top of page

Worldbuilding with Martha Wells

Guest posts for the Ways into Worldbuilding series will appear most Wednesdays through early November. Today I welcome one of my favorite authors to the site: Martha Wells.


Martha Wells has written many fantasy novels, including the Books of the Raksura series (beginning with The Cloud Roads), the Ile-Rien series (including the nebula-nominated The Death of the Necromancer) as well as YA fantasies, short stories, media tie-ins, and nonfiction.

Aside from reader expectations, why do you build worlds? Is it more of an obligation than a pleasure? If the latter, what is enjoyable or rewarding about this aspect?

I enjoy it, and it’s one of my favorite parts of developing a story.  I like coming up with the details, and exploring how the world has affected my characters, and how it can determine the direction and feel of the story.  I find it rewarding to come up with something that feels true and consistent no matter how fantastic or far out it is.

How important is worldbuilding in your stories? Is it a goal for you to create an innovative world, or do you favor having the milieu sit more comfortably in the background?

I find it pretty important, and I try to make as much use of it in my fantasy as possible, since it’s something I enjoy a lot in the books and stories I read.  I try to use it to shape the story and develop the characters.

I like to try to create an innovative world, but I also feel it should be fairly transparent to the reader.  Getting across what is unique and interesting in your world without weighing down the pacing or plot is important to me, and it’s something that I think takes a lot of experience and practice, and reading other authors who do it really well.

Do you apply any sort of process to worldbuilding? How does a coherent world emerge in your work?

I don’t really have a set process.  For me, the characters and the world come to life together.  The characters are shaped by their world, in their physical attributes, their goals, their problems, what they have to do to survive. So while I’m developing the main characters, I’m building the world, and I add more detail as the plot goes along.

Describe a milieu from one your works, and the aspects you found most rewarding. Which ones did readers comment on the most?

In The Books of the Raksura series (the first book is The Cloud Roads) the setting is the Three Worlds, a vast landscape that the reader (and the writer to a large extent) is discovering along with the characters.  There are a large number of sentient species, none of them human, occupying the ground, sky, and water.  Many of them have different levels of technology, often based on biological or magical processes, or combinations of both.  The characters encounter many remnants of vanished or scattered civilizations, and stories and evidence of past cataclysmic wars.

The two elements that readers have mentioned the most are that none of the characters are human, and that the world feels so big and so limitless.

What kind of worldbuilding tropes are you tired of? Please share a couple of worlds that have especially impressed you. (Please take Kenyon novels out of the running on this one.)

I’m tired of worlds based on medieval Europe that are extremely grim where everything’s cold and hopeless and violent, though I’ve seen a lot of them that were written extremely well and were very compelling.  I think at this point in my life I just want to see more worlds that are hopeful.  (And warm.)

Two worlds lately that have really impressed me are:  the setting of Kai Ashante Wilson’s The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps and A Taste of Honey.  At first it seems to be a vibrant, original fantasy world, then the science fiction elements start to come into focus and that just makes it even more exciting.


Also, The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord, which is a really intriguing SF journey across a planet populated by different groups who have come to it for refuge.

Any peeks you’re willing to disclose about your next world or what we might learn about the milieu in your next story?

In The Harbors of the Sun, the last in the Books of the Raksura series, the setting includes a place that’s been mentioned a lot but hadn’t been seen yet.  That’s Kish Karad, the capital of the Empire of Kish.


The Edge of Worlds at and at Barnes and Noble.

About this post. Ways into Worldbuilding is a series of interviews I conducted in the summer of 2016 with SFF writers, asking about their opinion on, and approach to, creating fictional worlds. Watch this space for upcoming interviews with Kris Rusch, Django Wexler, Louise Marley, Tananarive Due and more amazing writers!

Previous interview: L.E. Modesitt, Jr., August 31.

Next interview: Kristine Kathryn Rusch, September 21


bottom of page