Building a fantasy world, even a contemporary based one, has a lot of pitfalls, and it’s easy to get stuck missing important details. Here’s list of ten things to consider when building a world to ensure you’ve created a complete, well rounded world for your story. Now when when someone asks you an obscure question, you’ll know the answer. And more to the point, it will give you fun details to drop into your worlds. Just remember, these questions are not an invitation to write a five page dissertation on your world’s social structure before your plot gets started (or in chapter three when your character goes to a history lesson).
- Where/how did your world’s religions start? Yes, that plural is intentional. The current modern world has 4,300 active religions according to some counts. If your world only has one religion, you really need to explain how that happened. But assuming your world has multiple, diverse religions, think about their origins. What common elements do they have? In modern times we can tell that most religions have some story about a world-wide flood, albeit with very different specifics. How do any common elements explain things that more primitive versions of your world may not have understood, and how do the differences display the individual aspects of your world?
- Why does your world have the social/economic/power structure that it has? Think about the histories that led to the current moment and decide why things got to where they are on a global scale. This includes governments, sociological class structures, and financial stability. Some stories will need more or less of this, but every story is affected by the world at large to some extent. Knowing the history that led to the current moment, especially anything you might have changed from reality in a contemporary-based fantasy, will help you build believable fantasy.
- How does the technology level of your world effect the availability of resources? This is the sort of thing a lot of people miss. We’re used to mass production and long-haul shipping. If your world doesn’t have those, then they better not be selling fruit out of season. If, on the other hand, they have advanced teleportation technology, then I’d expect trade to be massively disrupted from what we expect. Jobs that require travel should be basically obsolete. Sure, maybe you have to hop over to Africa for your meeting, but it’s just a trip to the teleporter and back.
- Where were cities built and why? This one is mostly for secondary-world fantasy, but it’s something newer authors may not think through enough. Typically, cities are built in areas where people were already congregating for other reasons. Examples include river valleys, oases in deserts, and wooded mountains rich in minerals. So if you have a dramatic castle built into the side of a remote peak with no mines nearby, you need to explain why. And don’t forget: that reason needs to be reflected in how the city is structured. A defensive keep built to watch a strategic mountain pass is not going to have broad windows and expansive balconies where the inhabitants can dance the night away under the stars.
- What biases does your character’s homeland have, and what biases do other countries have against them? This is always an interesting way to consider how the various elements of your world will interact. And if the entire cast of your book comes from one national background, there’s probably still some regional differences giving rise to biases and stereotypes. Those elements will make your world feel real and more like a living culture. If your world doesn’t have any biases… ask yourself why. Every country in the modern world has biases, some of them very, very different from each other. What happened to make your world different?
- What bits of history are believed in your world but are wrong? I wish more authors did this. It’s not unheard of, of course, but too many writers establish their world and make clear that the history they are telling you is objective fact. In terms of history, there is no such thing. We often use the platitude that “history is written by the victor,” but the more accurate statement is that history is written in the eye of the current beholder. Everything ever written is some parts right, some parts wrong, and some parts guess. The pieces of the past that your world guessed at or lied about will make a far more interesting setting than anything you can come up with for a static history.
- How does your magic system (and the prevalence or scarcity of magical power) change your society? More authors today consider these impacts than they used to, but it’s still quite common to have wildly powerful magic users living in an otherwise perfectly predictable medieval society (or society based on some other culture, although those are rarer). This is very unlikely. If people can walk around throwing fireballs at other people, why are they allowed to live by themselves rather than be forcibly conscripted into the army? Is it because they can throw fireballs at people and that makes the generals scared? Okay, but then they better not be hanging out in the middle of town being friendly, laughable old geezers. If anyone who trains for long enough at a temple can create water on command, I better not see any signs of water-borne illness in your society… Unless you have a sub-plot about the evil churches controlling the flow of clean water. Adding magic would affect every level of society, from the day to day dreams of poor children to the lives of every merchant to the economy and ruling structures. Using magic well means considering how your main character’s magic changes their interactions with their world not just in what they can do, but also in how they are viewed.
- What changes do fantasy creatures cause within your world, and how do they interact with the more mundane parts of the world? Until somewhat recently, contemporary fantasy was particularly bad about this. “The world is exactly like ours, except elves live in a parallel dimension and occasionally come do things in our world but no one notices.” Really? I doubt that elves occasionally meddling in our world had no effect on society at all. Also, how did those elves get in that parallel dimension, and what makes them elves other than them being long-lived, magic-ish, and having pointed ears? What even are elves in this world? Instead of giving your reader an existential crisis, spend a bit of time thinking critically about what your creatures are, how they came to be in the situation they are in, how the world reacts to them, and how they react to the world. This will give your magical creatures a sense of purpose in the world, rather than your readers feeling like the fantasy creatures are just flavor text.
- How are deviations from societal standards viewed, and what repercussions are there for rejecting society’s expectations? I haven’t seen many variations on this answer, but wouldn’t it be cool if there were? What if, instead of getting thrown in jail or cast out of their village or otherwise ostracized for rejecting societal standards, your characters got sent to a special school to help them build on their individuality? What if that was the source of all scientific (or magical?) research in the world? Or maybe those outcasts were used as focus groups and led to consistent re-imagining of political structures? Not every deviation from the norm has to be punished, and treating dissent as a virtue can create a fascinating counterpoint to whatever conflict you intend to pursue in the plot line.
- What defines your world in terms of art, music, and cuisine? I combine these three not because they are less important, but because they are common bits of advice. Most writers have heard the advice to consider when and what the society eats, for example, and everyone knows about the Lord of the Rings joke “What about second breakfast?” In the United States a lunch break is about all workers get, but in South America it was common (and may still be) to call siesta in the afternoon. Tea time in Great Britain isn’t as definitive as it used to be, but once upon a time it was taken very seriously as a required break. Music has a similar effect on cultures, and oppressive regimes regularly suppress music and art. As well, few fantasy novels involve the characters reading fiction, which seems odd, since we writers and readers love books so much. Does your world publish fiction, and if not, why not? Our world always has.
You don’t have to consider everything on this list before writing. Honestly, as a discovery writer, I rarely consider any of the things on this list before I start writing. But your final result should include several, if not most, of these elements to some extent. Just make sure you’re including them in ways that build on the story and not as check boxes to mark off.
For some original fiction, check out these posts:
- Taking Flight
- Lady Saylina
- Free Reign
- Stolen Time
- Fresh Heir
- Finding Purchase
- Gifts and Gambits
- Family Ties
For more thoughts on publishing and writing, check out these posts:
- Trad Pub: If you’re going to debut in epic fantasy, you better be the exception
- On Discovery Writing
- Indie Pub vs. Trad Pub
- Born Novelist
- Devel…opment in the Details
- Character Brainstorming Tips
- To Writer’s Con or Not To Writer’s Con
- The Best Pitch
- The Life of the Magic
- The Solitary Art of Making Writer Friends
- Nailing the Second Round