Science fiction and fantasy rely heavily on placing the reader in a world that envelopes them like a warm blanket. That blanket might be a comforting hug from Hermione or the backblast of covering fire from a Gauss gun. It’s the responsibility of the author to craft a world that follows its own rules and is layered with fascinating details that draw us in the further we go along.
Lucky for us (or unfortunately for us, depending on how easily you can be sucked into a procrastinating black hole of interesting and fun points of data) there are lots of tools that can help an author to flesh out a complete world, from a medieval tavern to an unexplored star system that is scientifically accurate.
What follows is an eclectic list of some tools I’ve used on occasion or have heard other authors mention in a positive light. I would recommend you poke through and see what interests you and go from there. Don’t dive in and spend all of your writing time playing with your new toys. Also, some items cost real-world money, which I’ve tried to point out. I would suggest trying one at a time to see which tools have what you need instead of splurging on all of them at once…unless you’re rich. In that case, please buy a million copies of my books.
Free to monthly/annual membership. Geared towards authors and RPG gamemasters. Has a huge amount of tools available and is well regarded.
Reddit’s Wordbuilding resources. For a list of convenient resources look here: https://www.reddit.com/r/worldbuilding/wiki/reading_list
Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions By Patricia C. Wrede (Free)
Hosted by SFWA, this is a nice black hole you can get buried in. It covers plenty of questions folks don’t consider when building a world like economics and ethics.
Kitty Chandler gives Patricia a run for her money when it comes to things to consider when constructing a world. This is another wormhole-infested land where your time will disappear faster than free dollar bills. To make things even more tempting…
Belinda Crawford went ahead and assembled a giant Scrivener file and a template for free based on Kitty’s Worldbuilding Leviathan.
Someone thought it would be cool to do a NaNoWriMo-style 30-days of worldbuilding hell, so this is the place to go to focus on one item a day for a month.
https://onestopforwriters.com/ (Free + Paid)
They have a very limited free plan, but it may be worth nine bucks for all of the additional thesaurus and generators they offer.
Wonder what a trope involves? This is the place to check. There are more tropes than you can fit into one novel. I dare you.
Dealing with ancient languages? Why not include some realism by using them correctly.
Looking to add some myths and legends? Here’s some interesting ideas for you to build upon.
Interesting generators when you’re stuck on something (curses, a character, a place). Useful to get over writer’s block and occasionally funny.
Steve Savage put together a wide selection of generators from Power Princess to Technology to Writing.
Got an idea for a generator? Make your own and post it here for free. There are plenty of writing related versions available as well as pirate name generators and Guy Fieri menu item generators.
Need a name for that janitor who gives the hero a clue? Here is a collection of name generators for things from Twitter to science fiction.
Impressive old-school generator system that can generate a complete tavern, including rumors and complete list of inhabitants in seconds. More into science fiction? Try the SF Random Generator and get ten different ideas for a cyberpunk job or the star system generator.
Need a name? They have 1,200 generators available. Watch out for carpal tunnel from clicking your mouse too often.
I like that they have names for old west writers. Plenty of generators, from businesses to crimes someone committed to what a city block looks like.
Planets & Star Systems
StarGen is ugly as sin, reminding me of my GeoCities days, but as an online tool it can give you some exceptional scientifically accurate star systems that can support life. Great for those interstellar Browncoats folks who fly under the radar.
From the Charter College of Education, California State University in Los Angeles comes this science-based educational site that can help you with geology and what creatures populated our planet. This can assist you should you have a ship land on a primordial rocky planet in the Goldilocks zone.
Universe Sandbox 2 allows you to modify solar systems like ours to see what would happen. Running out of room on Earth? Double the size!
The first stop for inspiration should be The Cartographer’s Guild. This is a gathering place for all things that map enthusiasts love, from fantasy to science fiction to real maps from ancient times to contemporary. Like paintings, there are some that will take your breath away.
https://www.profantasy.com/default.asp ($99 – $620)
This map generator ain’t cheap, but you get what you pay for. The maps go far beyond the usual pretty bumps for mountains and Tolkienesque trees. The images are excellent and professional quality.
Fractal Mapper 8 now includes Fractal Mapper Explorer. You can create everything from continents to starship deckplans.
Watabou’s free medieval fantasy city and town generator. Spin a map, edit it, then you can have a map to ground your characters.
3D Worlds & Visual Landscapes
https://www.daz3d.com/bryce-7-pro ($19.95, has add-ons available)
You can make beautiful landscapes to look at and explore, or create one with fractals and use it as a reference point for describing what your characters see as they explore that new planet.
https://www.daz3d.com/ (Free, has paid and free add-ons available)
Since Bryce is related to Daz3D, I’ll mention that it’s free for download and use. It’s similar to Poser, and quite useful if you want to make realistic book covers using CGI. They do make their money by selling add-ons like space ships and figures. It has quite a learning curve, and you should seriously consider whether you should be rendering pretty pictures or writing words.
Hopefully I haven’t distracted you from writing for the next two years. Remember, worldbuilding should support the story and not be used as a means unto itself. Build your world a little at a time as you go along, making sure to write it all down in a logical sense (a story bible or a world wiki are two useful methods). There’s no reason for you to worldbuild what’s happening in a cave on the other side of the continent unless it will directly involve your characters.