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Building Worlds in Fantasy Fiction

People get up in the morning, eat food, do things and go to sleep. This all happens in our physical world. What does that world look like? It might be assumed that a story set in Cape Town or New Your or Beijing of today requires little or no detailed descriptions. Writers can draw on actual buildings, customs and politics. Yet, all stories benefit from descriptions of the world where they occur. Some readers may have never been to Beijing and others might remember or imagine it in a far different way than the author intended. Novels that take place in worlds that readers can envision engage readers better and make the stories memorable.

When authors set their tales in a world of fantasy and magic, the details must be created. This is world building. The story might be set in contemporary times, such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Yet, the elements of magic and the settings of Hogwarts are all creations of the author. There is no actual school of magic and wizardry, nor are there dragons and unicorns. The books draw on many established concepts such as castles and fantastic beasts, yet the details had to be shaped by the author to engage readers.

Fantasy stories can be set in completely different worlds that never existed. There were no hobbits until J.R.R. Tolkien put them in Middle Earth, which itself does not exist. The world of his imagination draws from earlier tales from largely European cultures and, as with Harry Potter, it is fashioned in a uniquely detailed way.

A clearly defined world in a fantasy story is vital in maintaining the suspension of belief required for readers to become absorbed in them, be they sword & sorcery adventures of epic tomes.

Fantasy stories are really historical fictions set in non-existent worlds. As such, they have all the elements of the normal world; cultures, politics, literature, customs and beliefs. Societies can cooperate or make war on each other. People have hopes, aspirations, fears, successes and failures. The difference between the real and fantasy world is in how the details of everyday life in these fictional worlds are connected and how they are influenced by additional factors such as magic and fantastic creatures.

Fantasy worlds are governed by their own internal logic that must be consistent throughout the story in the same way as technology in the real world behaves dependably (except for computers which are the devil’s plating and intended to torment us). If a certain type of spell is invoked one way in a scene, it must be invoked the same way in every scene. The details can be as imaginative as the author wishes as long as they are built in a way as to appear organic to the world. Readers will be distracted if a wizard draws a circle in the air to conjure wine and food in one chapter and claps hands together to create the same thing in another chapter. The one thing you do not need to do is explain or justify how magic works. It is just a given as long as the reader sees that it functions the same in every instance. In science fiction, writers often provide details about technologies in order to validate events in the plot. This is not required in Fantasy. Magic is just a part of each world’s fabric like the wind and rain. It occurs and readers will accept that. You should, however, show magic being used in scenes rather than just telling about it in exposition.

In making up geographies, cities, customs, religions, festivals and so forth, the sky is the limit. Writers can create floating towns, navigable rivers of lava, flies the size of boulders, portals between worlds and anything else they can dream up. Actual landscapes and settlements can serve as models to inspire the descriptions. Particular settings can influence the people who live there in customs and beliefs as is true in the real world. In Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, which is as much mythology as science fiction, the desert planet of Arrakis shaped the Fremen and influenced their culture, rituals and values.

When creating cultures, writers will often be influenced consciously or subconsciously by existing ones here on Earth whether contemporary or historical. Is a nation in a fantasy book similar to ones found in Europe, Africa or Asia? Do customs in the story resemble those from ancient Persia, European mythology or North American indigenous oral traditions? Does everyone in a world hold the same cultural values and have the same skin of color or are there peoples of multiple races and ethnic backgrounds? A danger writers can face is grabbing elements of different cultures or religions without understanding or respecting them. A created culture in a book can draw elements from many real world ones. Picking rituals and tales from cultures without understanding their importance to the original societies can lead to prose that are insulting and hurtful to a group of people. It can also lead to low book sales among large numbers of the readers.

The process authors use to build worlds varies. Some write out details before starting a book that establish magic, magical creatures, character traits, civilizations, lands, maps and the like. From this, an author can gain a grounding for the setting and people of the book. As with research for historical novels, much more detail will be created than ever winds up in the story. Some authors may be tempted to add all the made up research, as some authors want to do with their reteach for historical fiction. This should be avoided. The point of research, either in the real world or a fantasy setting, is to immerse authors in the world to such a degree that they fully understand their creations. From this, they can select key items that demonstrate those worlds and societies to readers.

I think about world building before I start a new book but I don’t spend a lot of time making up details about the world and characters before writing the story. I do make notes as I write to mull over choices about how magic works, the attributers of different characters or what kinds of terrain the novel takes place. I mostly create the details as I write in an organic process where the act of writing a set of sentences suggests how characters will react in the future and what physical attributes exist. To do this, I have to keep a sense of the plot and the characters in my head as I write, even for novels that exceed three-hundred pages. This allows my mind to roam and be unfettered with too many preconceived notions so that the story and the actions of the characters can flow and change as real life does while we encounter the unexpected, no matter how well we plan.

Not all world building occurs on paper or a computer screen. Sometimes, I will be about to fall off to sleep when an idea or the solution to a plot problem pops into my head. Then, I write it down on a notepad that I always keep close by.

Because of this, the first drafts are filled with inconsistences and dead ends that have to be altered and removed in the second, third and fourth drafts. This is not an impediment to me nor does it slow me down. I, and many other writers, use the first draft just to get ideas out so they can be crafted in subsequent drafts. As such, my first drafts are somewhat like highly detailed outlines but far more flexible to allow the story and characters to evolve. I don’t actually know what the book is about until I finish the first draft, and even then, things will change in subsequent drafts

All the magical spells, mountains and cultural aspects will become more consistent as I comb the work until I feel I have accomplished what I really want to say and established a world that, hopefully, readers feel they can walk into.

David A. Wimsett worked in the computer industry for over four decades and ran his own consulting firm before retiring from it to devote all his time to writing and publishing. His works include the Carandir Saga that takes place in a multicultural world of gender equality and includes Dragons Unremembered and Half Awakened Dreams. Covenant With the Dragons, the third and final book in the series, will be released in 2022.

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