World building questions and questionnaires are useful for making fictional settings, from towns and cities to planets and solar systems, detailed. Find sci-fi and fantasy world development ideas that you can also use for speculative genres such as alternate history and dystopian. Each category has questions on the five key elements of story development: Who, what, why, where, and when.
How to use these world building prompts
Use the index below to jump to the relevant topic or category of world building prompts, and the ‘To the index’ links to jump back to the list of topics.
What are world building ideas and elements to think about?
Here are thirty aspects you could develop in your fictional world. Not all categories will be applicable to every story. Use the links to jump to the topics most relevant to your worldbuilding right now.
- Fauna and flora
- Natural resources
- Stability vs conflict
- Customs and traditions
- Clothing and fashion
- Food and drink
- Arts and entertainment
- Proverbs, idioms and sayings
- Taboos and crimes
- Race, gender and sexuality
- Trade and industry
- Health and medicine
- Politics and diplomacy
- News and media
- Architecture and engineering
- Individual and magical abilities
- Deities and spiritual practices
- Environmental challenges or disasters
- Historical and present conflicts
- Ideology and propaganda
Keep reading (and see our complete guide to worldbuilding for more on the topic).
Geographical world building questions
Geography, ‘the nature and relative arrangement of places and physical features’ (OED) is a key topic for finding worldbuilding ideas. Ask:
- What is the terrain like for key setting regions – which regions are coastal, mountainous, arid, or have dense vegetation?
- What effect does geography have on other aspects of world, such as transportation, trade and industry, environmental challenges, clothing, food and drink?
- Who lives in each geographical region and how have they adapted to it?
- Who prefers which regions or biomes, and why?
- Where are the world’s borders and boundaries? Are there separate nations or kingdoms? What distinguishes the geography of each?
- Where are the largest metropolises or wilds? Or is everything undeveloped (e.g., if your story features extra-terrestrial exploration)?
- When was this world first mapped? Are there regions people know little about or tell legends about (‘There be dragons’)?
- When has landscape changed, due to natural causes or development? What effects did this change have?
- Why is this world’s geography interesting or unusual?
- Why is any region in this world habitable or uninhabitable? What are its dangers, threats, or quirks?
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Fauna and flora world building questions
Animals and plants in a secondary world may be similar to our own (after all, Narnia has talking beavers). You may also want to invent your own genera, novel species. To develop fauna and flora, ask:
- What are the most common animals or plants, the fly, pigeon, grass and weed equivalents in your world?
- What are humans or others’ relationship to fauna and flora? (For example, are some groups more respectful, reverent, or caring of their environment? Why?)
- Who in your cast of characters cares most about your world’s fauna and flora? Who cares least?
- Who nurtures or exploits your world’s plant and animal life?
- Where are plants and animals more abundant or scarce, and why?
- Where do plants and animals get their names from?
- When will plants or animals first appear in the story, and what will their purpose be in regard to character or plot?
- When did common species of plants or animals first appear in your world, and how did they evolve or adapt?
- Why do certain plants or animals have cultural or religious significance – what is their backstory in myth or legend?
- Why do specific plants or animals have economic value, and how does their availability affect this value? Do these aspects change over the story’s course?
Historical world building questions
The history of a fictional world gives the sense of ‘historicity’, the reality of the past (and its impact on the present).
To develop your fictional world’s history, ask:
- What are the most important events in this world’s history that impact how it is today (e.g. conflicts, disasters, discoveries, revolutions)?
- What subjects would historians in a library dedicated to this world specialize in (what topics are most important to your world’s history)?
- Who remembers the most about the past, versus the least, and why?
- Who are important figures from this world’s history who would be taught about in schools (will their importance be revised over the story’s course as new information comes to light?).
- Where are historical records kept or how are they disseminated (in writing, or more in oral culture and storytelling?)
- Where are the most significant landmarks that are remnants of this world’s history?
- When do characters find out historical facts about their world previously unknown to them in the story? How does this new knowledge affect them?
- When were the key turning points in this world’s history? What prompted change?
- Why would someone study this world’s history, what would it teach them?
- Why might characters want to find out more about this world’s history? How would this knowledge aid their goals?
Natural resources world building questions
Natural resources, from water and air to minerals, plants, wildlife and metals, are essential to varying degrees for survival. Your world may have different essentials to our own, of course (maybe you have an alien race that can synthesize its chemical needs some other way).
To develop natural resources in your worldbuilding, ask:
- What is the most precious or in demand natural resource, and why?
- What natural resources are most endangered or at risk, and what could/must be done to avoid disaster?
- Who has the monopoly on each natural resource (or are resources more universally shared or hard to find)? Why?
- Who uses the most natural resources (individually or as a group such as a nation, city, government). Are some fair or wise in their use while others are selfish or unaware?
- Where is each natural resource located? How has this impacted other categories of worldbuilding such as trade, geography, transportation, environment?
- Where are the most strategic locations for access to natural resources? Is there (or has there been) conflict over who controls them?
- When was each natural resource discovered, have some been used longer than others in different regions?
- When will supplies of resources dwindle? Will they be abundant for the span of your characters’ lives?
- Why is access to natural resources either constrained/controlled or free?
- Why are natural resources important to social justice or politics?
Mythology world building questions
Mythologies – archetypal stories about specific peoples, places, histories, cultural practices – are an important part of worldbuilding if your characters live in a world that has literature, language, arts and culture. To develop a world’s mythologies, ask:
- What are important morals or lessons people must recall with the help of fables and mythologies?
- What role(s) does mythology play in your world (e.g. sharing and upholding values, cautioning against destructive behaviors, etc.).
- Who are the most important figures in myths and legends in this world?
- Who writes or is keeper of mythologies and mythological tradition? Does each teller embellish or change the story, or is mythology fairly stable?
- Where did the best-known myths and legends originate?
- Where are the most important landmarks or other geographical features associated with world mythologies?
- When did the most popular myths originate and how have they changed over time?
- When are myths or legends typically told or shared?
- Why were myths and legends created, to what end?
- Why are specific creatures, animals or symbols prominent in this world’s myths and legends?
Technological world building questions
Technology in a developed society has an important role in everything from labor to social relations (just look at the impact of social media on today’s world, from meme proliferation to cyber-bullying).
To develop your world technologically, ask:
- What is the level of technological development in the world? Is it roughly as developed as ours, or closer to a past feudal system or a futuristic system where tech such as AI, robotics, communication, transportation and healthcare are more advanced?
- What is the impact of each technological development on others (for example, how have advances in AI affected communication or transportation?)
- Who developed or discovered a specific technology important in your world, and what impact did its invention or discovery have?
- Who benefits the most from technology in this world, or is access and benefit equal? Why is that (for either answer)?
- Where is key technology produced or developed? What advantages and disadvantages might this give the producer?
- Where is the greatest technological innovation happening in the world, and what are its benefits and risks to society?
- When did certain technologies become obsolete (or will they), and who will that affect?
- When technology breaks, glitches, or behaves unexpectedly, what are the possible consequences? What margin is there for error?
- Why is a technology important to a specific group of people in your world – what benefits or advantages does it confer?
- Why is specific technology restricted or prohibited, and by whom? (For example, many kids are forbidden cell phone access due to low access control for adult content in our world).
Family-related worldbuilding questions
The nuclear family might not necessarily be the familial arrangement in your fantasy, sci-fi, dystopian or other world. To develop ideas about family, ask:
- What constitutes a family in this world? Does the concept of family exist or differ in significant ways from Earth?
- What are the roles and responsibilities of family members?
- Who has the most relative say or power in the family unit, and why? Or is family less hierarchical?
- Who values family and who is frustrated by this social system, and why?
- Where do familial customs and practices originate in the world? Do laws or other external forces affect family life or customs?
- Where do people without family such as orphans or sole survivors or those who are cast out by their families go (if this happens in this world, why are members cast out?)
- When does an individual move out to form their own way in the world?
- When is a family considered healthy, vs toxic/dysfunctional?
- Why is the concept of family important in this world?
- Why are some family relationships strained or steeped in conflict?
Society world building questions
Society, like family, is an important area of worldbuilding for thinking through relationships, hierarchies, the ways people share and come together or compete and split into factions.
To develop a fictive society, ask:
- What is each society’s crowning achievement or proudest ‘claim to fame’?
- What are each society’s greatest ills or challenges? (Do these differ depending on who you ask? E.g. conservatives vs progressives.)
- Who garners the most respect in this society, and why?
- Who is shown the least respect in this society, and why (what does it value)?
- Where are hierarchies and power differences starkest between people in this world, and why?
- Where are social norms and influences (such as laws) most stringently upheld in this world, and why (for example, what roles do politics, ideology, religion, or competition for resources play?)
- When did this society’s power structures emerge or change significantly, and why?
- When did major societal beliefs or practices become entrenched? Are there any that have recently fallen away or started to disappear?
- Why is living within this society challenging for your main characters?
- Why does each character enjoy or appreciate this society, if anything?
See our complete guide to character creation for ideas on how to create lifelike characters, too.
Governance world building questions
Governance may be good or bad, or vary in your story’s world. Or maybe government is abolished and anarchy reigns, your characters have more localized forms of organization and administration.
To develop governance and leadership in worldbuilding, question:
- What forms of governance exist (do they differ by region)? For example, monarchy, democracy, tyranny, oligarchy, anarchy.
- What is the biggest threat to stable government in your world?
- Who is the most loved leadership figure (or the most hated and feared) and why?
- Who governs key parts of your world (for example, this may be the pilot of a spaceship in a sci-fi story)? Will the head honcho change?
- Where are the major centers of power and administration in your world, and why are they located in these places?
- Where are laws and policies enforced the most, and where is the long arm of the law weakest?
- When were the laws that most affect your characters passed? Are there any troubling ones on the ballots?
- When did this world’s current system of government or political system come into existence, and what were the historical and cultural factors that led to its formation?
- Why do characters either support or resist the government? In what ways it is benevolent or abusive?
- Why do individuals or groups hold power to govern? Is it a birth right system, an electoral one, or the result of a coup or other event?
Stability vs conflict questions for worldbuilding
With social and power systems comes the push and pull (or swings and roundabouts) of stability versus conflict.
To develop key conflicts (or ceasefires), ask:
- What is the biggest cause for competition and conflict in this world?
- What is required to happen in order for harmony/peace to reign?
- Who stirs up the moment conflict, is the most divisive figure, and why?
- Who or which group flourishes or prospers during times of conflict, and who during times of peace?
- Where are hotbeds of conflict that are perpetually flaring up, and why?
- Where do primary conflicts in the world originate, in what situation, disagreement or misunderstanding?
- When was the most stable period in this world’s history, and why was it stable? time
- When was the time of heaviest conflict in the world, and why?
- Why will reaching stability be difficult between fighting factions?
- Why do conflicts arise in this world, what economic, political, religious or other factors contribute?
Customs and traditions questions for worldbuilding
Customs and traditions are complex parts of societal development, reflecting desire, belief and bias, superstition as well as faith.
To develop customs and traditions practiced in a world, ask:
- What are widely practiced customs and traditions common to multiple regions in your world?
- What are customs and traditions specific to individual regions or peoples?
- Who participates in which customs and traditions? What are demarcated roles or responsibilities within them? Or are roles and responsibilities rotated?
- Who creates or enforces the rules of customs and traditions in the world? Is it the law or government, or do individual groups self-regulate (or have customs and traditions that break with norms)?
- Where do rituals and ceremonies typically take place? What is place’s significance within them?
- Where do popular customs and traditions come from, what is their back story?
- When are customs and traditions typically practiced, under what time-bound conditions?
- When do customs and traditions change, and why?
- Why is any custom or tradition on the rise or waning in popularity, what are contributing factors?
- Why do characters participate in or avoid specific customs and traditions?
Clothing and fashion worldbuilding questions
Differentiating characters by dress helps to make regions and peoples distinct. Go to Milan, and you’ll see more catwalk-ready couture than when you visit the far south of Italy. Clothing and fashion in your world can supply interesting detail suggestive of place, preference, climate, culture and more.
To develop clothing and fashion in worldbuilding, ask:
- What is considered typical or everyday dress for each region?
- What values or status does society confer to clothing (or is it entirely functional, or even non-existent)?
- Who is permitted to wear what? Are there taboos, superstitions, or laws governing dress? Why?
- Who has access to clothing? Which fabrics are cheaper and which more expensive (and why)?
- Where are fabrics and other materials used in clothing sourced, and is their production ethical or problematic in some way?
- Where are specific dress codes or uniforms enforced, and what are they?
- When do styles or what people typically wear change, are there seasonal, spiritual, customary or other aspects to this?
- When have (or will) clothing styles change in the world, and what are the economic, environmental, or other contributing factors?
- Why is clothing in this world the way it is, what are the aesthetic beliefs, meanings or symbolism ascribed to colors, and other contributing factors?
- Why does gender, class or race impact what people wear (for example, a group may have spiritual or familial meaning attached to the type of jewelry or body modification members embrace).
Food and drink world building questions
Food has so many roles in our own world, from the spiritual significance of fasting and deliberate deprivation, to the social function of food, bringing and sharing.
Here are questions to ask about the role of food and drink in world building:
- What are the most common foods in each region, and how does geography impact this?
- What foods are prized, vs considered staples?
- Who has access to food? Is access equal or is there inequality?
- Who is responsible for agriculture, harvesting, production, breadwinning or hunting?
- Where is food typically eaten and stored?
- Where does food travel, are there hybrid cuisines or has food from one region been adopted in others (and how?)
- When are meals typically taken (or is there something other than a ‘x meals per day’ system)?
- When people drink or eat, what accompanies the meal in conversation or entertainment? Does this differ by region?
- Why do different cultures prefer different foods, spices, food preparation practices?
- Why are certain animals, plants, or other substances considered taboos or forbidden for consumption?
Arts and entertainment world building questions
Play, storytelling and artistic expression are pivotal parts of most societies, from the early expressivity of rock-painting to the fussy embellishment of frescoed ceilings.
To develop art and entertainment in a fictive world, ask:
- What are the most celebrated arts or entertainments in each region of this world? Are there symbols in common between cultures?
- How are the arts valued in this world (and by whom)? Are artists venerated, looked down on, kept by patrons, penniless? A mixture?
- Who are this world’s most popular entertainers or artists, and why?
- Who produces art and how do they learn (e.g. apprenticeship, classes)?
- Where is art or entertainment such as plays typically enjoyed, and who has access to these spaces?
- Where do artists draw inspiration or material from? Are any subjects or personages off limits/outlawed?
- When does the knowledge of art and entertainment history stretch back to? What has been lost?
- When do artists or entertainers begin training typically?
- Why is an art object or performance considered ‘good’, under what conditions?
- Why would someone want to become an artist or entertainer in this world?
Communication world building questions
Art and entertainment are communicative forms of expression. Yet basic communication – language, communications networks, writing – may be an integral part of your world, too.
To develop communication in worldbuilding, ask:
- What is the most widely spoken language in your world (and why)?
- What are common reasons for miscommunication (e.g. faulty, decaying or glitchy communications infrastructure)?
- Who has access to which forms of communication? Is everyone literate (and if not, why)?
- Who controls communications, to what degree are they free, private versus surveilled?
- Where did languages (or mysterious communication signals) originate? What is mysterious or surprising about language in this world?
- Where is communication harder or riskier, and why?
- When does each type of communication reach its addressee (does it take an instant or days, weeks, years?)
- When people converse or meet, what are typical conversational gestures (such as shaking hands)?
- Why is communication vital in this world?
- Why have new words or terms entered this world’s lexicon (what economic, ecological, technological or other factors contributed)?
Proverbs, idioms and sayings in worldbuilding
While discussing communication, it’s also worth mentioning proverbs, idioms and sayings. The way people draw figurative language from their world tells us about the world and people’s relationship to it.
For example, there is an expression in the South African language isiXhosa, the question ‘unomsila?’ (do you have a tail?), stated when someone enters a room but forgets to close the door behind them. It speaks to a country where wildlife plays an important part in myth and storytelling.
To create proverbs, idioms and sayings fitting your world, ask:
- What proverbs (e.g. the English saying, ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’) are used in this world?
- What sayings have been inspired by practices, landmarks, fauna and flora or popular figures in this world?
- Who are the writers, storytellers, or others who have coined or help to spread sayings and figurative expressions?
- Who is most likely to know or use proverbs, idioms, culture-specific sayings?
- Where do sayings and expressions primarily draw their inspiration from in this world?
- Where are cultural or regional variations in expressions most apparent?
- When have particular expressions or sayings grown popular or fallen out of favor, and why?
- When is it appropriate or inappropriate to use a specific expression or form of speech?
- Why do specific sayings, proverbs or expressions resonate with this world’s inhabitants?
- Why have sayings, proverbs and idioms changed or adapted over time? What factors have influenced language’s development?
Transportation and how characters and things travel is another important aspect – how your world moves.
Here are questions to ask about fill-in-the-blank -motion:
- What are the primary modes of transport in this world (e.g., horseback, air taxi)?
- What is difficult or challenging abut transportation in the story’s main locations?
- Who has access to what kinds of transport? Are some kinds of transport (like flying private on Earth) only available to the uber wealthy?
- Who operates transport networks, and what do they cost or require of passengers?
- Where are the biggest transport networks, vs where lies furthest off the beaten track?
- Where is safest to travel vs where is most dangerous?
- When do common modes of transport run (how frequent are they)?
- When is it best to travel and when is it worst, and why?
- Why is transportation excellent or in a state of disarray?
- Why will transportation change over the course of the story (e.g., different terrain, new inventions, or other causes).
World building questions about taboos and crimes
Crime and punishment and taboos also differ around the world. What might be a small fine in one jurisdiction could mean the loss of a hand in another.
Read questions to develop ideas about how your fictional world treats crimes and taboos:
- What crimes attract the harshest punishments or sentences in each part of your world?
- What taboos are hangovers from earlier times or practices?
- Who enforces law and order or reports taboo-breaking?
- Who is more likely to commit a crime or break a taboo in this world, and why?
- Where is crime most rampant, versus virtually unheard of (or are there similar crime levels everywhere)? Why?
- Where are lawbreakers taken for trial or punishment?
- When a taboo is broken, how do family members or broader society react?
- When were penal codes established, recently or longer ago?
- Why is the law just or unjust in this world?
- Why would you not want to spend a single night in this world’s most notorious prison (or alternatively, why would you not want to be caught for committing a crime)?
Race, gender and sexuality world building questions
Race, gender and sexuality are sensitive topics but also extremely relevant to our own history on Earth. They are sites of rich identity expression, as well as violence and suppression. Race in the fantasy and sci-fi sense can of course refer to humans along with various ‘others’ who populate secondary worlds, from alien beings to elves and orcs.
Here are questions to think about race and gender in worldbuilding:
- What is the history of race and gender in this world? Who has it benefitted or privileged, or does neither concept exist in quite the same way they have on Earth?
- What are commonly held beliefs about gender, race, orientation and other aspects of identity? If these beliefs differ between regions, what pressures (political, environmental, economic) contribute?
- Who holds more or less power on account of their race, gender, orientation or another aspect of identity? Why?
- Who casts off the norms or cliches of these categories, and how? How does their society respond (by transforming, celebrating or ostracizing them?)
- Where are the rules prescribed by identity the most repressive or the freest? Or is the world singularly utopian or dystopian?
- Where do positive or negative beliefs about gender, race, orientation or other constructed aspects of identity come from (e.g., ideology, or economic utility to a specific group).
- When will attitudes about any category of identity change in the story (and why)?
- When is the story set in this world’s development and how does era or epoch explain rules or roles concerning identity (and who makes them)?
- Why are gender, race, sexuality or other aspects in flux in this world (is rebellion brewing against specific laws or customs, for example?)
- Why are gender, race, sexuality or other aspects of identity important in this world’s history?
Trade and industry world building questions
Trade, commerce and industry are closely linked to geography (coastal towns having fisheries, for example). In a detailed world, trade and industry are linked to other aspects such as transport networks, the proximity of natural resources, trade agreements and more.
To develop the trade and industry of an invented world, ask:
- What is the primary currency in this world? Does each region have its own?
- What is the standard (such as the gold standard) by which currency is valued?
- Who has more relative trading power and why? Which commodities are valued the most?
- Who is paid the most because their labor is valued highest? Who is paid the least? Or is labor compensated equally (and do pay grades vary by region?)
- Where are the biggest centers of trade and industry? Why are they in these locations?
- Where are the main trading routes and what are landmarks or places of interest along their way?
- When was this world most or least prosperous, and why?
- When business is conducted, what are the customs, signs of trust (like signatures on Earth), formalities?
- Why is a specific trade more common than others (what context underpins it)?
- Why are certain trades growing or waning in popularity?
Health and medicine world building questions
Health, healthcare and medicine also may vary depending on your world. In a dystopian novel, for example, med packs may be in much shorter supply when usual supply chains are disrupted or totally destroyed.
Here are questions to think about health and medicine when making up worlds:
- What is a common illness or blight afflicting this world? How is it treated (or is it incurable)? Does it evolve or change over the story’s course?
- What does healthcare consist of in this world? Is there advanced medicine, or are folk and herbal remedies predominate?
- Who has access to healthcare? Is there a rich/poor divide or is it universal?
- Who would want to become a medical professional in this world, and why?
- Where are the best places to receive medical treatment in this world, and why?
- Where do medical practitioners train (and what is their curriculum like)?
- When someone falls ill, what are typical ceremonial or other practices?
- When was the last major public healthcare crisis (such as a pandemic), or when will the next one be?
- Why is healthcare in this world scarce or in adequate supply?
- Why might someone struggle to get the care they need when sick or injured in this world?
Politics and diplomacy world building questions
Politics and diplomacy become important in any fantasy, sci-fi or other fictional world where there are separate territories.
To develop political systems and diplomatic relations in your world, try asking:
- What kinds of political systems exist in this world?
- What unique laws or political customs shape public and private life in this world?
- Who are the primary figures who influence (or manipulate) public opinion?
- Who are behind-the-scenes figures in politics who have influence the average Joe might not know about?
- Where are the centers of power or law (and why are they located here)?
- Where do key political negotiations, summits, meetings take place?
- When did the current political dispensation take power?
- When will leadership change (if ever) in this world, and why?
- Why do alliances form or sever in this world?
- Why do people in this world support (or rebel against) its political structures?
News and media world building questions
News and media play a vital role in where people get their information about current events, from serious conflicts to scientific breakthroughs and rumor, gossip and innuendo (the usual tabloid material).
To develop a news and media system in a fictional world, explore:
- What spreads information – newspapers, websites, pamphlets, word-of-mouth, a technologically advanced communications system?
- What is considered newsworthy in this world?
- Who owns each news platform (are they public or private, impartial or propagandistic/biased?)
- Who are the public figures most often scrutinized in news networks (and why)?
- Where do the most significant or newsworthy events happen in this world (and to where does their news reach)?
- Where does the typical person go to find out what’s happening in their immediate community, or the wider world? Can they find this out?
- When have investigative reports or rumor mills changed history, public sentiments or policies?
- When do major news announcements or public addresses typically take place?
- Why is the media either free, silenced or captured/biased?
- Why might people in this world trust or distrust news media?
Education world building questions
Learning and training are essential aspects of development, from skill in trade and industry to magical ability.
To develop educational systems in stories, ask:
- What are the primary methods and institutions of learning in this world?
- What subjects are mandatory in each region (if these differ between regions or schools, why do they differ?)
- Who has access to which kinds of education in this world and why?
- Who are key innovators or reformers in the world of education, what was their contribution?
- Where are the best educational facilities or institutions in this world?
- Where do people train in specialized knowledge or skills, and where do they acquire basic/essential ones?
- When do this world’s inhabitants typically begin and end formal education? Under what conditions might they depart from educational norms?
- When educational events such as training completion occur, what ceremonies take place or benefits are conveyed?
- Why might someone excel or struggle in their education in this world?
- Why is education valued (or undervalued) in this world?
Architecture and engineering
Architecture and engineering affect the aesthetics of how buildings and structures look, and what’s physically possible due to shape, structure, available materials. Famed architect Frank Gehry said:
Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness.Frank Gehry, quoted by Robert Adam in ‘Eternal Hopes’, Architecture Today.
To develop architecture and engineering in a made-up world, ask:
- What are the defining feats of architecture or engineering in this world (for example, the tallest inhabitant-made structure)?
- What are widespread beliefs or opinions about architecture and engineering?
- Who are the most renowned architects or engineers in this world, and why?
- Who commissioned or initiated impressive feats of architecture and engineering in this world, and why?
- Where is an area particularly known for its architecture and/or engineering?
- Where do artisans and architects draw inspiration from? Are buildings more decorative and symbolic or is function the foremost concern?
- When have architectural styles or engineering practices changed, and why?
- When have disasters occurred due to poor engineering or design? What was the lesson in these?
- Why do specific architectural styles or materials dominate in this world?
- Why are certain buildings or structures admired, celebrated or world-famous?
Individual and magical abilities
Turning back to the human (or alien, or non-human), individual or magical abilities may be specific to your world and its forces, practices, mysteries.
To explore individual and magical abilities in worldbuilding, ask:
- What magical or supernatural abilities exist in this world?
- What does using magical or supernatural (or cyborg) abilities cost, and what are the risks and dangers involved?
- Who has exceptional ability, and why?
- Who understands individual and magical abilities? Does anyone hold mistaken beliefs about them?
- Where did any paranormal or magical abilities in the world come from?
- Where do people learn to use or work with their abilities?
- When characters use their abilities, is this use governed by codes and rules? What are they?
- When do abilities typically first manifest or awaken?
- Why do this world’s inhabitants fear, revere or covet special abilities?
- Why do people with abilities choose to use their abilities for benevolent or malevolent purposes?
Questions on deities and spiritual practices
Special abilities may be linked to a deity and spiritual tradition or else a neutral, nature-like force. Religion may play a major part in your world, or none at all.
To develop pantheons and spiritual practices in fictional worlds, ask:
- What are the primary belief systems and spiritual practices in this world?
- What is the mostly widely observed religious belief or spiritual practice in this world?
- Who follows which religion or spiritual practice in this world (do spiritual practices differ significantly between regions or individuals?)
- Who are the deities, supernatural beings or spirits worshipped or revered in this world, and what is each’s function?
- Where are sacred sites located in this world and what are ceremonies or taboos attached to them?
- Where do religious events or ceremonies take place?
- When are followers of faiths in this world confirmed, promoted, or even cast out? Under what conditions or terms?
- When have significant spiritual or religious events occurred in this world’s history? What was their impact?
- Why do specific religious or spiritual practices and beliefs dominate in this world, or does no single system have any greater sway or hold?
- Why do followers of different beliefs co-exist in peace or engage in conflict?
Environmental challenges or disasters and worldbuilding
Many invented or secondary worlds feature environmental change, from the mass tree-felling at the end of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings cycle to a plant where extreme weather events occur every few centuries in NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth series.
To think about climate challenges and catastrophes in building a world, ask:
- What are the unique or different eco-systems in this world (e.g., terrestrial or aquatic systems). Which are stable, and which (if any) are under pressure and why?
- What was the last major environmental catastrophe (e.g., a major fire, tremors, flood). What happened?
- Who is concerned about the environment’s wellbeing, and why?
- Who is skeptical about environmental threads or dangers, and why?
- Where is the environment most robust, and where are the greatest threats to stability, life, the land’s wellbeing?
- Where would people seek refuge in the event of a disaster and why?
- When do seasonal or periodic climate or other ecological changes occur, and why?
- When major events affecting the environment occurred, and what are dominant attitudes towards it? Do they differ between inhabitants?
- Why are certain environmental challenges predominant?
- Why do inhabitants of this world value or exploit the natural world, and how?
Historical and present conflicts
Conflict is ubiquitous throughout history, with many sources – from greed and hunger for power and domination to scarcity of (and competition for) resources.
Here are several questions to ask about historical and present conflicts in your world:
- What is the biggest present conflict in this world, and what are its origins?
- What are the major historical conflicts in the world and how did they shape present-day borders, beliefs, opinions and prejudices?
- Who are the world’s peacemakers and what role do they play?
- Who are the world’s worst agitators in stirring up conflict and why do they instigate it (e.g., territory disputes, resource competition, etc.)?
- Where is the next conflict most likely to flare up and why?
- Where is most peaceful, freest from conflict?
- When past conflicts resolved to peaceful agreement, what prompted resolution?
- When have war or other conflicts led to major cultural or social changes, and how?
- Why do conflicts persist or change in this world?
- Why do individuals or different groups in this world engage in conflict or remain pacifists?
Ideological and propaganda world building questions
Ideologies – systems of ideas and ideals, such as communism or anarchy – on Earth are closely linked to social, political and cultural history. Many regimes, factions, and individuals have also spread propaganda and misinformation to manipulate others’ beliefs and ideals.
To develop systems of ideas and ideals in your world (and misinformation around them), ask:
- What are the dominant or most popular ideologies in this world, and why?
- What has led to the most popular ideologies having the hold they do over this world’s inhabitants?
- Who is revered or celebrated for the ideology they founded?
- Who is most skeptical about reigning ideologies, and why?
- Where are there safe spaces or alternative forums for honest, free discussion, free of institutional bias or repercussions?
- Where are the regions where specific ideologies or propaganda campaigns are strongest?
- When have there been ideological shifts in this world’s history, and what caused them (e.g., a change of leader, a new activist figure)?
- When has there been the most ideological conformity, versus the most division and opposition?
- Why have ideologies or propaganda been created and disseminated? What is their purpose?
- Why do specific ideologies or propaganda techniques resonate with or work for inhabitants of this world? What are their desires/fears?
🗣️ What is a category of world building you’d add to the above? Or a go to question you ask yourself when inventing secondary worlds? Let us know in the comments.
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6 replies on “300 world building questions for deeper settings”
Thank you for this encyclopedic post. Although it is geared towards fantasy-science fiction writing, much of this can be applied to other genres, including historical. Great material!
Hi Nara, thanks so much! I’m glad you find it useful. It goes to show that from ‘who, what, why, where and when’ so many useful brainstorming questions can be found, whatever the author’s genre. Thanks for sharing your feedback.
Thought-provoking article! This is certainly an area I plan to put more thought into during the editing process. I need quite a few unearthly intelligent creatures. Recently I had to think about “what would this world look like fast forward a thousand years.” If I start trying to define “intelligence,” I know I’ve gone too far and need to back away slowly from the rabbit hole 😀
Thank you, Margriet. I’m curious knowing your story a bit what it would look like, too. I refer to Bujold’s idea of ‘just-in-time’ worldbuilding you shared in another comment a lot, it seems to be working well for you. Rabbit holes are fun, though 🙂.
Amazingly useful. I will be bookmarking this for future use. Many thanks.
Hi Vivienne, thank you, I’m glad you found these world building questions useful. Thanks for bookmarking them and sharing your feedback.