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.

This class helped me improve in all ways of fictitious storytelling. Neil Gaiman is truly a great teacher.

This class helped push me when I didn't know which direction to go. It provided insight and guidance when I was lost in my writing journey. Advice I had heard before and advice I hadn't heard. It gave me a new perspective on things and I'm so very glad I've taken this class.

In the details, especially with dialogue. I am so privileged to have this opportunity

Sometimes you just need a magic man to show you what you have and tell you what to do with those things to make something wonderful, if you also have the courage to do so.


Comments

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.

Lisa

Worldbuilding is where I'm getting hung up on my novel. It's set in places I'm familiar with, but in a different time period. So I'm struggling to determine just how much of the world I need to show in order to make sure the reader is aware of the difference in time period. Definitely going to ponder more on the compost metaphor, showing rather than telling, and the idea that the majority of the world is a blur in the background.

shirin K.

This was most helpful, thank you Neil, and for the robust workbook that accompanies this course.

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.