Defining Thought | Describing Creation | Telling Stories | Illustrating Concepts

Let’s Talk World Building, Bottom-up or Top-Down?


As many of you already know Visual Adjectives is working on an anthology of Fantasy stories and we are looking for submissions. There are many of you out there who have the talent to write a fantasy story, but you may not be sure how to start. Let’s start at one of the basics, World Building. What is it and how does one do it?

The definition of world building is – the process of constructing an imaginary world that is coherent and consistent. Basically you are constructing an imaginary world with “coherent qualities such as a history, geography, and ecology.” (Wikipedia) You need people, maps, and a back story.

There are a couple of different approaches to creating your own world. These are Top-down, and Bottom-up.

Top-down – the designer uses an overview approach of the world. The description of the world, or overview, being created is broad. The reader is immediately introduced to the world’s basic characteristics such as, climate, technology, history, geography, politics, cities, nations, civilizations, and towns. This approach allows the story to be well-integrated, but it is very time-consuming for the author. An example of this approach is from Robert Jordan’s A Memory of Light from his Wheel of Time series.

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.

Eastward the wind blew, descending from lofty mountains and coursing over desolate hills.  It passed into the place known as the Westwood, an area that had once flourished with pine and leatherleaf. Here, the wind found little more than tangled underbrush, thick save around an occasional towering oak.  Those looked stricken by disease, bark peeling free, branches drooping. Elsewhere needles had fallen from pines, draping the ground in a brown blanket.  None of the skeletal branches of the Westwood put forth buds.

North and eastward the wind blew, across underbrush that crunched and cracked as it shook.  It was night, and scrawny foxes picked over the rotting ground, searching in vain for prey or carrion. No spring birds had come to call, and—most telling—the howls of wolves had gone silent across the land. (Robert Jordan Memory of Light, Wheel of time.) 

As you read you get a sense of the entire world of the story before you. It is broad and descriptive. This gives you a full sense of the land in which the characters are living.

If you take this approach, start by drawing a map of the entire world or land you are creating, then add the details of your world as you work on your story.

Bottom-up – the designer begins with a focus on a small element or part of the world while defining it as the characters journey through it. “This approach provides for almost immediate applicability of the setting, with details pertinent to a certain story or situation” (Wikipedia)

A good example of the Bottom-up approach is chapter one of The Belgariad by David Eddings

The first thing the boy Garion remembered was the kitchen at Faldor’s farm. For all the rest of his life he had a special warm feeling for kitchens and those peculiar sounds and smells that seemed somehow to combine into a bustling seriousness that had to do with love and food and comfort and security and, above all, home. No matter how high Garion rose in life, he never forgot that all his memories began in that kitchen.

The kitchen at Faldor’s farm was a large, low-beamed room filled with ovens and kettles and great spits that turned slowly in cavernlike arched fireplaces. There were long, heavy worktables where bread was kneaded into loaves and chickens were cut up and carrots and celery were diced with quick, crisp rocking movements of long, curved knives. When Garion was very small, he played under those tables and soon learned to keep his fingers and toes out from under the feet of the kitchen helpers who worked around them. And sometimes in the late afternoon when he grew tired, he would lie in a corner and stare into one of the flickering fires that gleamed and reflected back from the hundred polished pots and knives and long-handled spoons that hung from pegs along the whitewashed walls and, all bemused, he would drift off into sleep in perfect peace and harmony with all the world around him. (Guardians of the West by David Eddings)

As you read David Eddings’ book, the world unfurls before you and you get to know the geography, climate, politics, and characters on the journey as they live it.

If you choose this approach, draw a map of only the area of which your story begins adding in the details, then work your way into drawing the rest of the world and a larger scale map later on.

To put in plainly Top-Down is bigger to smaller. Bottom-Up is smaller to bigger.

The thing to do is write your best ideas first before worrying about the approaches in which to write. Make sure you have a clear idea of the world you are creating then allow your creativity to flow. If you have fleshed out your ideas of how your world should look with its geography, history, politics, and people, then your story will be a lot easier to finish. Read what you have written to determine which of these approaches works best for you and your voice.

I hope this information helps, can’t wait to read your stories!



Map from the Phantom TollBooth by


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