anglo-Saxons? The Huldufolk of the Norse? The Aziza, Tuatha Dé Danann, the Sidhe, the Yumboes? All these were distinctly different in look, culture, society, and behaviour, and that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Mostly they were indeed, bad, mad and dangerous to know and thus so much more interesting and fun because of it. 

Step 4: Establish the History of Your World


  • The Lord of The Rings focuses on an ancient war.
  • The Hunger Games is built on decades of oppression.
  • In The Chrysalids, the characters are unaware of what their world used to be like.

When world-building, it is worth considering:

  • The Deep Past:
  • What happened to fuel the present economy, environment, culture, etc?
  • Trauma:
  • Past wars, famines, plagues.
  • Power Shifts:
  • Political, religious, or technological.

World Building Questions:

  • Who have been the major rulers in the past?
  • Kings? Emperors? Conquers? Empires?
  • What took place during their reigns?
  • Who are the ‘enemies’ in your world?

Too many times we read of the Dark Evil has returned…. but one man’s Dark Evil could be another man’s Heroic Good. If you’re not writing a D&D book, then whose definition of good and bad, right or wrong, are you going by? Most books like that originate from a westernised old world post-Christian philosophic point of view, with clear definitions of good and evil based upon Judo-Christian philosophy. How did that religious philosophy, those definitions of good and evil,  come about in your world?


Step 5: Determine the Cultures of Your World

  • Religion
  • Society
  • Politics
  • Economics

In Star Wars, for instance, religion (The Jedi vs. The Dark Side), societal structure (slaves and free), and politics (the trade wars) play huge roles.


Why were the dwarves of Tolkien’s Middle Earth so rich? Were they only digging for gold? If there was that overabundance of gold in Middle Earth it would not be worth that much. What was it really that their entire economy was built on?

Maybe it was because they also dug for something much more lucrative than simple gold nuggets. Things like coal, iron ore, copper, tin, rare mineral deposits, even tar and oil. The very stuff that everyone on Middle Earth needed. Think of it this way, no matter how fantastic those Elves were at making swords, who provided the high-quality iron ore to make them?


Be careful about ‘culture.’

I have seen so many cod books set in ‘Celtic’ or ‘Viking,’ ‘Pirate’ or even ‘Victorian’ cultures written by people who think they understand those cultures, societies, and times after watching a couple of TV shows, maybe reading someone else’s novel, or watching a film or two. You don’t!

Being a fan of Downton Abby does not mean you know anything about the lives of wealthy Victorians, any more than watching Vikings means you understand the Norse.

If you are going to use a specific historical-cultural setting, do your research, and that means reading the textbooks, watching decent documentaries, and buying the relevant copy of Horrible Histories (no joke). Then talk to someone who has studied the period. 


Fact is much stranger than other people’s fiction.

Everything you think you know about the Wild West, from how they dressed to the languages they spoke, to the racial and cultural makeup of the people; Is probably WRONG. Most of that stuff was made up by Hollywood. The real stuff is far more interesting.

Nowhere in any mythology of any culture does it say anything about silver bullets or silver weapons being needed to kill shape changers, skinwalkers or werewolves.


So here are some World Building Questions:

  • Is your culture or society totalitarian, authoritarian, feudal, or democratic? Or are there examples of all of those? Do you know the differences?
  • Do your inhabitants speak a common language?
  • How do your characters behave?
  • Do different cultures and societies have very different morals and rules?


Imagine how long a modern behaving and thinking young lady would last in polite English Victorian society? Not long, I fear, before she was forcibly removed to a mental asylum. For her own good, of course. Cultural norms were often brutally enforced. 

In my book, The Dandelion Farmer, the courting behaviour, and frivolities of two young ladies on board the airship raises only a few eyebrows amongst their fellow adventurers, who consider themselves the enlightened intelligentsia, but causes moral outrage among the crew members and the lower deck hands. 

  •  Will your characters break the rules? Intentionally or unintentionally?
  • Are the rules considered fair, or is society opposed to them?
  • How are inhabitants punished?
  • What is the religious belief system?
  • What gods exist? If so in what manner?
  • How do religious rituals or customs manifest themselves?
  • Is there a conflict between religious groups?
  • How do different social classes behave?
  • What do they wear? 


Pliny the Younger complained about poor Romans being forced to step into the gutter to allow rich men’s slaves to pass by. And that many poor Romans, living in tenement blocks, only had one good toga. So, on wash days they couldn’t go out to buy bread.

  • How do families, marriages, and other relationships operate?
  • How do inhabitants respond to love and loss?
  • What behaviours are forbidden?
  • How are gender roles defined? Just read The left hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin.


Most of what we understand as gender roles are post-Romano-Christian origins and had no place in other societies, from the Celts, and the Norse to the North American Indigenous people.

  • What defines success and failure? Wealth, wives, cattle, or longevity?
  • What and how do they celebrate?
  • Do they work? Who works?


Step 6: What Powers Your World?

Is your world energized by technology or magic?

Technology like Artificial Intelligence, space or time travel, or futuristic weaponry, can make a huge effect on your story.

Especially if it is Steampunk, what are the limits of that technology. The pluses and the minuses?

A coal-fired civilisation means someone has to dig it up, and burning fossil fuels means smog, acid rain, industrialisation, poverty, chronic ill health, etc… 


Think about what the economic cost of building and maintaining a ‘Death Star’ would impose upon The Empire’s finances. They use it once, and then the Rebels blow it up!

Those ‘millions of voices crying out in anguish’ were the Imperial taxpayers!

The cost would have been catastrophic to the Imperial economy, and then the Imperial Navy want to build another.

Now that is fantasy.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke explained how things worked and why making it as realistic and factual as possible (within what he knew).

When writing his futuristic novels, Iain M. Banks referenced droids and spaceships but never explained how they worked.

Or it could focus on simpler technology like swords, early guns, or horses. But even those have their limits.

What ‘age’ has your culture reached? Bronze Age? Stone Age? Iron Age? Dark Age? Medieval? Industrial? Post-Industrial? Steampunk? Computer? Space travel?

Each age is very different.


When the first Europeans reached the Americas, they were in their Renaissance period. Culturally and technologically, the peoples of the Americas were technologically still in their Stone Age.

Look at what those ‘stone age’ cultures had achieved!



Does magic exist in your world? If so, what is its true nature? Is it a way of tapping into some mythic all-pervading power? Or is it a perversion of nature? Is it ascribed to some power, like a God or Devil?

How does magic function and how is it used? What are the physics and laws behind your magic system? 


Remember; “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Magic allows you to take your world-building to new realms. You can either explain how it all works or simply focus on how it is used and why.

But YOU must know. Otherwise, it will escape you, be inconsistent and come back to bite your story on the bum. 

World Building Questions:

  • Does magic exist in your world?
  • How powerful is it?
  • Where does it come from?
  • How does it manifest itself?
  • Can it be controlled?
  • Who wields it? Is there some magical caste?
  • Can it be learnt or are people born with it?
  • Are wands or staffs, etc., needed?
  • How does it have an effect or cost on the user?
  • Do people fear it or embrace it, and what makes the difference?
  • Is there ‘good’ and ‘evil’ magic?
  • What other technologies do people use?
  • Who controls it? The Ministry of Magic? The Unseen University? The Guild?
  • How do they travel and communicate?
  • How do they use these technologies day-to-day?
  • Do they use technology for entertainment?
  • Do governments use it to gain or maintain power?

In Fantastic Beasts, J.K. Rowling wrote a guide that focuses on how magic works.

If magic or technology play major roles in your world, consider how they do and what are the limiting factors.

It doesn’t have to be as detailed or as complete as Fantastic Beasts. So long as you have a resource that keeps all the rules in one place, you’ll keep your world (and the rules it lives by) consistent.



A little word about Info Dumps

So, you’ve done all this background work. You know the name of the current King’s grandfather and the name of his pet Wyvern (Blinky). You know exactly how a maceration unit for the first stage of processing dandelions into biofuels works. You know exactly what planet the alien invaders came from and why they want our water. You have worked out an entirely new concept for a magical system based on trees. Now….


I know you spent a lot of time creating this stuff, it’s awfully tempting to tell the reader everything, but…

Do they need to know all that guff?

If ’no,’ don’t tell them. Just keep it in your notes.

If the answer is ‘yes.’ Because it’s essential for the narrative. Then this kind of information should be let out in dribs and drabs, like a dripping tap, not dumped on the reader in huge gobbets.

You’re a fiction author, not a crammer – it’s a novel, not a lecture. Don’t shove it down the reader’s throat because they’ll put your book down and walk away.

But, if you feel the reader must know the history of the Royal bloodline going back to Evil King Elric, then find a way to include it that does not slow the story’s flow and isn’t boring.

Think of the whole ‘Deathly Hallows’ section in Harry Potter.

Conversations and remarks by characters can be useful.

That three-day journey to Lankhmar to rescue the Princess could be a good time to fit in such a conversation, as the grizzled old warrior fills in the bigger picture for our naïve young hero as to why the Princess’s uncle wants her dead. A story within a story. This can be interspersed with other incidental events and actions, and opportunities to explore the characters.

In Annis, The Goddess of Sorrows, as the narrator I do not explain anything in deep detail. I leave it to the characters.

In The Dandelion Farmer, I use the device of excerpts from a fictitious history book, clearly marked as such, so the reader can easily jump past them if they wished. Strangely, very few have done so.



Good luck! You are now a God…go create something amazing….


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