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Writing

Worldbuilding

Neil Gaiman

Lesson time 23:00 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.

Neil Gaiman was clear in his advice. I honestly expected him to be a little out there, but he seemed really grounded. He is a master!

Have never written yet but been collecting ideas for 68 years. Mr./Professor/Maestro Gaiman with this Master Class has given me permission to start. I know I can do so. He tells us not only how to tell stories, but why. Thank you.

snapshots of information and inspiration. I have already begun to integrate what I am learning into my sermon writing . . .

Really well done. I watched all the lessons first. Then I intend to go through it again using the workbook. Thanks


Comments

Jennifer R.

I've been working on this same novel for years so I understand what he means about coming back to it. But how long can you put if off? You're never going to know when you're going to be good enough to write it until you write it. I stopped writing this novel and I wasn't going to bother finishing it until recently when I thought I'm going to do it. I need to finish something.

Liz L.

This makes sense about starting a story and then putting it away for a while. I started a story 27 years ago and have been working on it off and on since. Just this year picking it up again, I have all new ideas and plan to change much of the story. Not the main plot, but putting together all the details or pieces that bring the main plot together.

Liz C.

Now I don't feel so bad about one of my stories, taking so long to get the picture together, and taking so long to finally write the story.

Matt S.

I feel like what Neil says about little details lending credibility is along the same lines of what Peter Jackson said about making the hobbits seem smaller than everyone else. If he could just get a few convincing shots off the audience would buy everything else.

A fellow student

I agree with everything Neil Gaiman said in this. We should go to those places we want to write about. Louis L'Amour would have agreed with Neil Gaiman as he had said something similar in the 1980s. He said that its like being a forensic scientist. You won't know what's going on unless you go there and look around. But here's the problem. What if you can't go? What do you do? As I thought about it, I remembered a story about an author who wanted to write about Eastern Europe. The problem for him was that he couldn't go. So what did he do? He went to the library and poured over maps, encyclopedias, and other documents about Eastern Europe. That research along with his imagination allowed him to write his novel. Now this might feel voyeuristic in terms of research, but fans of Bram Stoker's Dracula would disagree. In fact, many of his fans believed that he visited Transylvania. After all, how could he write about it with such vivid detail? They were surprised to learn that he had never been. That was over a hundred years ago and today we have the technology to instantly gather information. Programs like Google Earth can even take us on a virtual tour of those places. True, that is not the same as actually going to where you want to write about, and we should visit those places if and when possible. We can't always do that though, and we shouldn't allow that to stop us when writing. So make use of the Internet. Download Google Earth. See if there are pictures of those places on Pinterest or Instagram. Don't let your inability to travel stop you.

A fellow student

Hello. i am encountering an issue. I can hear Mr. Gaiman (very clearly). However, I cannot see the video. Please help.

Abby

Writing everything l know about a world l am building even if l don't include all i know immediately and allow the characters to discover the rules of this world. The last bit draws my attention to how much influence what l read interact in my writings. I haven't paid attention to that, I just thought I gravitate to what l will like to write and it reflects in what l read.

Jack W.

Since Covid-19 I've been taking the time to complete this little present of Mr. Gaiman's work. I've also been taking a deep dive listening to the Barsoom books of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I'm on book 3 now and one of the things I've gleaned is that explicit worldbuilding mostly informs setting- of course, it identifies character, but mostly it's focused on setting. However, what is mostly focused on character are the implicit worldbuilding pieces. What creates conflict and depth between Dejah Thoris and John Carter are his misunderstandings of the courtly love of the Red Martians.

A fellow student

I was creating a dnd campaign. But I had no idea how to make the world it would take place in. I really wanted to make it my own, but I didn't know how to make the world for it. I considered buying a module, and almost did, but then I saw this. So, I looked out my window. I saw tons of snow(I'm in Wyoming) and thought up of a great story about an endless winter, but with a twist. The winter was only confined to 1 area, a pocket universe being controlled by archmage of the country of Dagoramathis, which is full of creatures, who are still alive, but their personality got taken away. Thank You Neil!

Thiago C.

I just need to say "thank you" for this class. I wrote my first novel and now I am dealing with the publishers' rejection. I thought there was something really bad about it: it is a Greek-mythology-based Fantasy story with a Dieselpunk twist. Too much for the head, I thought. After a lot of "nos" from the publishers, I considered re-writing the story with no fantasy at all. I would just leave the common issues, that everyone has to deal with on a regular world life. Neil's class just saved me from doing that. I want my book to be Fantasy. I want the Greek-mythology elements so I can tease the reader with some underlying philosophy, without people noticing that they are philosophying as they read. My story would be flat and boring without those elements. So, thanks, Neil. You just saved me. Building an original world just felt great. And I should not regret it.