Growing a world

I often get asked how to build fantasy worlds. When you start building a fantasy world, ask yourself questions about the world you’re building. Ask yourself why and how.

Let’s try this. I have just come up with a very simple concept for a fantasy world, a world where people are sorted into castes based on their hair colour and the brunettes are the best and the blondes are the worst and everyone else has a rank in-between. Now, I could write a novel based on this concept that doesn’t dig into the heart of the story – doesn’t explain anything, just slaps the world on the page and expects the reader to swallow it happily – but I know I’d find it hard to read, because I’d want to go deeper. So, as a writer, I must do my worldbuilding.

I’d want to know how this works. How is the caste system maintained? Do people dye their hair to move between ranks? Or is hair dye is forbidden to prevent that happening? What about the elderly? When their hair turns grey, are they treated as outcasts, or are they seen as having transcended the caste system and treated as god-like figures? Are people only allowed to marry people with the same hair colour, or do they deliberately try to marry “up” to increase their children’s chances of having a certain hair colour? Does it matter if the hair is curly or straight or wavy?

I’d also want to know why this happened, because on the surface, this is seems like an illogical way to run a society and it’s going to take some work for the author to convince me that it could work. Did the caste system originate from a king or queen or supermodel or other public figure having that hair colour and being idolised for it, and everyone trying to mimic them? (That happened in history, seriously. All the fashionable people wanted the same colour hair as Elizabeth I.) Is it far more sinister, part of a plot to create a master race who only have a certain hair colour? (That happened in history, too.) Or is it based on the culture of beauty pageants? Or something else? Look at how hair is treated in different cultures. Look at what hair, and hairstyles, have symbolised throughout history: beauty, marital status, power. Think George RR Martin’s Dothraki, who never cut their hair unless they’re defeated in combat. Think Samson and Delilah.

Depth is critical to authenticity. A reader won’t fully believe the story if they can see mile-wide holes in it, and fans of sci-fi and fantasy tend to have particularly keen eyes. Trust me, they’ll spot inconsistencies and things that don’t make a lick of sense.

What comes to you as a simple concept can blossom into something much bigger, and much richer. Just ask yourself questions. 

First posted on Tumblr


  1. Very helpful.
    Worldbuilding is incredibly crucial to a story; especially a fantasy/dystopian like yours (which was built beautifully, might I add.) Your example was a perfect exhibition of what so many authors are missing from their story that could be their key to a five out of five story! I'm thirteen and even as we speak now, I'm building a world for a novel that I have been writing for some time now. And if I can do it, anyone can! Thanks for the advice, I appreciate it greatly.

    Can't wait for The Bone Season 3!



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