Writing

Worldbuilding

Neil Gaiman

Lesson time 23:05 min

Learn Neil’s philosophy of worldbuilding, including how to create compelling and believable settings for your novel, and how to avoid the common pitfalls many inexperienced writers make.

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Neil Gaiman
Teaches the Art of Storytelling
In his first-ever online class, Neil Gaiman teaches you how he conjures up new ideas, convincing characters, and vivid fictional worlds.
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I think that the joy of worldbuilding in fiction is honestly the joy of getting to play god. Because as an author, you get to build the world. Some authors do it a little more invisibly than others. In the same way, as far as I'm concerned, all fiction is fantasy. It is all made up. You are creating people who didn't exist or didn't exist like that, and putting them into situations that they were never in, making them say things they never said. It is an act of magical creation to do that. When you're starting out as a young writer, especially a young writer wanting to explore the fantastic, wanting to create places that are not, the urge, which you should always try and push back against, the urge is to take places from fiction. You know, it's the urge, the fan fiction urge. And fan fiction is great in its place, but if you are going to be a young writer and you are going to want to create a world, you do not want a world that you borrowed from Tolkien. What you want to do is look at the world outside. Look at the world outside your window. Get out there onto the streets. Look at places. Think about the places that you've been, and then change them. Make them bigger. Make them smaller. If you're somebody who's only ever been to school and you think you have nothing to write about except school, what would that school be like if it covered an entire city? What would that school be like if it was an island? What would that school be like if it was floating in the sky, and people only got to visit it dragged on the backs of enormous birds? How do you get into that school? That gives you a place, but it gives you a place grounded in realism. Because the moment that you start describing a school, if you know a school, you know the things that make schools weird and unusual. The smell of cooking cabbage, or the smell of sports clothes unwashed in lockers. You know what that place is. You know what kinds of people are there. Every little detail that you can steal from the world and smuggle with you into your fiction is something that makes your world more real for your reader. But much more important, it makes it more real for you. You need to be the one who believes in your story. You need to be able to believe in your places. If you are building a world, you have to care about the world. And sometimes, you're also going to have to stop and ask yourself weird questions. Even if those questions are not answered in the text, it's always good for you to know. Where do these people go to the toilet? Where do they get their food from? How much food does it take to feed a small city? How much farm land? Where are these farms? Where does the food come from? Where does it come in? And suddenly, you're asking yourself questions that it's good for you to know, even if you don't want ever to turn your book into a treatise on medieval economics. If you're writing something set in medieval times, do your homework. Go and look at pla...


Unleash your imagination

Award-winning author Neil Gaiman has spent more than a quarter of a century crafting vivid, absorbing fiction. Now, the author of Stardust, Coraline, and The Sandman teaches his approach to imaginative storytelling in his online writing class. Learn how to find your unique voice, develop original ideas, and breathe life into your characters. Discover Neil’s philosophy on what drives a story—and open new windows to the stories inside you.



Reviews

4.7
Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

I haven't even finished listening to all of Gaiman's class yet, and it's worth every penny. His insight is priceless!

This has been a superbly intimate course - Mr. Gaiman is a wonderfully warm and generous teacher, and I've learned a great deal.

Just 3 episodes in and I am hooked. It's like reading a bestselling writers manual. Much wisdom. Mr. Gaiman is honest and vulnerable.

Thank you very much, Mr. Gaiman for sharing it!


Comments

Sarah B.

I just realized that the Wikipedia entry about a city or country provides a great outline for the kinds of info you want in your "background": Demographics, transportation, money, etc. And a travel guide.

Sam

This really got my mind going, especially when you started giving examples of different kinds of schools. And I like how you mentioned 'the idea being better than the writer'. I have this idea of my own that I started to write until I realized the same thing. I need to become a better writer before I can begin to work on this novel.

Anne K.

I loved this class. I got so many ideas about places I've visited that I could incorporate into my story. It makes my writing feel more vibrant somehow.

Jay M.

THIS IS A GREAT CLASS - NEIL IS QUITE PRACTICAL AND I'VE LEARNED SO MUCH - THANKS.

A fellow student

Smuggle in enough reality to make the fantastic realistic. How about The Handbook on Trial and Error? It's divided up into four sections: 1. The Givens, 2. The Unusuals, 3. The Rarities, and 4. The Unexplained. Your own personal GURU for navigating your new world.

William D.

Love this class - So practical; so honest. So much respect for this man. He gives so much to his student so that they can in turn, carry on the long tradition of mastering storytelling - Some never get there, some do. He gives so many tools to build worlds

laura J.

I love this class, it like hot chocolate with whip cream, just feels comfortable as the right way of spending my time creating new thoughts to write about.

Vivian H.

One of my favorites. As a child I cared not for the so called real world, so I began very early on creating my own worlds and characters. There I would find freindship, love, care and belonging. There, much later, I learned that all along I could fly.

Debbie J.

I've always been fascinated with world building and remain completely in awe of how masterfully Tolkien was able to do it. I've always wanted to do it, myself...Have always had so many ideas in my mind about how my worlds might look....but I've always been so intimidated and overwhelmed by the process. Neil Gaiman describes his process in a way that makes sense to me and makes me think that I just might finally be able to do this thing.

Alexandria S.

World building seems to me one of the fun things to do. However, I never fully understood it until I heard Neil talking about it in a way that I could understand. I did create some worlds in the past, and sometimes they would be in short sentences. Here is an example of one: The clouds she stood on were pink and glowing. Looking to her left, she spotted a small pond trickling sky blue water, shells of purple and green laced almost in a pattern. To her right, there was only the sky, filled with various colors almost like an aurora borealis.