Writing Tips

Why World Building Comes First

Hey, guys! Today, I want to share the #1 thing I wished I had known before writing the first draft of my fantasy novel. World building must come first– before plot and even characters.

I know that seems… extreme, and I understand because my characters are one of my favorite parts of writing. When I began writing, I initially pushed world building aside and played with my characters first. I mean, I did some basic world building before I began my first draft, but nothing thorough. Then during edits, I realized that I needed to develop my world better, and then I realized that world building changed the story I originally told and the characters I created.

After all, could the King of Gondor return to Tatooine? Could the Four Pevensie children save Middle Earth? Could King Arthur pull the sword from the stone in Diagon Alley and ruled over the Ministry of Magic? No, because the best fantasy stories cannot be told in any other world.


Does my story have to be told in my world?

This question is a simple test to see if your world is developed enough. If the answer is not “yes”, then you have some more work to do before you can come back to your plot.

I have seen lots of world building questionnaires about stars or food or plants or economies, but I am not convinced that going through a check list creates a well-developed world. So instead, I want to recommend a personalized version of the fantasy master’s world building strategy. Tolkien’s world building primarily centers around two types of development: inspiration from old myths and putting his personal hobbies into his world.

Most of you know that I am a huge advocate of finding world building inspiration from old myths– there are so many intriguing and underused creatures and so many myths leave me asking “Why?”  One of the myths that inspired Tolkien to write The Hobbit was an Old Norse list of dwarf names. In the midst of names such as Durinn, Thorinn, Bifor, Bofor, and Bombur was the name “Gandelf” which translates to “wand/staff elf”. Why would a wand elf be listed among a list of dwarves? Well, you have to read The Hobbit to find Tolkien’s answer!

To find inspiration from old myths, I’d suggest you check out Encyclopedia Mythica for a start. The articles are not super detailed, but they have a lot of different mythology, so if you find one you like, you can research from there. Afterall, you cannot tell the same story with a selkie as you can with a peryton.

But Tolkien also used his own hobbies to develop specific aspects of his world above the rest. Tolkien loved languages, so he developed languages. He also loved stars and poetry, so he used that to develop his world. If you don’t like history, then create a world with no written language and a poor oral tradition, but find something else to develop. Maybe you love art, so make your world have a unique type of art or each nation to have a specific style of art unique to them. Maybe you love botany, so create and develop a vivid plant like for different areas of your world. Do you love water or swimming? Make a world underwater and see what the effects of that are. Do you love chemistry? Consider making various potions (ground in real life science) a key aspect of your world’s development. Do you love maps? Then make detailed, accurate maps of your world. Do you love politics, martial arts, thunder storms, tea, or debates? Take what you love and work it into your world. Build your world around what you love.

Could my characters have grown up in any other fantasy world?

If your answer is not “no”, then you should probably set aside your characters and work on world building some more.

While I am a firm believer that we are not merely a product of our environment, the environment someone grows up in will change and affect their personality, goals, and motivation. So can we really expect to transplant a character we have already developed into a new world? Whether a character is a product of the culture around them or a rebel against society, their world is foundational for characteristics and quirks. So while many other genres of writers might come up with characters before setting, fantasy writers should world build first.

As you are thinking about how your world affects your character, consider these questions:

  • How does the physical world affect the cultures of your characters?
  • What virtues are most valued (this also can tie into your physical world)?
  • What aspect of the world and culture is most developed and valued (arts, science, math, storytelling, agriculture, mining, etc.)?
  • What do most people want and why?
  • Where does your character agree with or value the same things as the culture around them? To what extent are they a rebel against their own culture and society?

By no means is this meant to be an extensive world building questionnaire– there are better bloggers who have done that. But these are just a few questions to get you thinking about how your world affects your characters.

So how important is world building to plot and characters? Maybe important enough to evaluate your story and do a rewrite.

So what do you think about world building? Does your world make the cut, or are you considering more edits like me?

God bless,


13 thoughts on “Why World Building Comes First”

  1. My worldbuilding usually develops right alongside the plot and characters. Honestly, it’s the worlds where I world-built first that have the weakest plots, because I feel like I’m forcing the world to hold a story.


    1. I’m sorry that I did not respond sooner, Kendra!
      Interesting observation, but I still think that a complex developed world would impact the plots and characters in powerful ways. A less developed world might not impact the characters or plot as much. But I am not saying that you cannot come up with the plot first– for many of us, we are inspired more by plot than by world building, but I think the plot should be revisited and will need to be revised after world building if the world is well developed.


  2. Thanks for the article, Gabrielle! I really appreciate it! Also, thank you, so much for mentioning Perytons. I had never heard of them before, but after researching them….they are defiantly making it into my trilogy.


    1. You’re welcome! I had not heard of them before a blogger I follow (Hannah Heath) mentioned them as well. Aren’t they cool? I love the idea of their shadows being human shadows until they kill a human. That idea just begs for a story. I’m glad you plan to work them into your story!


  3. This was a really informative post! I’d never thought of this before, but like you, I went straight into plot and characters and did no worldbuilding at all. Even though my fantasy is set in Japan, there was still so much research I needed to do and didn’t, but now that I’m looking into Japanese myths and history and culture, there’s so much more rich material to use in my story. If i’d researched it all before I started writing, a lot of it wouldn’t need to be rewritten. Thanks for bringing this up!


    1. I am glad this post was helpful! It is simultaneously inspiring and tiring to do world building and realized that you’ve missed so much. Seriously, there is so much great things that world building can offer to plot and characters. I am glad you are researching Japan– good luck with your rewrites!


  4. I think “world building” is true for any writer who wants her setting to become almost a character. My novel takes place in contemporary West Viriginia. I toyed with the idea of moving it to the state I currently live in and realized a change in location would change the characters.


  5. THis makes a lot of sense. Perhaps that’s part of why my first few attempts failed? Besides the atrocious writing, plotting, and characterization.
    Actually, I don’t think that some of my characters could have lived anywhere else. To make all of the characters that way would fundamentally change their backstories.
    What about if i’m writing fantasy that is generally light on the fantasy side? Say, a few magic birds, a forest that may or may not be slightly aware, a preternaturally sturdy spear, and a daemonic creature that only appears in the fourth book [which i have only outlined].
    Thank you for writign this!
    Perhaps if i had worldbuilt earlier on i would have been spared the painful process i went through [honestly, it was originalyl Tolkien fanfiction that is now purged of most of its Tolkienesque elements. except that elves still live indefinitely…. and i have a Numinor- like place].
    Yeah, problems.
    God bless you and your writing!


  6. Hi Gabrielle, I enjoyed your post and hope to come back and read more! I particularly enjoyed your list of questions for an author to ask of their world. If you like films/animation, feel free to visit my blog, marissapruett.com.


  7. It’s nice to have a worldbuilding article that’s actually about the process and not just the list of questions. I appreciate that your articles are frequently unique in comparison to other writing blog posts.


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