books · writing

World Building in Fantasy and Science Fiction


World building was my first love. Or one of my first loves at any rate. Somewhere in a box from my youth are carefully drawn maps, sheets of paper filled with descriptions of flora and fauna, collections of census data from urban spaces that have never existed and will never exist. Part of the pleasure of writing has always been in figuring out details like this.

I’m sure that we all have our own ideal of world building. The creation of Middle Earth. The cultures of Westeros. The alternate realities found in many comic books. In fact, the impetus behind this post was a ‘travel guide’ to the worlds found in Marvel comics. The book itself was fine enough, but more importantly it reminded me just how extraordinary fictional worlds can be.

My favorite fictional world is not as well known as the ones that I just listed. It exists in Melanie Rawn’s  Exiles series – these were some of the books that I stole from my father’s bookshelves as a child – and is extraordinarily thorough. The series and its universe straddle science fiction and fantasy genres. The first book, The Ruins of Ambrai, describes how a millennium ago people with magical abilities fled to the planet Lenfell, but that world was soon torn apart by competing magical factions. During this war, magic polluted the earth, caused genetic damage to future generations, and unleashed terrible creatures known as Wraithenbeasts. Though the rifts caused by these disasters have begun to heal, people still distrust magic, and the tension between magical groups still exists. But in a quest to finally gain dominion over this world, one magic user has decided to begin a new war, one that could threaten everyone on the planet.

Ruins_Of_Ambrai_Melanie_Rawn.jpgRawn obviously poured her energy and time into creating the world of Exiles. The series features a complex caste system, governmental maneuverings, complicated familial histories, religious and magical systems, and new flower symbology. It can be a lot to take it. I adore it.

If anyone investigates the books further, I have to warn you that though Rawn intended the series to be a trilogy, she never finished the final book. If you get an early edition of the second book, The Mageborn Traitor, you’ll find that the end has a sneak peek of a chapter from the third book. Later editions of The Mageborn Traitor simply list that chapter as an epilogue. I was shattered when I noticed the change. In 2014, however, Rawn suggested that she would revisit the series and finally finish the last book. (I don’t entirely believe her. I’ve been burned before and now view claims like that with suspicion.)

My own copies of the series are battle-worn. They have seen many readings, and their pages and spines show it. Perhaps for that next special occasion, I’ll have to give myself the gift of new versions of these. I would be heartbroken if mine ever dissolved entirely.

Though Exiles hosts one of my favorite examples of world building, dozens of other wonderful ones exist. If you have any that you would like to share, I’m very interested in hearing about them. I could always use anther book or twelve to read.


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Image Attributions:

Pauline Baynes, “A Map of Middle-earth”, George Allen & Unwin and Ballantine Books, 1970.

Melanie Rawn, The Ruins of Ambrai (Exiles, Vol. 1), DAW, 1995.



39 thoughts on “World Building in Fantasy and Science Fiction

  1. A great article on world-building, Kristen. In her defence, I would just add that Melanie Rawn suffered a major mental breakdown while trying to write the final book in the series. Since then she has written a stormingly awesome fantasy series, The Glass Thorns, charting the adventures of a travelling theatrical company who use magic for their effects. Four books in the series are already published and fifth books is due to come out in the middle of next year.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. You’re right, of course. Rawn has published some wonderful works since ‘Exiles’, and I certainly don’t blame her for not wanting to return to a series that might remind her of pain. I’ve read some of the ‘Spellbinder’ books have somehow completely overlooked ‘The Glass Thorns’. I appreciate the reminder that they exist (and the reminder that writers have personal lives too). I’ll have to pick up ‘Touchstone’ when I have the chance.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. The skills to build these worlds must be so all encompassing, and a tad scary to try to attempt, but I can see the attraction. I enjoy reading them and Stephen Kings Dark Tower series got me hooked, despite my intital cynicism. Then Game of Thrones too, and I don’t know why, but long live world building!

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Kristen, this is a wonderful tribute to Rawn and her work. I have never heard of the Exiles series but your description of the world she creates sounds astonishing – and I can believe once you have entered that world you are loath to leave, no wonder the books are worn, your passion for them as burning as strong as ever. Sad to read in the comment above about her breakdown after these books, but then the success later with so many other. Life rarely takes the straight forward road!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fascinating, as usual, Kristen. I have not explored these books, but I will. I think there are map people, just as there are math people, and word people. I too love maps, read the atlas, and post maps on my walls when I write. (There is a map of Ireland here right now). World building has to be the most imaginative pursuit a writer can possibly engage in. For what are worlds, without people, places, and passions. Thanks for another great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. *beaks down the door* Did someone say: WORLD BUILDING?! 0.0 Oh my gosh! I love world building! I am an absolute fanatic for world building, which is why I write a lot of post-apoc because the world is destroyed and I get to start from scratch!

    And I absolutely praise George R. R. Martin for his world-building skills. Everything is so detailed down to the last food and trinket and dress pattern. It’s amazing! Tedious and frustrating to read when I just want to know what happens next, but the man is amazing at world-building description and for that I respect him.

    While I hope to be that skilled some day when it comes to world building, I don’t think my genre of scifi is known for it’s over-intricate details. Still, it gives me a great opportunity to talk about all the awesome future tech in my books. That’s world building, right? :p

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! I love your enthusiasm. It definitely takes a certain type of mind (with a certain attention to detail) to create rich worlds. And tech definitely counts as world building to me! How people/creatures use technology reflects both how they think as well as their society after all.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Reading your article reminded me of the theme of my 2016 book ‘It’s a Fantasy World’ : What is it about imagined worlds that fascinate us so much? Is this one so bad that we need to escape from it occasionally?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What an interesting topic. There is a wonderful discussion about the relationship between fictional worlds and the real world in Umberto Ecco’s Six Walks in the Fictional Woods. Ecco has a very interesting perspective on this as the creator of the complicated medieval world in The Name of the Rose. I suppose it’s a different kind of challenge to recreate a historical world than to start from scratch and create an entire fantasy world, but I think there’s also a lot of overlap between those two things, especially when the historical period is very distant from us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sure that there is. I’ll admit that I’ve shied away from writing historical fiction for precisely that reason; the author has a duty to know a great deal about the world he or she is writing.

      The Name of the Rose is a lovely book though. I may have to revisit it one of these days.


  8. I loved reading fantasy novels and I also enjoyed making my own when I was a kid. Sadly, it never amounted to much, but recently I picked it up again! It has been tons of fun, like reliving my childhood sometimes. Thanks for the fun post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Ultimately, I think that anyone can create a world that can rival Middle Earth or Westeros. Both are based off mythology, classic archetypes with small twists and relative to our own world. It’s what my brother and I did.

    If you’re looking for a new one, I’d highly suggest the Witcher series, if you’re into gritter fantasy. Very well written.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Currently in the middle of World Building for my own WIP and just wrote a blog post myself on my process. One of my favourite things about fantasy is being able to visit somewhere completely new. Really enjoyed your post, thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  11. World building is one of the things that I enjoy the most about writing. I love breathing life into a world, seeing it grow, learning about it even as I build it up. It’s one of the reasons I’m doing world building for an MMORPG with a friend of mine. To establish the history, the lore, the characters, the way that people get to interact with that world and make it a living, breathing, growing world. That’s what I love about writing.


    Some of my favorite worlds that have been built up are those like The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, The world of Arakis in Dune, by Frank Hurbert, The War God series, featuring Bahzel Bahnakson, by David Weber (pretty much everything David Weber has written). Such robust, vibrant worlds.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I end up playing video games for the plot even when they aren’t plot-driven ones, which drives some people I know crazy. Like in the MMORPG that you are helping with though, the underlying world is there, and uncovering the various pieces of it is rewarding. It sounds like a great project.

      I’m also a big fan of the first few books in “The Wheel of Time” series. Such interesting books.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Thanks for the wonderful post. I had forgotten all about this series and the frustration at being left hanging. There’s nothing like world building, after completing the first draft on my first novel in 2015 I took all of 2016 worldbuilding – flushing out a plot and character arcs for a total of 9 books. Now I’m back to editing and building on online presence, found some inspiration here, Thanks Kirsten!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That sounds like a stellar amount of background creation! (I take it this is for your “Warders of Magic” series? I’ll have to keep an eye on your pages and see how you flesh out all of that work.)


      1. Yup, I’m in the revision stage for the Wizard of Yonkers and writing dialog for the Witch of Torrey pines. The rest are only high level plot outlines. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with them on my blog and put them out there more as encouragement to put myself out there. Any suggestions or good blogs you can recommend for inspiration?


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