World building is an important component of fantasy writing because your fantasy world must be grounded in a history and abide by certain rules in order to persuade your readers to suspend their disbelief when you bring in magic, fantastical beasts and other implausible elements. Below are some of the important questions to ask yourself when creating a fantasy world.
- Where is the story located? Is it a past, future or alternate Earth, or is it another planet or another dimension? Think, for example, of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the child character Lucy accidentally discovers a passage to a fantasy world while hiding in an old wardrobe. This allows for a parallel world where there are different rules, laws and power politics.
- Who are the main intelligent inhabitants of your fantasy world? Are humans the only intelligent species, or will there be creatures like dwarves, fairies, elves and more? Alternately, will there be species you’ve made up? C.S. Lewis in the above-mentioned series features talking animals who help the protagonists navigate the dangers of their new environment.
- What is the government system in the part of the world you’re focusing on? Is it a monarchy, a republic, a democracy, a dictatorship or something else? Are its internal workings clearly described or purposefully left hazy (as in the rule of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings) to create a sense of mystique or ominous tyranny?
- What is the rest of the world like? What types of government and inhabitants are there? What is the relationship between people you’re writing about and the rest of their world? Are they the dominant culture, or are they dominated? When you create a fantasy world, remember to include the types of societal difference we find ourselves, as this will add depth.
- What important historical events have led to the present situation? What wars, alliances and other situations are relevant?
- Technologically, how does the fantasy world compare to our world? Is it more or less advanced, or does it have a mix of technologies? When creating a fantasy world, use small technological details where appropriate to create a strong sense of your fictional place as a distinctive land.
- What is the standard of living for average people? How educated do they tend to be? What does “educated” mean in this world?
- Does magic exist in the world, and if so, how is it regarded, and who practises it?
- What are the most important values of the society that you are writing about? What type of religion do people practise?
- What is the class situation in the society you are focusing on? Does one gender or race tend to be favoured over another?
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When you create a fantasy world it needs to be extensive enough to create a plausible setting and background for your story, but it cannot substitute for the actual writing of your book. In other words, be careful that you don’t get so bogged down in or fascinated with your world-building that you neglect to actually write your book.
Create your fantasy universe – the Now Novel Story Builder asks additional questions that help you work through your ideas and create a blueprint for your story that is easy to build on.
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The books I enjoy the most rip me from the couch and drop me into an entirely new world. Suddenly, I’m an explorer, even though I’ve never felt the thrill of charting new territories; I’m scaling snowy mountaintops, even though I’d never even seen snow until I was ten, having grown up in Florida.
This guest post is byAmber Mitchell. Mitchell graduated from the University of South Florida with a BA in Creative Writing. She likes crazy hairstyles, reading, D&D, k-dramas, good puns, and great food. When she isn’t putting words on paper, she is using cardstock to craft 3D artwork, or exploring new places with her husband Brian. They live in a small town in Florida with their four cats, where she is still waiting for a madman in a blue box to show up on her doorstep. Amber’s first novel GARDEN OF THORNS released on March 6, 2017 with Entangled Publishing. You can follow her on Twitter @Amberinblunderl.
Because of my love of world building, I’ve always been drawn to the fantasy genre and knew I wanted to try writing a fantasy. But I found out very quickly that crafting a breathing, living world isn’t as easy as reading about one. Suddenly, I needed to know how long it would take to get from one city to the next on horseback. And how long could a horse travel at top speed in a day anyway? When the main character got to that next town, what does the architecture look like? What’s the hierarchy of authority?
It occurred to me then that I wasn’t just building a world where the main character lives, I was building a world where thousands of people exist. If I wanted to make my fantasy feel real, then I was going to have to understand what was going on beyond my main character’s point of view.
With that in mind, here are a few tips I’ve learned to help craft realistic fantasy worlds.
1. Not every world needs to be based off of the European Medieval period.
I love “classic” European-based fantasy, and the fashion of the medieval period fits so well with the epic fantasy feel. But I’ve found that selecting other cultures as a base for your fantasy world can really bring that fresh feeling to your fiction.
2. If you do decide to base your fantasy world off a certain culture, do your research.
This is such an important detail. I know it’s tempting to start writing after plotting and creating characters, but researching about the culture and time period you’ve selected will allow you to pick the most important aspects to add. Research far and wide, even though you’ll only end up keeping about 10% of what you find. If you’ve done your homework, it’ll show in the informed decisions you make while writing and will make your world feel unique.
[Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing: How to Build Fantastic Worlds]
3. Say “yes” to yourself.
This is one I had a lot of trouble with in the beginning. It’s hard to trust your gut, but the worst that can happen when you’re writing a fantasy is to get too bogged down in the details. If you find that to be the case, you can edit them out. Better to have many details that you can par down than to have a bare and unimaginative world.
4. Only keep your best ideas.
This one might be in contradiction with the last tip, but it’s really important, too. If you’ve said yes to everything about your world that’s popped into your head, the likelihood of your story being long and reading slow is pretty strong. But now you have so many details to work with. Use the details to craft multiple sentences of the same topic, describing details in different ways. Half of my first drafts are sentences written over and over again describing things differently. It’s easier to shape your favorites after you’ve done the hard work of thinking them up.
5. Give your world a history.
Take the time to go through your world’s backstory, per se. Even if you don’t know who first decided to cultivate the land your bustling main city is on now, make sure there are at least rumors on how the people think their world was created. Nothing is worse than reading about a setting that feels like it just sprang to life because the main character came there. Know the history so you know what shaped your character’s minds—even if you only use a fraction of it.
6. Keep it simple.
Above all, simplicity is always the right choice. If you have to bend over backwards to explain something, it probably doesn’t need to be in your manuscript. If you need to drink an entire mug of coffee to interpret or discuss your world’s over-complicated magic system, you should rethink things. Chances are that the simplest answers are often the strongest, and these details will make your world crystal clear to the reader.
Fantasy novels demand lush worlds. Readers want to discover the world you’ve created as much as they want to meet your new characters. Crafting a world that feels unique isn’t always easy, but if you do it correctly, every place on the page will feel like its own character. And who knows, you might even get readers to say a swear word you created or utter nox when turning out the lights after finishing their new favorite book.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.
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