I am definitely a prime example of someone who will create a new world for every single story. Here is a basic guide as to how I do this. I wrote this in the past since a friend requested assistance.
Tristin’s Guide to World Building
Note: My preferred program to use is Gimp so I refer to that in this guide. The reason I often refer to using different layers is so you can also keep your map as a project file and open it in Gimp. You can then show or hide any layers you don’t need at the moment so you focus on the things that are important.
STEP 1: Rough outline
The first outline of the world I suggest to be drawn by hand. This way you can be very ‘random’ while sketching something. I find that drawing on paper makes it easier to just go with it and let my imagination work. However, if you don’t want to deal with the hassle of paper, you can draw in a program like Gimp too.
1a. If you have a rough idea of how your world should look, you can go with that.
1b. If you are going for a ‘new’ world, just use your imagination and don’t worry too much about the finer details of the map.
My method is often to draw lines that move in random patterns. Sometimes I come up with maps that look unnatural. In this case it is fine to simply try again.
I usually start with only the outline of the world but you are free to add country borders if that’s something you want on your first draft. You can always remove them during the next step.
STEP 2: Digital outline
Next up you need to make your work digital, if you did not digitally draw the rough outline of your map. I do this by scanning my picture with my printer and then transferring it onto my computer. If you drew digitally, you are good to go already.
2a. Create a canvas that you would like to use to put your world on. I suggest you don’t underestimate this. I tend to go for 1500 x 2000 pixels (height x width). Depending on whether or not you want a grid function or not, you will need to adjust the pixels so everything works out correctly.
Note: Be sure to set the grid as a new layer. Use a transparent layer to put your canvas on.
Grids can help you define distance in the story. It can help you find out how long characters need to travel.
I want to use a canvas that is 1500 x 2000 pixels, but I also want to set a grid onto this. Suppose every square in this grid would be 100 x 100 pixels; which means the grid could have 15 x 20 squares. I tend to set my grid outlining to 1 x 1 pixel; meaning the squares on the grid are divided by 1 pixel of black line. This requires a little math. See below.
1500 x 2000 pixels for the canvas
I want to have 15 x 20 squares
One square is 101 x 101 pixels (100 pixels + 1 pixel for the grid)
To complete our grid, we also need to take into account the most outer edges so we add 1 pixel to the eventual equation.
Our actual canvas size would have to be adjusted to;
Height; 1516 (15 x 101 + 1 for the last edges) pixels
Width; 2021 (20 x 101 + 1 for the last edges) pixels
If you want a grid that includes numbers at the top and sides, add one square into the calculations.
(Yes, world building is for smart people.)
2b. Next you need to trace the physical drawing you made. Use a drawing tool like a brush and set it to a solid circle. I tend to use a thicker outline for the world and a thinner outline for the borders of my countries. It is okay if you trace this world onto a white background. For other features however, I suggest using a transparent layer. Sometimes I put the outline of the country borders on a different layer than my world outline. But that’s up to the creator.
2c. Copy and paste your world outline onto the background of the grid canvas (in case you are using one). You can drag the picture around till you are satisfied with where it sits. Anchor it there. The outline of the world will be the basis for everything else you put overtop it, so make sure it’s at the very back of your file.
STEP 3: Landscape
Next you need to decide what the landscape looks like. You can select all white areas with the select tools so you can properly color them. It is fine if you want to color the world outline. I sometimes do that too. It can work just fine that way.
3a. Set well distinguished colors. Blue for water, yellow for sand, red for canyon, lime for grass, green for forest and so on. If needed, you can use an extra canvas to write down what every color means so you can properly keep track of everything.
Colors that I like to use
- Blue = water
- Light green = grass
- Dark green = forest
- Yellow/beige = sand
- Red/maroon = canyon rock
- Grey = mountain rock
- Light grey = snow area
- Teal (a light shade of blue) = healing water
STEP 4: Locations
So your characters have places to go, you should name places in your world. You can name regions (a forest, a mountain range), the countries and cities/towns. I suggest using a different (transparent) layer for each of these.
By placing text on a transparent layer, you can erase just that name if you want to rename a place.
4a. Regions are the easiest to name since they tend to be big chunks. You can use a font, size and color that are easy to read on the canvas colors as well as a font size that fits well on the places. I tend to pick something that is not too big so I can actually fit the names even on smaller regions.
4b. With country names, I’d go for something of a reasonable size; something that stands out but does not occupy the entire country space when placed so you can still look around the word to see the place it belongs to.
4c. For cities and such, I tend to place down dots. I pick a color I have not used before (purple or pink) to make the dots to indicate the size of the cities. The biggest dot in every country is the capital city. Medium sized dots are other cities and small dots are towns/villages. What I do with the size of the names;
- Capital gets big letters; but smaller than the region names.
- Cities get reasonable sizes
- Towns/villages get small sizes
There’s usually no more than a 10-5 pixel difference between the sizes. Don’t be afraid to make things too small. If you have a large canvas, that is just fine. Remember, if you need it during writing, you can always zoom in to see what it says.
4d. If you have special locations on your map, you can draw a significant symbol (a star, a triangle, etc.) to indicate where it is and add a name to it in the same way.
You can add lines between locations to indicate roads.
STEP 5: Decide astronomy
This might not seem important but it can make a significant difference in your world. If you wish to follow the same system as the Earth follows, that is perfectly fine. I tend to change things up often.
5a. The first interesting aspect is to decide the pattern of a year. Indicate how many days the year has, how many each month has (if you have months), the lengths of weeks and also the length of seasons.
5b. Decide the heavenly bodies next. There is a likelihood that the world has a star it orbits. However some planets also have moons or even rings. These are things to consider since they can add to the atmosphere within your world. The weather is also interesting to consider.
Sometimes I add weather to maps. Use a transparent layer and color it with transparent colors to indicate where it tends to rain, where it is warmer and where snow is prominent.
Here is a suggestion for the colors to use:
- Red = high temperatures
- Orange = heat waves
- Yellow = often sunny
- Green = neutral, pleasant temperatures
- Blue = cool temperatures
- Purple = often rains
- Grey = often cloudy/misty
- White = often snow
You can adjust the brightness of the colors or the amount of transparency to indicate how common this weather is. If you really want to go to such lengths, you can even make separate weather patterns for the different seasons.
STEP 6: Create physics
This step is mostly a step about imagining and potentially writing. If your story takes place in a magical world, you need to refer to the rules that are involved in this world.
Example 1: Magic power is only inherited. It can not be learned.
Example 2: People can only use as much magic as their own energy will permit.
Example 3: Magical abilities can be learned only through sacred processes.
Besides that, you need to decide what physics are at play. In most novels I read, the physics resemble those we experience on Earth. Many sci-fi novels choose to either exaggerated these physics or add to them. Traveling at the speed of light is a prime example.
It is also interesting to decide what is significant in your world. This can be special locations, special creatures or special roles that people earn or are born with. You need to decide what influence this has on your world.
An example could be a special plant that is very rare but grants certain advantages to whomever has the plant.
STEP 1: Create civilizations
A story can not thrive without characters. It is essential to make yourself understand what cultures exist in your world before you attempt to persuade readers of the awesomeness of your world.
1a. Start by outlining which countries or regions exist and if there are people that live there. Describe if there are many people and what race they are. You can add that they speak their own language or have a particular religion.
1b. What really makes societies unique is their customs. For each community, make a brief description of what are important ceremonies or holidays to them. Write about how relationships are handled within the community. Mention small gestures that are native to the community (greetings, expressions of respect, expressions of love, etc.).
1c. Establishing connections between communities and countries is important. It can often influence the plot heavily. Describe how each is governed and what their view of other countries is.
The level of detail you decide to use is completely up to you however a basic understanding of the local cultures will help you remember them and integrate them.
STEP 2: Create wildlife
It would make sense that beyond city walls, there are other living creatures that inhabit the wild. As miniscule a role as they might play in your story, it is still interesting to establish what animals and plants exist.
2a. Describe what (types of) animals inhabit the world. What creatures live where? Are they friendly to the people? Are the intelligent? What role do they play, if any? Perhaps the only role that you desire is birds that can be written about as singing their songs in the morning. That is fine.
2b. Integrate plants into your story. If you are not eager to make up your own plants, then resume as you wish. It might be interesting to understand what lives where. This requires some research. If that is not your cup of tea, then attempt to create your own.
Below is an example of three significant plants growing in one kingdom.
The kingdom is known for several medicinal herbs that are native to it. One is a small red flower (Aniya flower) used to lessen headaches. It is a small plant that grows on the trunks of trees and is thusly found in the forests to the east.
The other is a plant with feather shaped leaves (Dragon Pigmy) that are quite long and thin. The leaves hang outwards and get smaller as they reach the top of the plant. Because the leaves are so long and heavy, the stem of the plant is quite sturdy. It grows in moist areas. It is commonly found in swamp-like locations near the southern shore of Sandöhr. Both the leaves and the root of the Dragon Pigmy plant are used in combination with other herbs to form medicinal healing powders used for speeding up the healing of wounds. It is also commonly used to cure nausea or internal pain. The root of the plant is often cooked and consumed by people due to its healthy factors. Its leaves are used in salads. They are high in iron. The seeds of this plant are hard but are often used to brew tea because the outer core of the seed will dissolve in boiling water. The Dragon Pigmy earned its name due to the leaves of this plant closely resembling the wings of some species of Pigmy dragons.
Besides the Aniya and the Dragon Pigmy, the kingdom is famous for its tropical fruit. This fruit, called a Learan, grows on a fairly short tree in the far south of the kingdom. The Learan tree has a short trunk. This tree grows in a spire-like fashion; the base of it is very wide while the apex is narrow. This causes the tree to look like an enormous thorn. Such an exterior is emphasized by a lack of branches. The tree trunk is covered with round leaves that grow upwards along the tree trunk and seem to cover the tree in scales. The fruit that this tree grows is hidden among its coat of round leaves. The fruit has a cone-shape with a rounded base. The fruit grows taller and longer as it ripens and grows towards the sun. The fruit, at its earliest stages, is a green color equal to the color of the tree’s leaves. At this stage, the fruit is poisonous and the acid from it could cause tissue damage in the body. As the fruit ripens, its color transitions to blue before turning violet. When the fruit has turned blue, the poisonous fluids within have been transformed into sugars. Fruits from this tree are harvested during summer. They are picked when they are a shade of indigo. Learan fruit tastes rather sweet. Its outer core is a thick layer of flexible skin. Within this layer lays soft matter and a lot of liquid. This fruit is high in vitamins and is often used to create fruit juices or wine. In some instances, the fruit is converted into a paste-like substance to be eaten on bread. This fruit is popular even among young children due to the sweetness of it. Besides the fruit this tree provides, the Learan tree is often harvested for its sturdy wood. Learan wood has the benefit of being flexible and resistant to moisture. However, due to the rarity of these trees (they only grow in the south of Sandöhr) the expenses paid for a stack of wood are high.
STEP 3: Describe locations
Many locations become more interesting if you think about how they look or are organized. This makes describing them later on more fun too. It will also hold a stronger identity.
5a. Sketch or describe the way major cities are structured. Consider if the city has walls and if so what they are made of. If there is a castle or fortress, decide the characters for this as well. Decide if the streets are wide or narrow, if roofs are straw or wood. Decide if the roads are paved or if it is simply covered in sand. Perhaps there are cathedrals, academies, libraries or other noteworthy locations. Choose a location in the city for them and give them their own personal exterior.
It can be difficult to decide different identities for everything but this will make it more distinguished and intriguing to have characters visit them. They will have certain touches that set them apart. If you write about their exterior, it will also become easier to visualize them and thus write about them.
STEP 4: Final touches
Though the world is fairly complete now, it remains to be said that many writers like to add specific touches to their world. This is the point at which you can add all the unique aspects that you deem important. Something that I am prone to doing is noting certain aspects about certain areas. An example is that a road in one of my stories was made of a very interesting material. These are things I will record.
Good luck on your world building.
May destiny be kind to you.