genre stuff writing & publishing

Building Secondary Worlds

I’m currently working on a couple of projects. I’m finishing off the fourth and final book in the Legends of the Red Sun series, of course, but I’m also getting down my thoughts and ideas for something after that. This is an interesting creative point, because this hasn’t been sent off to my editor to look at (who will decide, ultimately, whether or not it is rubbish). I’m right at the beginning, doing that Big Ideas Thing, which I haven’t had the freedom to relax into for a couple of years, and certainly never before with a decent degree of certainty that it will be considered seriously by a publisher.

Starting all over again

Project X (which I’m not going to explicitly talk about) is becoming a creative outlet to my creative outlet, the thing I’m doing on the side, and I forgot how much I enjoyed worldbuidling from scratch. I know it’s vitally important, too, but there is something fun about designing a landscape, the characters, the infrastructure, the politics and economics, that really appeals to me. It’s also a challenge, too. And I’m always interested about the psychology – for example, how much of my mind or my experiences am I mapping out on paper when I create the setting?

So where do I begin?


With regards to creating the setting, it helps to be a visual person. This begins and ends with the imagination. Personally, this time I’m starting off with a picture of a scene and am writing outwards from there. I tend to assemble pictures – both drawings and ones in my head – and question where these places are, and where they lead to. It’s a path of exploration. What are the buildings like? How tall, what colour is the stone? What about the flora and fauna? What are the weather patterns that result in the forests I see? How will all of this impact the mood of the story?

These visuals are pretty important, too, because they’ll inform everything that follows.

But more so this time, I’ve got the character – the key lead to the whole of Project X – at the centre of the setting. The novel revolves around this person. When I created the world for the Red Sun series, the environment informed the story (what if an ice age pressured an established culture to retreat into itself), but this is based much more so around the character (they need to do x, y, z, so how does this work in the world around them?). It’s providing an interesting new contextual spin, much more scaled-down than the epic environmental picture of the previous series. There seem to be endless variations on what influences what: visuals inform character informs world informs story informs character and so on.


Generalisation warning: one thing I noticed back in my days as an editor, when reading submissions from the US and the UK, was how much longer the history of secondary worlds tended to be when created by British authors. This isn’t a point of controversy, more an interesting cultural observation: but I suspect being British and being surrounded by hundreds – and thousands – of years of history seeped into attitudes to creating an artificial history.

For me, being British, it’s got to be vast to feel real. There has got to be a timeline that goes on and on and informs the contemporary culture, or my itch is not scratched.

I also think that sometimes writers have a period of history in mind when approaching a new world, and that also informs the general aesthetics of the world. A lot of fantasy looks to history for inspiration, then, which is an interesting post in itself; I generally like to modify/cherry-pick events or customs or fashions from the past to see where they might fit in to the world I plan to create. History is incredibly useful to the fantasy writer (but so is the present).

Politics and Economics

I’m surprised quite often how little or ill thought-out the political and economic infrastructure of secondary worlds can be. How the hell do people get food to eat? How do they earn their money? What are their voting rights and what stops people from rising up against their governments? These are all political questions, and easily points that should be on our mind these days given the current climate. But it’s something essential that I have to know, even if I don’t mention it in the story. I will usually – and this is increasingly so as the years pass – allow my understandings of the current political and economic climate inform my worldbuilding. A lot of this is subconscious, some of it obvious and simply too good to ignore.


The bit I hate the most, though, is naming places – purely because it can be time-consuming to get things right. I like names to mean something, rather than be a bunch of letters I vomited onto the page. I loosely adhere to the principle that there should be shared characteristics in localised place names, much like in the UK. And the same for people’s names, too – for example, Malum in City of Ruin is obviously borrowing from Latin. They’ve got to feel right, to mean something to me.

But I like there to be a little consistency in geography, at least, and it can take ages to get a list of decent names and phrases.


There will be maps. There will be child-like scribbles, which I will use for months as a guide, then hand over to my editor, who will commission something that won’t be laughed at. That’s the plan, anyway, but I’m being much more precise this time about getting the world down on paper – I’m in no rush to get the story written (I’m writing another book at the moment, of course) so I can fill in as much detail as I like at this stage. And I’m after a more varied world, geographically speaking (not to mention in terms of weather – there will be a LOT more sunshine in this world). It’s not essential by any means to have a map, but I find they’re useful to keep you focussed.

Writing kit

I’ve found Scrivener, a piece of Mac writing software, to be incredibly useful – so much so that I wondered how I managed without it. I can assemble all the above points in a neat sidebar, which is a constant reference library when I’m becoming familiar with the new world. I can bung images or maps or whatever I’d like all into folders, so more than ever I can get a real feel for the environment. It’s really helping me create the World Bible in a more disciplined and organised manner.

There’s more to worldbuilding, of course – magic systems, perhaps – but this is just a start. I’ll probably take more note of other writers and what they do during this stage, to get a flavour of what works and doesn’t (writing is a constant learning process). I’ll even pay more attention to contemporary or real-world writers, since they, too, must create a world for their characters.

Building secondary worlds a time-consuming process, but one of the more fun elements of being a genre writer and, if done right, something to be enjoyed.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

23 replies on “Building Secondary Worlds”

This is fantastic! How writers construct their worlds is always something I am curious about, interviewers don’t ask enough about the actual nuts and bolts (the kind of thing you have just outlined here). I cannot think of many things I would not do to gain in insight into the creation of, say, China Mieville’s Bas-Lag.

I try my own hand at it regularly, but often get bogged down in the process; spending so much time deciding exactly what shade the grass should be and other minuscule details, that I forget the actual reason I am creating it.

As a perhaps slightly mundane curiosity, do you bash things straight into Scrivener during world-building?

Interesting point about the secondary world time lines. I’m a New Zealander (a country that makes the US look old) and I always find the massive, massive timelines in a lot of fantasy books unrealistic to the point of being jarring. If you think about the high medieval period, which most secondary world fantasy is roughly based on, then you’re talking of 300 years – most secondary world fantasy seems to deal more in 1-2000 year periods. In reality Rome was founded less than 3000 years ago. If you think about real world change in culture, technology and the like and compare it to secondary world change, there’s no relationship.

James – yeah, I guess the level of detail can be a distraction. I try to get the world to inform the story, nudge the story on, then go back and look at the world a little more. I let them feed off each other – and of course, the process never quite stops. You might get to a new city in the narrative and require another level of detail.

Nick – with regards to the timeline, I meant more that there should be a presence of a vast history, not that you deal with events only within a couple of hundred years. You don’t have to reference much father back, but it’s painfully obvious when that hasn’t been thought out – everything seems a bit 2D.

The bit about history and creating a fully formed world is something Adrian Tchaikovsky said when I last interviewed him. He said there were places that we’d probably never see, races we’d never meet, but he knew they were there.

Hmm, so is this book/series going to be more of a quest story? Or is it too early to say?

Your point on history is interesting. I’ve argued in the past that the tendancy for more history from British authors gives a distinct cultural difference between British & American fantasy (There are notable exceptions though – Erikson, a Canadian, springs to mind)

Really interesting post Mark!

A friend and I have a minor disagreement about world building. I really like it when there’s an aspect of the world which is really integral to/bound up in the plot – like for example the nature of Bezel and Ul Qoma in The City and The City, or The Noise in Chaos Walking by Patrick Ness. I feel like it gives a cool unity to the different elements of the story, and really helps illuminate the human side of the idea.

My friend says this kind of world-building limits the number and nature of stories that can be told in the world. She also thinks that ‘engineering’ the world to fir one particular story undermines it, and makes it less interesting. (She’s much more a Bas Lag and Ambergris kind of girl.)

Any thoughts?

Adrian – yes, Erikson is a very good exception to that. Being an archaeologist probably helps!

Tom – Well, I think with regards to engineering, there’s probably a spectrum here; though ultimately, I’d say the world does shape people and therefore stories, so it’s impossible to create a world in vitro. There are degrees of this, of course, but I’d say it’s definitely whatever works for the story. The example of TC&TC is a very good one for the world being bound up with the plot.

I think I’m saying it doesn’t necessarily matter – there are good and bad examples of both – but it’s a good debate to have when questioning your own processes.

Fantastic. How fun for you to be getting started on something new and fresh! Interesting observation about the US vs UK fantasists, I think you may be right. Even in “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” there was a vast complicated alternate history spelled out in the footnotes that I loved. I like that level of detail, to me it brings the whole thing to life.

I find I’m agreeing more and more these days with M. John Harrison (and Tom P’s friend) when it comes to worldbuilding. Less is more. Rather than an exhaustively mapped and detailed world, I prefer evocative hints, offhand mentions that may never come up again. China MiΓ©ville never showed us all of Bas Lag and its history, but gave us enough fragments of far off lands, and empires whose mere name sums up all we need to know, to spark the imagination. Many Fantasy authors lay it on way too thickly, and I don’t want to slog through all that to get to the meat of the story. I think it’s all about finding the right words to tell the reader what you want to suggest succinctly rather than spelling everything out to them laboriously and that maps, if they need to exist, are a bit better with some Here Be Dragons.

I suppose, however, I may be just a lazy reader and a lazy writer. But, unless it inspires real facepalm, I couldn’t care less whether a fantasy land’s climate system and geography make sense.

Cathy – you’re welcome.

D.D. – it was certainly not a black and white thing, but yeah, generally, I suspect writers absorb much from their cultures.

Alex C – I think, even with Bas-Lag, there was a great deal of stuff that was planned but not referenced. And that’s the case with a lot of writers – there is a huge amount that never makes it onto the page. Though worth saying also that Perdido Street Station included a map… πŸ™‚

I too, am a recent convert to Scrivener –part of the debugging massive for the Windows Beta– but you’re right, it’s usefulness smacks you in the chops the moment you open it up and see what you can do with it.

Hi Ian – I can imagine when you’re taking lots of real world content as research, it becomes exponentially useful. What I like most about Scrivener is how simple it is to use. Ultimately, you’re just dragging shit into an organised sidebar, but wow, it makes things easy.

This is great stuff Mark, thanks for writing this up. Although this in the comments caught my eye:

“I try to get the world to inform the story, nudge the story on, then go back and look at the world a little more. I let them feed off each other – and of course, the process never quite stops.”

I definitely felt like that when I was writing. I found doing a bit world building often generated new ideas I could work into the main story.

Thanks again.

Thanks for this insight in your creative process. It seems I’m not the only one who seems to spend more time ironing out how the world works than writing in it πŸ™‚ The great thing is that even if you don’t use it all it often generates cool ideas/plots.
I hate naming things. I’ve since “paid homage” to your trick of having your world’s equivalent of “ton” on the end of place names which helps. People’s names are far more difficult though as I’m never sure whether they will sound ridiculous or not (something that can really derail a story, I’ve found).

Great to see the enthusiasm in the new work though and at this point I’d be disappointed if you don’t include fantasy eco/corporate problems in your next world. I’m sure it’s possible without people accusing of preaching πŸ™‚

Hi Den – glad you liked the post. And yeah, I think it’s difficult not to let the two feed off each other like that. Embrace the process, I say!

Neil – yeah, part of me posting this was to show others some of the pains of the process and compare it to their own. As for eco/corporate problems? I’m sure I could squeeze a few in… πŸ™‚

[…] is how I’m currently finding my planning efforts. I’ve got in-depth character sketches. I’ve got my worldbuilding all done. I’ve got a series to end, a fairly rigid plot in mind but I need the fluidity of being able […]

Mark, any thoughts on how you approach cultures for second world build? That is, groups of people and their identity as a group, whether different ethnically or not? It certainly ties in to the other topics (history, politics, naming), but do you approach it in a particular way?

Hi Matt. Well, I do tend to nearly always use real-world cultures as a source of inspiration. I often to cherry-pick from various sources, but I like to give people a sense of belonging with which readers may or may not identify. And, in the case of City of Ruin, I tend to look at contemporary sources, too – challenges of multiculturalism etc. I have race divided largely by the species line, though there are wider ethnic groups.

And at the start, I know there *have* to be ethnic groups – I am very conscious of it. Developing all of this tends to grow with how much depth there is to the world, or how much I have mapped.

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