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.

Absolutely brilliant. Neil has such an engaging voice and personality. It felt like we were sitting in the library having a cup of tea with each other. The one thing that really stood out to me was his recitation of his short story about the genie. That was such a beautiful story, and I'd never heard it before, so thank you.

I love Neil, I met him once and he is very inspiring, so this was the icing on the cake. Everything he talked about was rich and thoughtful. I would love another class by him. Thank you

Neil Gaiman's class was very inspiring and helpful. He is like a kind and imaginative big brother who invites you to join him in creating fantastic stories. It's not that he makes it seem easy, but that he makes it seem possible.

I have never finished anything I started before I took this class. The most important thing I learned is how to finish a story. Priceless.


Comments

Cindy

My current wip is an epic fantasy - and worldbuilding is the most important part of its creation. I know the characters, I know some of the events that need to happen, but had to start a notebook filled with the rules that govern not only society, but nature in this world as well. Since I tend to write without an outline (just the big events in my head), this notebook of rules is vital!

Nolan H.

This class has made me think of new ideas of writing. I can look at my characters and use their mistakes to help explain the worlds I write better.

Rachel M.

Thank you for saying it's okay to shelve ideas until you've learned more as a writer. I only just wrote a book I came up with ten years ago. The world I created for that was a forest that was half-dead because the creatures looking after it were being hunted. So the leaves are brown and shriveled, but unable to fall, and while there is air, the wind is not blowing, and because the sky is always clouded, there is no sun or stars or moon to give it light. I thought of it as what a forest would be like if there were no animals, not even crickets at night. Very quiet, very empty, very still.

Linda L.

I'm working on a book now in a future world. It's both fun and a struggle. So many details to sort out and get straight!

Devon F.

Karen Russel, an author, had explained once how she learned the lesson of laws and rules within created worlds as she wrote her story, Swamplandia. I won't get too deeply into it, but it was the first thing I thought of when Mr. Gaiman discussed the same principle. Rules must exist; parameters must be defined. For me, comics from Marvel and DC suffer at times with this paradigm as many new authors consistently bend and change the rules and laws that act as foundations for their respective worlds. It's a solid lesson to bear in mind.

Andrea P.

I enjoyed this lesson. But I do wonder, it is always necessary to build a new world?

A fellow student

World building is my favorite part of writing. Listening to this lesson has set a fire in me. Thank you Neil.

Teya

Love this. Take reality and make it fiction. I knew this but the way he explains it is understandable in a simple but deep way. These are all such amazing lessons. I feel like a sponge.

Ian C.

Worldbuilding ideas were incredibly helpful Neil. Thanks. I got an idea from what you said about letting the rules sort themsleves out. The rules of the world where my novel takes place - rules of fantasy where you can make uop any rules. Love it. Thanks enormously.

Farhad S.

"The idea is so much better than I am a writer" Great to know even Neil went through a phase like this. I feel like this all the time while I'm writing.