World Building: Inside or Out?

Maybe you have a great plot or character, but you want the world around him/her/it to be just as alive as the character. Perhaps, you have written a story, but your character needs to explore the surrounding area and you hadn’t considered what’s “out there”. It might be that you haven’t considered how important the world around your character is. In any of these or other scenarios, we are talking about how to “World Build”. Whether it is a one act play or an epic fantasy, you want to make your story richer for the reader and to inspire new stories for yourself. World Building can do that. How do you begin?
There are, in my humble opinion, really only two major thoughts on world building. Either a person starts from the nearest elements of your character or as far away from that character as you feel is important. You will need to answer that question for yourself. It may not be important to you to plan out an entire planet if your story is about ants. Likewise, you may be writing a space saga that will not harp on details of where your character lives. Find what is valid for your situation, and begin there. Let’s look at both, just in case you are unsure or wish to find a middle ground to start from.

World Building: Inside or Out?

If you looked up after reading this sentence, what do you see? Go ahead, check it out. I’ll wait….done? What did you see? Walls, furniture, windows, etc? Now, mentally put your character in the middle of their home. What do they see? This is a good starting point of “inside-out”. It is the best known, though not necessarily loved, place that your character has. Even if they are the nomadic Kung-Fu master, they have a place in their history where it all started. Maybe their beginning point is a tent next to a river or a magic bubble they live in, either is ‘home’. Once we have that described in detail, let’s head out the door, then down the street or path or magic highway. The idea is to slowly move outward, but there’s a tricky spot in this. At some point, you will begin to summarize or categorize as the detail becomes less important to you. In addition to this, there are other factors like economy, religion, culture, and government that will be lost if focusing only on the terrain. If you go inside-out remember to keep coming back to fill in gaps, as there will be many. So outward you go; start from the home and move outward (to street to neighborhood to community to town to territory to continent to planet to universe). More than one author has simply followed the coast or a river. Find what fits and go with it.

“It’s full of stars.”
Outside-in is, in the most simplest of terms, just the opposite. It maybe that you need to have the universe planned out for your story, but don’t be fooled that this type of world building is only for the galactic space-odyssey inclined. Perhaps, in your stories, deities are the focus. Perhaps you have a special place in the space above where they reside. This is also true if you have “planes”, as in multiple dimensions or “planar” worlds. So outside-in isn’t just for the space junky and can have a starting point of a continent or even at the city gate.

Break out the crayons.
You may very well try other means of world building, but in any method you use, I believe you will eventually come to a point where you will need to actual draw. Why? Because in most cases, we are visual and due to the number of things you are creating, forgetting ideas is bound to happen. There is no need to be the world’s greatest cartographer, though it would be cool. All you need is paper and a pencil to rough out the physical world you are creating as you go along. If you write a sequel to your story, you’ll be glad you did.

Resources! I need resources!
As stated before, you are not the first to take the journey of world building, so why reinvent the wheel? When I was younger and building little worlds, I had….dare I say it?…books! Yes, there were these cool things call encyclopedias that had maps that inspired me. With the advent of the internet, you don’t even need to get out of your chair to find these maps. May I offer a bit of advice if you just free-hand your worlds? I don’t know where I heard it, but this simple little phrase has affected every map I’ve made. It goes, “God doesn’t draw in straight lines,” Look at a map and you’ll get my point. Anyway, there are many blogs and images out there to inspire you to create some fantastic places, so use them.

Don’t stop at the internet. There are people who have put together some great books on cartography and world building as a whole! I have two favorites when it comes to printed references. The first is “Kobold’s Guide to Worldbuilding” and can be found on or Amazon. Written by several well-known authors, this book will make you think outside of the box and I highly recommend it. The second is “Legends and Lairs: City Works”. This wonderful book is out of print, but I see there are used copies on Amazon. If you find one, grab it as it has been the genius of many cities and towns of mine.

Tip of the iceberg
This is just a tiny window of what world building is and how it can be done. Granted, it is something many authors need to spend time on, but a developed world offers huge rewards. Whether you decide to start in the glittering stars above or from your character’s favorite chair by the fire, you won’t be wasting your time. As each planet is named, country drawn, and city or street noted, your world will come alive. Your stories will have a believable backdrop and your characters will the stage they need.

Take your time and enjoy the process!

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