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Building a Fantasy World February 2, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Fantasy, Novel, On Writing.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

I haven’t really done many posts on the fantasy side of writing so far, so I thought I’d start one few.  This first one is about building fantasy worlds, and the next two will also be related.  I’m no expert on this, so it’s really just my own personal opinion and knowledge from things I’ve read.

fantasy-world-2The importance of world building

If you are writing a fantasy novel (as I am), you simply cannot afford to skip this step.  You can have the greatest story ever imagined, but it won’t work if you don’t have a world for it to take place in.

As fantasy stories tend to take place in worlds different to ours, it’s particularly important that the parameters of a writer’s fantasy world are clearly defined before the actual writing commences.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be the very first thing you do – you can create your characters or develop your plot first – but you will have to at least have a fair idea of how your fantasy world operates before you begin.  There are several reasons for this.  First, the world can shape your characters and your plot by putting everything in perspective.  Your characters’ motives or the plot you’ve planned might not make sense in the wrong context.  Second, it can help you visually imagine your scenes better when you write.  Third, your writing will flow a lot smoother if you don’t have to stop every two minutes to think about the characteristics of your world to ensure things still make sense.

Some common things in your fantasy world to figure out may include:

  • Races
  • Geography
  • History
  • Fauna and Flora
  • Food
  • Political/Economic Structure
  • Religion
  • Magic
  • Technology
  • Weapons
  • Architecture
  • Languages
  • Culture

The list goes on and on.  There’s no limit to how extensive your world building can be.

Use your imagination

This is the best time to let your imagination fly.  As long as it’s not too stupid, give it a shot.  If your friends laugh at the idea, then it might be good to think of something else.  Try and think outside the box – everyone will tend to stick to things they know or seen or read before.  There’s nothing wrong with cliches if you can pull it off, but the best way to distinguish your world from the ones that have already been done to death is to make it unique.  It doesn’t need to be revolutionary; it could be subtle differences – as long as it makes an impression on the reader you’ve succeeded.

You don’t need to tell the reader every facet of your world in your novel – it is really more for your own benefit than anything else.  Fantasy novels no longer start with the Tolkien-style prologue that explains the whole world to the reader before the story begins.  You can try, but most authors prefer to leak details of the world bit by bit to their readers to keep things interesting.  There’s no need to reveal the mundane details of everyday life in the world – stick to descriptions that are necessary to keep the story moving along.

It should also be pointed out that there is nothing wrong with continuing to develop your world as you write, to refine and add more detail to it, as long as it does not contradict what you’ve already written or the rest of the story.

fantasy-world-1My experience

Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is usually always the starting point for fantasy worlds.  There’s nothing wrong with starting from there and then build in unique characteristics to make your own world unique.

For me, my starting point was some old RPG video games I played as a kid (which, not surprisingly, featured plenty of elements from Tolkien’s world).  It was something that had been done a million times before, but it didn’t stop me from thinking it was an awesome story.  But as I started exploring this world, the story began taking its own shape.  Thing started to evolve.  I changed a few of the races to make it more interesting; I changed the characteristics and culture of the existing races; I changed the interaction and history between the races.  Before I knew it, the story was taking a life of its own.  I then started developing religions, and created an entire history of the world, including a detailed time line.  I began researching weapons and mythical creatures, architecture, horticulture – I just took myself on a journey into the fantasy world I created.  And it was extremely fun.

By the time I was done, nothing was the same as I had originally envisioned it (in a good way).  Now when I write the novel, the visual images just appear in my mind.  I no longer have to stuggle to imagine what the world looks like.  It’s made my writing a lot smoother and easier.

Lastly, just two words of advice.

First, don’t get too carried away with the world building or else you’ll never start writing.  Try and stick with the things that will affect the story that is being told in your novel.

Second, be as imaginative as you want, but still try and keep things inherently logical and coherent.  Readers can only suspend belief if you make it possible for them to do so.  You will turn them off your story if your world is contradictory or doesn’t make sense as a matter of logic.


There a lot of different resources on fantasy world building out there that explain things a lot better than I can.

‘Creating a Realistic Fantasy World’ by Penny Ehrenkranz is a good starting point for those who want to read more about this subject.

Comprehensive Q&A from the SFWA on Fantasy Worldbuilding by Patricia C Wrede.

Article from SFWA on Building New Worlds by Stephen Baxter.

Magical World Builder by Stephanie Cottrell Bryant.

The world building page from the excellent Elfwood Tutorials by Michael James Liljenberg.

From the master herself, Creating the Fantasy World by Sara Douglass.

A couple of articles on fantasy world building from Fantasy Fiction Factor (the online magazine for fantasy writers) – World Building for Science Fiction and Fantasy by Tina Morgan and World Building 101 by Lee Masterston

Other links: Fantasy Worldbuilding Resources site (including recommended books).

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