One of the most satisfying things about reading and writing fantasy is exploring new worlds. Whether it’s our own world transformed in a magical retelling, or a completely new creation; the joy comes because it feels real. As writers of fantasy, the question then is – how do we go about building a brand new world and making it feel as tangible as this one?
1. Start with the story.
Your world is always the backdrop to the story. It doesn’t matter how magical your unicorns, how grand the soaring spires of your cloud city, or whether the healing properties of the bobo berry have eliminated sickness forever; they won’t dazzle anyone if they aren’t relevant to the story.
So get a good feel for your story first, and then build the world up from there.
Who are your main characters? Where do they live? Who do they interact with? What political / cultural / geographical influences impact upon their lives? Unless you have a particular love of creating complete worlds from scratch (and some do), your world building need only extend to those elements that will directly or indirectly impact on your character.
2. Details, Details, Details.
Only in the planning stage – and always with your eye on the world your characters experience. This is the time to get creative and do some research. You probably need to have some idea about history, geography, geology, flora and fauna, culture, language (patterns, or idiosyncrasies if you aren’t keen on creating a whole new language), and mythology.
Create a reference document / folder or visual diary and note down things that make the world unique. Draw a map. The more you know about your world the more substance your story will have.
Keeping good records can help with consistency. This is even more important if you’re writing epic fantasy, when it can be quite difficult to keep the entire world straight in your head.
How much time you devote to this is entirely a matter of personal preference – some people like to set a time limit on their research (for fear of never being quite ready), others adopt a more organic approach. The key to remember is that each element should add something to the story.
3. Less is More.
There is a big difference between knowing all the properties of the bobo berry, and listing them all out as encyclopedic rote. It’s unlikely your reader has bought your book for a lesson on biology. So when you’re writing the story your aim is to weave the detail in seamlessly so it feels organic.
As Juliet Mariller so eloquently phrased it:
Ask dedicated readers of fantasy, and epic fantasy in particular, what makes a book special for them, and I’d guess a majority would place good world-building high on the list. I’m talking about novels in which the secondary world is so well realised and so expertly woven into the story that the reader becomes immersed in it within the first few pages: a world that’s convincing, consistent and fascinating. Its parameters and its quirks won’t be set out for us in long passages of descriptive exposition, but will be integral to the plot and will emerge as the story unfolds.
How much detail you provide is largely a matter of taste. But if it sounds like you’re narrating a nature documentary, or reciting a history lesson you might want to rethink your approach. Remember the old advice is always good: Show don’t tell. And show in a way that would feel real to your characters and their situation.
4. Gaze Upon the World with Wonder.
I love Patrick Rothfuss’s attitude to building fantasy worlds:
We get to build castles in the sky, then show them off to people.
So if you’re going to dream, dream big. Pay attention to the world around your characters. Find the little details that tell more than their face value and truly enhance your story. The way you will build your fantasy world, will no doubt be as unique as that world itself.
– Raewyn Hewitt