Learn what’s involved in building fantasy worlds, why this is important, and how to develop your world-building process.
What is a Fantasy Novel?
I should start with a confession. I don’t know how I’d define a fantasy novel. Or at least, I don’t know how to do it quickly. In fact, I’d be surprised if anyone can come up with a single short and robust definition for a genre that encompasses so much.
I might not be able to give a quick definition of fantasy – but I can quickly recognise it when I see it. It’s a genre that lands us in a new world. It takes us through the cupboard and into Narnia. It bustles us into Diagon Alley. It sets us trekking through Middle Earth. It opens up new and unexpected vistas.
These new worlds are a huge part of the excitement and appeal, and for a writer and world builder they offer endless possibilities.
There are no limits to what you can achieve in a genre containing landscapes as different as Tolkien’s black and brutal Mordor and Leigh Bardugo’s unsettling and thrilling Grishaverse. It takes in everything from the ruined gothic splendour of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, to Andrew Coldecott’s insular and rural Rotherweird, not to mention all those rugged Orc-filled mountainscapes, terrifying post-nuclear dystopias, and heavenly utopias. And then, there’s Terry Pratchett’s masterful, loving satire of the whole idea of fantasy world building, the Discworld, which drifts through space and time on the back of four huge elephants, who themselves are on the craggy back of Great A’Tuin The Turtle.
In short, fantasy world creation can look like whatever you want it to look like.
What is Worldbuilding?
Back in the day, fantasy world creation was easy to characterise as a few scantily clad maidens, a lot of swords with names, a couple of big dragons, and a liberal garnish of incomprehensible magic. Luckily, it’s a whole lot more than that now.
Yet, even where all those clichés are present and correct, you can still create something profound and compelling: just look at the success of George RR Martin’s Game Of Thrones novels.
There’s also far more to creating fantasy worlds than waving around wands and saying a few magic words. The genre allows writers to explore all sorts of new ideas. It also allows them to say all sorts about our own world. It’s often by encountering these differences that we learn who we are. And if there’s also excitement, adventure, diversity, and mind-bending invention on the way, well, so much the better.
In fact, fantasy world-building is all about pushing the boundaries of possibility. It allows you not only to set the stage on which your story will play out, but to turn that stage into just about anything. To fill it with all the creatures of your imagination.
In a fantasy world, you don’t have to be bound by the laws of physics. You can invent your own animals. You can create your own societies with their own customs and their own histories. You can give them new mythologies, new religions, new mysteries and power systems. You can invent new philosophies. You can control geography, lore, technology, economics, language, politics. You can – if you dare – entirely ignore contemporary morality.
You can build a world that is better than the one we are living in. You can build one that is much worse. Or, you can just make it interestingly different.
You can, in short, do just about anything.
Essential Elements of a Fantasy World
I must pause here to re-emphasise that previous “just about”. Because while fantasy writing lets you play God in creative and exciting ways, there are still rules to those games. You can set the limitations – but those limitations do need to be there. When you’re thinking about how to build a fantasy world, you need to think about how to make it feel real as well as how to make it feel extraordinary.
You don’t want to leave your readers thinking that everything in your book is arbitrary. You don’t want them complaining that things don’t make sense. You need to consider how to create a realistic fantasy world. It might sound contradictory, but it’s also fundamentally important.
Your characters need to have weight in that world. And that world needs to press on them in turn. You have to remember that while the world may seem fantastical to your readers, it has to be normal for your characters. It is their day-to-day reality. They have to react to it accordingly – and their expectations about how that world will react also have to be met.
Most of the time, anyway. Of course, you can still shock and surprise your characters. You can still overawe them with magic. Just make sure that these events feel as powerful and strange for them as they do for your readers. Make sure they count and have consequences.
How to Create a Fantasy World: Ten Key Elements
Okay, that’s the theory about how to make a fantasy world. How about the practice? What do you need to put into this exciting world? The short answer – as you might expect by now – is anything you like. The longer answer is that there are quite a few things you can do to set those important limits and give your world solidity.
Here are ten essentials to consider when you’re wondering what to put in your world.
1. Maps: Location and Situation
I’ll be honest here. Part of the reason for including a map when creating a fantasy world is that maps are fun. They look lovely. They come with that wonderful promise that there will be new territories to explore and treasures to discover. But they also serve a good practical purpose. They give you a clear idea of the territory your characters will have to cover. They can help you to situate them and to move them around. They will give you ideas about difficulties they may encounter and challenges that will have to be overcome. They also help open up a whole host of other practical questions about how people travel in your world, how long it takes to get from place to place, what those places look like, how it feels to be in those places, what the weather is like… and so on. It’s once you start thinking about the practical outlines of your world that it really starts to take shape.
2. People: Who Lives in This World and What Do Characters Do?
Okay, you don’t have to stick to just people. But you do still have to answer important questions about who resides in your world. What do they look like? How do they interact? What they do from day to day? What makes them laugh? What makes them cry? What makes them get so mad that they’ll grab a sword, leave their village, scale impossible peaks, travel across fields of fire, and take it out on Orcs all the way?
Talking of Orcs, who and what else lives in your world? What do they look like? What are their strengths and weaknesses? What motivates them? Are they hungry? Are they angry? Are they peace-loving simple creatures who don’t deserve the brutal culling coming their way? You can see why this bit is fun…
Here’s a fascinating thing. A lot of fantasy, from Tolkien’s Middle Earth to Schwab’s many versions of magical London, is set in a kind of pre-industrial world. There are swords and armour and fearsome siege engines. There are castles. People ride around on horses. They sleep on straw beds, and you really have to worry about the toilets… It can perhaps feel like a set of clichés, but it can also be remarkably freeing for a writer. This world is instantly and internationally recognisable – and because it’s so far removed from our time and experiences, it allows you to ignore a great many contemporary cultural hang-ups. And hey! You don’t have to restrict yourself either. If you want to write a futuristic fantasy or one with an entirely different concept of progress and invention, you can do that too. Just look at Laura Lam’s books.
5. Is There Magic?
To take the technological discussion one stage further: Arthur C Clarke famously said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Which is certainly food for thought if you’re setting up a futuristic fantasy world. But, of course, in fantasy you don’t have to restrict yourself to advanced tech magic. You can also use good old fashioned wand magic too. Just make sure you think hard about how it works – and how it doesn’t work. About who can and can’t wield it. About what benefits it brings – and what the costs are. You can take inspiration from anywhere. Tomi Adeyemi was inspired by West African mythology and the Yoruba culture and language, when creating the magic system of Orïsha.
6. What’s the History of the World You’re Building?
When you build your fantasy world, distance yourself from the real here and now. What has made the present you are describing the way it is? What historic events have led to the development of this world? What is the backstory of the main characters? Where, in short, does your story come from?
Just as in our own world, your characters may not want to confine themselves to historical evidence. They may have a set of myths and stories that are radically different from the facts they’ve been told. They may believe in gods that do not exist. They may also fail to believe in gods who are real, and correspondingly suffer for that. Neil Gaiman did a great job of combining old god beliefs with our present world in American Gods.
8. Power: Laws and Governance
One of the great fascinations of fantasy is the way it allows you to talk about power and its implications. Who has it? Who doesn’t? Who has education? What does education even mean in this world? Who is rich and who is poor? How are such things decided? What are the systems that govern – and who is in the government? What issues are they dealing with and how do they deal with them? For instance, R. F. Kuang’s grimdark fantasy, The Poppy War, draws its plot and politics from mid 20th century China.
9. Trouble and Conflict
Now that you’ve got religion, belief, history, power, and politics you have the basis for building coherent societies. And you also have the things that tear them apart. It’s time to think about conflict within your world. Who are the adversarial groups? What makes friends into enemies? Are there warring tribes? Are there religious differences? Do people have to fight for resources?
Don’t be afraid to look at our own world when dreaming up something abhorrent in your own fantasy world creation. As Margaret Atwood once famously said after having written The Handmaid’s Tale, “There’s nothing in the book that hasn’t already happened at one time or another.”
10. Story and more
And now that you’ve got conflict, you’ve got the basis for your story. Easy, eh? Well, no.
I know that finding a good plot and a gripping narrative can be challenging to say the least. But it’s that challenge that also makes the writing process worthwhile and exciting. And once you have the motivating ideas that will get your characters moving across your map and exploring all the territories within it, then your world will truly come to life.
Managing Essential Elements of a Fantasy World
We’ve seen what world-building is and answered some of the big fantasy world-building questions. We’ve discussed the importance of having rules – and also the excitement of not being bound by the limits of our own reality. We’ve got a good list of important ideas to work out and consider that will help you create and populate your new lands. We’ve got our kitbag, our weapons, and our map. We’re just about ready to go on that journey into our new domains.
But how do you manage your fantasy world?
Even after you have worked out the structure and rules essential to building your fantasy world, there are still likely to be difficulties and snags along the way. Thankfully, some of these can be alleviated by good planning.
Documenting your world lore is vital. It may help to keep a spreadsheet of magical systems, a timeline of its history, a quick glossary of any key terms or place names you’ve invented. Don’t forget to have a document to keep track of difficult names and back stories, too. Pinterest mood boards may help you fix your ideas about landscape, fashion, and location.
Not only will this be useful for you as you write your book, or grow your series, but your future editor and proofreaders will also thank you!
Finally, arm yourself mentally. Don’t beat yourself up if you have bad days and progress is slow. Writing is hard and creating a whole new fantasy world is even harder!
The good news is that you don’t have to take this journey alone. Frodo had Sam – and you have a big community of other writers who will want to help you on your way. One of the best ways of finding them is by joining the world’s leading online writers club at Jericho Writers: https://jerichowriters.com/jericho-writers-full-membership/
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