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  • Writer's pictureRussell F. Hirsch

Lessons from a First Novel: Worldbuilding from the Inside-Out

Perhaps nothing simultaneously excites and intimidates a fantasy author as much as worldbuilding—crafting the geography, history, cultural norms, and magical workings of an imaginary world (or imaginary elements within our own world).

Fantasy Maps

Maps from my first novel manuscript.


If you are the sort of reader who loves maps on the inside covers of books, it’s thrilling to make your own world and let your imagination roam wild over those invented territories, fleshing it out into a fully-fledged world. However, it’s easy for fantasy writers to fall down the rabbit hole when worldbuilding, which can cost tremendous time and energy.

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Authors have different approaches to worldbuilding and what works for one may not work for others. So, once again, take my advice with…

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Still, as with most aspects of the writing process, my first novel taught me a lot of lessons about how to tackle worldbilding more efficiently. That novel actually had very little magic, which is where a lot of authors expend the most thought on worldbuilding. But it did have a lot of geography, history, and mythology, which informed the journeys of the main characters. Unsure how to thoroughly cover everything—and fearful of overlooking anything—I sought out worldbuilding advice online and came across a questionnaire available through the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. The questionnaire was developed by Patricia C. Wrede, author of the classic Dealing with Dragons (1990). I filled out the questionnaire and spent a considerable amount of time on further worldbuilding research, looking up everything from rope materials to medieval weaponry.

All of this spurred some interesting ideas but much of it was not ultimately pertinent to my plot. I now consider questionnaires and general research “worldbuilding from the outside-in.” You are essentially compiling an encyclopaedia of a world but a novel is not encyclopedic; it does not detail all information; if anything it is about limiting information—telling the reader what they absolutely need to know in an efficient and compelling fashion.

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Worldbuilding from the outside-in can be immersive, but a bit overwhelming.


So now, I strive to “worldbuild from the inside-out.” This worldbuilding goes hand-in-hand with the early plot outlining. Give some initial thought to the setting of the story to ground yourself—but keep it primarily focused on where the character is from and where they are likely to end up. Then, consider what the main attributes or magical abilities of the characters are, and what the overarching conflicts will be. After all, plot is the engine that drives a story and characters are what drive a plot, through their motivations, decisions, and problem-solving. By focusing worldbuilding research on what specifically informs the characters, their obstacles, and solutions to those obstacles, my worldbuilding has become considerably more efficient. (And certain sections of resources like the SFWA questionnaire are still very useful for this.)

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Plot and character in action.


This switch has not been easy for me, as someone who can imagine worlds more easily than characters and plots. And this post is not meant to discredit the settings, ambiance, history, and feel of a world—often that is the most captivating and memorable aspect of a book. However, I have found it a relief to stop detailing the context of an entire magical world and instead focus on accenting key elements of that world which specifically relate to the characters and their journey.

And it’s okay to leave some elements of your world mysterious and unexplored—that leaves the reader room to imagine and it ensures your plot does not become so complex it obscures the story you are striving to tell.

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Inefficient worldbuilding and a lack of causal outlining had the most significant impact on the middle section or Second Acts of my manuscripts. In the final post of this series, I’ll look at how to “Supercharge the Second Act.”

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