The delight (and bane) of writing fantasy is world building. As well as writing the story, the author must also become a tour guide, knowledgeable in the environment, people, cultures, and much more. Alongside the book, there will be hundreds of notes compiling the equivalent of a Lonely Planet guide to your fantasy realm.
How do you make up everything and make it into something believable?
The four questions I ask myself when working on any aspect of world building are:
1. How will this affect other aspects of the world I am creating?
It is unwise to look at a single aspect of your world building and think there will be no knock-on effects in other areas. One example could be in creating a religion where the people worship a single goddess. It is likely they will emulate this by creating a matriarchal society. Women would have rights and hold more powerful roles compared to men. Belittling insults would be aimed at their status rather than their sex, and women’s clothing would have pockets!
2. How will this affect the behaviours of my characters?
Your characters are likely to have lived in this land their entire lives. Their parents and maybe their ancestors did. The culture is ingrained in them, so they need to feel as if they are a part of it. This could simply be how a character dresses depending on the climate. They may also dress in a certain way, fitting to their social status. Or they could be a trendsetter and those around them copy their style.
3. How might this create conflict within the story?
Conflict adds interest. The unpredictable weather may cause a poor harvest and lead to starvation. A character may be forced to do something which is against the law and as a result they are exiled.
4. Does this actually need to go into the book?
Mostly, the answer is no. This feels a bit of a letdown when you spend ages creating a magic system. There is no need to bore your readers with explicit details, but you must give them enough to understand. However, if it is crucial to the plot, then detail will be required. Personally, I like to have the reader learn alongside one of the character’s POV. For example, learning the histories of the land through tales by the fireside with a friend or mentor.
Make it believable
To make your world building believable, it has to make sense to the reader. Let’s say I’ve created a medieval fantasy realm, but then I add jet planes into the mix of swords and spears in warfare. It’s immediately jarring to the reader because it makes little sense. For a society to create planes similar to what we see in our modern-day then technological advances would have happened elsewhere. To have any chance of making this work, you need to find a plausible reason how ancient and modern warfare mix and show this to the reader. The video game Horizon does a great job of believably blending technology into a primitive setting.
Keep it flexible
World building, once complete, doesn’t have to remain set in stone. Natural disasters can change the landscape. Monarchies can be overthrown. Fashion tastes can quickly change. The main character in your story might save the day and their deeds become so renowned that in the next book in the series it’s noted that their name is now the number one baby name in the realm.
Where to find inspiration
Inspiration can come from the unlikeliest of places. I have a keen interest in history and geography, which has helped my world building. I’ve also worked internationally and experienced other cultures. We can also find inspiration in the fantasy works of others, and the mythology in the fairytales we have grown up with.
I set one of my stories in a medieval fantasy realm and I took a lot of inspiration from reading history books from that era and back to Roman times. Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England is a good starting point and written for the tourist visiting for the first time. There are even more specific resources, such as ORBIS which is basically google maps for the Roman era and gives details of travel times to various places in the empire. As someone who had absolutely no idea how long it would take to get from A to B via horseback or marching with a laden army, this has been invaluable for gauging distances and travel times. This also ties in with mapmaking, but that is its own world building rabbit hole, which I will undoubtedly write about later.
I also find inspiration in the landscape. It is easier to write what you know, and I’ve often picked a well-beloved spot and made a version in my story.
Where to start?
You know your own writing method and I won’t say my method is the right one. I am a pantser and there are plotters and there are those who do a bit of both. Whatever works for you, keep doing it. Personally, I will first look into the areas of world building that are key to the plot and what is most important to the main characters. Being a pantser, I begin with the bare bones in my head and flesh them out as I write the novel. Plotters are likely to put in a lot of detail in their notes before they write. Both ways are fine. As a pantser, I would say it is prudent to take stock at regular intervals to ensure the structure holds and everything continues to make sense. For plotters, don’t be afraid to make changes along the way if parts of your world building don’t feel like they’re working.
Lastly, Listen to your beta readers!
Great beta readers are invaluable. They will tell you what works and what doesn’t work in your world building.
How do you tackle world building in your writing?