De Novo: How to Build Your Own Fantasy or Sci-Fi World

with Elisa Bonnin

worldbuilding in science fiction and fantasy

Have you ever wanted to create a captivating world, like Westeros from Game of Thrones, Arrakis from Dune, or even the Star Wars universe? Maybe you have an idea for a science fiction or fantasy novel, or maybe you want to build a world for a game or a tabletop campaign. If this describes you, this course is for you. In six weeks, we will work together to build your worlds from the ground up, to create fictional worlds that feel real. We’ll dive into how to build worlds that support your story—and how to build stories that showcase the best of your new secondary worlds.

As part of this course, you will gain an overview of worldbuilding techniques, and will examine the fine details of your own worlds. You will also learn how to reveal details to your reader in a way that gives them a sense of place without interrupting the flow of the story.

Each week, you will have a writing assignment designed to help you immerse yourself more deeply into your world. Through class discussions and conversations with your peers, you will further add to the richness of your own unique worlds. At the end of the course, you will be given resources to outline, write and finish a story set in the world you’ve created.

This class is for writers of all skill levels, but will be best for writers who already have an idea, no matter how small, for the story they want to write. Your idea can be as small as a what-if question, a single image, an aesthetic or a song that inspires you, but it should be something you’ll want to build on over the next six weeks. Come prepared to discuss, share, and build worlds together.

Learning and Writing Goals

By the end of this course, students will:

  • Understand the importance of worldbuilding in science fiction and fantasy.
  • Learn how to craft a world that supports their story idea, or how to create a story that best showcases their new world.
  • Have an understanding of genre conventions unique to speculative fiction, like technology or magic systems.

Students will also build their own secondary worlds from the ground up and will gain a more thorough understanding of their worlds through weekly writing assignments (~500 words), and receive instructor and peer feedback on their work.

Zoom Schedule

This class will meet once a week for one hour. We will meet on Mondays at 3 P.M. U.S. Eastern Time. Zoom meetings will be used to discuss the topic of the week, with the meeting time divided between lectures and discussion.

Attendance at the weekly lecture session is not mandatory, and lectures will be recorded.

Weekly Syllabus

Week 1: What is Worldbuilding?

This week, we’ll define worldbuilding and talk about the importance of worldbuilding in science fiction and fantasy. We’ll also discuss how worldbuilding is used across all genres of fiction. We’ll share examples of worldbuilding in class and compile a list of traits common to good worldbuilding.

Writing Goals:

  • Determine the core concept of your world, the thing that you will base all aspects of your world around.

Week 2: Climate and Geography

In our second week, we’ll look at how geography and climate can affect stories, and look at examples of fictional worlds that have played with fantastical geography. We’ll also discuss how real world climates affect cultures, and can change the resources available to the story’s cast.

Writing Goals:

  • Build onto your core concept established in the previous week by deciding on the climate and setting of the world where the story will be told.
  • Class participants can choose to create fantastical geographies or use real-world geographic patterns.

Week 3: Technological Revolutions

This week, we’ll focus on the role of technology in worldbuilding and how it affects societies. We’ll start with science fiction worlds, where technological developments are naturally centered, and move on to fantasy worlds, using examples to show how even fantasy worlds can have varying levels of background technology. We will also discuss how magic can function as technology in fantasy worlds, and talk about how to build a good magic system.

Writing Goals:

  • Build further onto your unique worlds by setting a level of technology and discussing how this level of technology would affect the lives of people living in the world.

Week 4: Politics and Economics

In week four, we’ll ask the worldbuilding questions “Who is in charge?” and “Who has the money?” We’ll briefly touch on real-world political systems like democracy, monarchy and oligarchy, and talk about establishing systems of government (or lack of governance) in our own secondary worlds. We’ll also talk about economics, the resources that people have access to, and what those resources imply about trade.

Writing Goals:

  • Continue to build on your own worlds by establishing systems of government, and by considering the role of economics and currency in your worlds.

Week 5: Culture and Society

This week, we’ll talk about how the elements we’ve already established in our worldbuilding directly affect the culture and societies that form in that world. We’ll talk about traditions, beginning with real-world traditions and expanding from there. We’ll also discuss when it’s appropriate to draw from real-world cultures, and how to write engaging fiction without appropriating from marginalized groups.

Writing Goals:

  • Further expand worldbuilding by developing either the prevailing culture of the story, or, for stories that involve a lot of travel, the prevailing culture of the place where the protagonist grows up.

Week 6: History, Myth, and Legend

Our final week revolves around the stories that people in the fictional world tell themselves. Depending on what’s already been established, this could mean creating a fictional religion, creating folk heroes, or placing historical events on a timeline. This week, we will also talk about resources to begin outlining the story, and how to start writing.

Writing Goals:

  • Finish up your individual worlds by describing the stories told about things that happened before the story starts, and how this might affect the people living in the world.
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Elisa A. Bonnin was born and raised in the Philippines, after which she moved to the United States to study chemistry and later oceanography. After completing her doctorate, she moved to Germany to work as a postdoctoral scientist. A lifelong learner, Elisa is always convinced that she should “maybe take a class in something” and as a result, has amassed an eclectic collection of hobbies. But writing will always be her true love. Publishing a book has been her dream since she was eight years old, and she is thrilled to finally be able to share her stories. She is the author of Dauntless and Stolen City.