I have come to adore the daunting task of world building. Of course, with this enjoyment comes the slippery slope of obsession when it comes to the details I love to put into every corner of each world I build from scratch. Because of this, perhaps unhealthy, obsession I have found the sweet spot for what works and what doesn’t when applying the method I call the Drill Down Method.
For those of you unfamiliar, the idea behind the Drill Down Method is to take the world and create it from the top down. So from larger picture to more narrowed perspective. While it may seem an unnecessary task for some, for me it allows a larger scope of information to pull my inspiration from when writing a story within my created world.
After my first successful attempt at using this method in a world I built for use in a tabletop game, I have fine-tuned the process to share with you today. Keep in mind that these are broad strokes and any further detail is always welcome depending on your creativity. I am doing my best to keep it to the minimum necessities that will impact your characters interactions. Also, understand that this much world building tends to be reserved for Fantasy or Sci-Fi where you are attempting to create anything but a resemblance of earth.
Step 1: The World – This is big picture time. You want to think about the grand scheme of things and how it all came to be. It can be an intimidating idea, creating a world, but don’t allow the first step to scare you away. You want to keep in mind that at this stage it is simply broad strokes. The bare minimum of what will affect your world as a whole.
Define How Many Continents – Take a moment and sort out just how many continents you intend to have across your world. I tend to make a rough sketch of a few blobs on a piece of paper to get a feel for how crowded my globe is going to be. Be sure to only include islands that have no affiliation or nearby connection to a larger continent.
Rough Out a Creation Story – Decide the origin of your world. Don’t go into a lot of detail. One or two sentences should work. Make it broad so that each culture can interpret the long lost legend in their own way.
Map Out Your World – With so many map making programs out there for you to fiddle with, you can find a way to get a rough sketch of your world made. If you have the skills to do so by hand, I recommend doing so and scanning it in to perfect. No matter how you do it, get that rough outline of what your world looks like.
Define Tilt & Poles – While a lot of people don’t take this into account, knowing where the north and south poles are can be important to the climate impact of your continents. Understanding the tilt of your access, the way your world spins and where the cold or hot lays will help you in later steps.
Name Your World – Find a simple name to call your world that can be interpreted differently across the continents.
Step 2: Continents – Now that you have decided on your masses of land, pick one to work on. I usually focus in on the continent that will contain the story I intend to write. Be sure that with your continent you are including any surrounding islands that are close enough to be considered a part of it.
Define Country Borders – Take the time to outline the country borders that will exist within your continent. Some people like to color code them or simply mark them by numbers. However you do it, understand that as you drill down further you can always adjust the borders to fit your desires so don’t overthink it.
Understand Your Landscape – On a continental scale, understand the large landscape markings such as large sets of mountains, a river that would span countries, lakes that are large enough they could possibly be called a sea. Do not define smaller regions of mountains, rivers or geological markings quite yet, just take the time to outline those that would span over multiple countries.
Figure Out the Climate – Climate plays a large role in how a society develops. Because of this you should take a moment and chart out the general climate across your continent. Just like our earth, some continents can have a variety of climates while others may lean towards always cold or always hot.
Name Your Continent – Make another simple name that can be interpreted by the different countries.
Step 3: Countries – Now that you have defined your countries, pick one and begin working on its details. This is where a lot of work will come into play. A country is defined by the culture, people and its history. All of these factors and more will need to be taken into account as you design a country.
Define Cities – Mark down the large cities that will exist within your country. Figure out the capitol and how the roads or travel intersect. Keep in mind that cities tend to gather near shorelines or crossroads that would make good trade. Do not mark anything smaller than a major city on your map at this time.
Define Landmarks & Geography – On top of the continent-wide geography, a country will have its own rivers, mountains or significant landmarks. Take a minute and mark where major mountains, rivers or otherwise will lay in your country.
Decide on a Government & Population Size – Decide what kind of government runs this country and how many people approximately reside in the place as a whole. If you are unsure how to sort out the census, take a look at historical data for different countries close to the size you have deemed your current project. If your world is Sci-Fi go higher than the current number. If the world is Fantasy shoot lower than the current number.
Summarize the Culture & Society – Take a moment to write a few paragraphs summarizing the overall culture of your country and how the society tends to work. Don’t get into specific details quite yet as that is left city by city, but having an overall scope of how the country functions will help set its tone.
Write a Brief History – Write out a short history of the country and how it came into being. Note events in the past that shaped the modern-day culture or government. Don’t go overboard, a couple paragraphs should cover this.
Add Any Major Plots, Conflicts or Relations – Current events that affect the populace of the country should be noted. Anything from a corrupt government to war with a nearby country is important to outline for the sake of the social landscape within the country.
Step 4: Cities – Now that you have defined your country you will want to narrow it further and choose a City to define. When you narrow in on the city, be sure to take into account the surrounding region. Just like in modern day, there are Urban and Rural areas that are considered part of the city area. If you need to, draw a border to define the ‘region’ of the city and how far it stretches.
Define City vs Countryside – Understanding the difference between how a man lives in the main city versus how he survives out in the country impacts the interactions your characters may have with one or another. Take a moment and sort out the large differences and the reason why.
Define Class & Station – While a city answers to the government of the country, each city has its own class and station protocols. Some cities are just inherently poor and run down with a small percentage of rich ruling the region with an iron fist. Other cities are more tempered with a middle-class ruling. Figure out how your city will work in this regard and write it down.
Define Family, Children & Education – Family, children and education are all linked. How educated a society is, tends to lend towards large or small families and influence the dynamic. Take into account the average family, understand how they work and what kind of opportunities they will have. This will influence any interaction with this city.
Define Trade, Commerce & Labor – What is trade that this city is known for? What do they have to offer other regions of their country? How is their economy and what kind of labor is common? Understanding the landscape of how trade influences labor and commerce can give you a glimpse into the overall dynamic of the people within the city region.
Define Religion or Morals – If your city tends to lean towards a certain religion, make note of that and what kind of structure it has. If there is no religion, most regions hold to a set of moral codes as a whole and apply them to their fellow man around. Write down how either religion or the morals of the people in this city impact its culture.
Write a Brief Local History – Along with the Country’s history, understanding the local legends is important. Keep it brief but outline a couple paragraphs about how the city came into being, what significant events have happened in the region and the impact it has nowadays.
Add Any Other Details – While the list above does cover the majority of necessities there are always details out there that we want to include that do not fall into a traditional category. That’s okay! If it’s important to your story or your ability to understand your world, add it.
Please keep in mind that the above strategy is what I have found works for me. If you want to remove, mix and match or merge some of the sections provided go right ahead. Everyone builds their worlds differently and there is no wrong or right way. I am always happy to provide examples or help answer questions about world building so don’t hesitate to reach out to me!
Good Luck World Building!
What do you think of my Drill Down Method example? We’d love to hear from you!