Tuesday, May 15, 2012

World-Building Basics

Sometimes I feel like I’m an anomaly among Fantasy readers and writers.  Most readers and writers of fantasy I know love exploring new ideas and new worlds, but for me, I just like a good story.  I’m drawn to fantasy because there are no constraints and no boundaries in where a story can go.  I like that freedom and flexibility, but the world itself, I’m just not that interested in it except for how it affects the characters and the story.

I know I’m in the minority among fantasy readers.  Every time there is a discussion on world building on writing forums, I realize how much more everyone seems to be into it than I am.  It makes me nervous because I know how these things translate.  The more you understand the world of your characters, the history, religions, and cultures, the more subtle details leak in that add a richness and depth to the world.  

But sometimes writers can go too far and spend all their time exploring the what ifs of world-building and never actually get around to writing the story, or writers can let the quest for perfect, realistic world-building limit them from possibilities.   For example:  there was on discussion on a writer’s forum a while back where some people insisted that a truly matriarchal society could never have evolved because nowhere in any human society existing or no longer existing had there ever been a true matriarchal society, that evolutionary-wise a matriarchal society could only form if there was some imbalance, like in magic, that favored women. 

I have no idea if they are right or not, I don’t know enough about anthropology and history to argue effectively, but I don’t think it matters in building a fantasy world.  If a story calls for a matriarchal society, I see no problem with creating one.  It is called speculative fiction for a reason.  It’s okay to speculate.
Different stories call for different levels of realism in world-building.  There is the very realistic feel in the world of Robin Hobb’s The Farseer Trilogy, and a much more fantastical feel in Diana Wynn Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle.  Both worlds perfectly fit the stories being told. 

It is important for the world to be well-thought out, have an internal consistency and logic, and service the story being told.  Here are some suggestions I have in creating a world that feels real even if it is far from realistic.

 1.   Research.   Okay, you do need to do some research.  Human beings have always been very clever, and somehow they figured out how to survive without cell phones, refrigerators, cars, matches, and computers.  If you have a preindustrial world, you need to research how people lived back then.  Pick a society and learn all you can about how they managed to survive.  Use that society as a base, but don’t be locked into it.  I know this research is hard.  Especially when you need specific details to make your world feel real.  Sometimes you just have to learn as much as you can and then fill in the blanks. 

It is tempting to world-build off of other fantasy novels.  For example, Sam cooked rabbit stew while they were traveling to Mordor, so why not just have the characters make stew too, right?  Maybe not.  There is this awesome book by Diana Wynne Jones that every fantasy writer should read called The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.  If you’re a regular reader of second world fantasy novels, you’ll get some good laughs from it, but it is also very useful in seeing what not to do.  World-building off of the fantasy genre can give your world a generic fantasy feel and just perpetuate possible mistakes made by previous fantasy writers (hey, no one is perfect), which won’t make your world feel real.  If you want to know what your characters should eat on a trip, do some real world research, don’t just do what Tolkien did. 

           2. The story is king.  Okay, this isn’t always true.  Sometimes the milieu is the story, but I usually am not a fan of those.  In my opinion, the story should be the main focus and creating a realistic world should not interfere with the story you are trying to tell. 

If you’ve read a significant amount of epic fantasy, you know that gunpowder, cannons, and firearms are rarely seen even though most of the worlds are based on a pseudo-medieval world, and gunpowder did exist in medieval times (see here, here, and here).   There are lots of good theories for gun control in fantasy land, but I think that when you create a world you can decide when certain things were invented (within reason, you’ll probably need a really good explanation for computers to be invented before guns).  In other words, you can do whatever you want as long as you do so purposely and deliberately and to service the story, not ignorantly.  You do not have to recreate a medieval society (or whatever society you chose to base your word on).  So do the research, then decide which aspects work for your world and your story.  At least that is how I see it.

  3.  Make your characters behave logically in the world you created.  You can have a matriarchal society, a thirty year winter, wild magic that randomly changes the composition of inanimate objects, or dinosaurs roaming the country side, anything you want, but you have to think carefully about how these fantastical elements will affect the day to day lives of the people living there, and how they would adapt to them.  Similarly, your characters need to reflect their environment.  Think about how their culture affects who they are.

I think this is the most important aspect of world-building.  Nothing pulls me out of a story like characters not behaving logically in their environment.  A lot of times this is subjective.  As a parent, I had a hard time with the parents just letting the Capital take their children to fight to the death in Hunger Games.  I love the story, but that was a part of the world-building that I found hard to swallow.  Of course I don’t really know what it is like to live in poverty and be beaten down like the people in the districts, but I love my children so much.  I just can’t see myself ever letting either one of them go to a certain death without me fighting to save them.  I don’t understand why none of the parents ever fought back or why no district ever started a riot.  I’ve been to a few PTA meeting; I know how vicious parents will fight for their children’s futures.  :)

 4.     Rules and internal consistency.  Every world has to have rules.  If magic can do anything, then magic would be used to solve all problems and there would be no problems.  I’m a big fan of keeping a tight lid on what magic can do.  If you let magic be too powerful, you will have a lot of smart fans poking holes in your plot.  People do this a lot with Harry Potter (especially with not using time turners and polyjuice).  Not me though, I’m a true Harry Potter believer.  Still, I think it is a good idea to keep a tight rein on magic systems.

Once you have your rules in place, you got to keep them.  Internal consistency is key to believability.  Fantasy readers are pretty much ready to accept any fantastical element you can imagine, but if you break your own rules, you’ve lost them.  Being consistent with the rules of your world is far more important than being realistic.  So make up some good rules and never break them…unless you’ve engineered in a loop hole.

 5.     Details.  The more details you manage to work into the narrative, the more real your world will feel.  This is hard to do.  I struggle immensely with this especially since I don’t want to slow down the story for world-building exposition.  But the sign of a true master is the ability to work in these details without the reader even noticing.  I’m still working on it.  If I ever figure out how to do this successfully, I’ll let you know.  :)

Well, that is my take on world-building.  I’m far from an expert.  It definitely is an area I’ve struggled with, so I’ll leave you with some links to people who are far wiser than me.

Happy world-building,



  1. Excellent post! Being an avid epic fantasy lover, I applaud your take on the subject. And I most definitely could not agree more with your #4. You can break almost every rule imaginable except your own.

    1. I'm an epic fantasy lover too. :)

      I love how perfectly you summed up #4. So true.

  2. I think you are better at world-building than you give yourself credit for :) But part of the reason I'm not a big fan of epic fantasy is because I don't have much patience of scenes that describe the world without really moving the story forward. The more details you add, in my opinion, the more they'd better matter. But just in case it makes you feel better, there was a fabulous article in the New Yorker last year about George R.R. Martin, in which he admitted he's not into excessive world-building: "They write to say, ‘I'm fascinated by the languages. I would like to do a study of High Valyrian'"-an ancient tongue. "‘Could you send me a glossary and a dictionary and the syntax?' I have to write back and say, ‘I've invented seven words of High Valyrian.'"

    1. I love your quote by George R.R. Martin. If someone that brilliant isn't obsessed with world-building, maybe there is hope for me. :)

      I think the real key to world-building is to keep the story moving forward as the world is explained. It is tough to do, but a real master can build the world around the characters without the reader even noticing. I'm definitely not there yet.

      Hmmm, are you saying only give the details that are important to the plot? I'm a little confused since I have all these critiques from you asking for more details. :) I do agree that you can give too much details and mess up the pacing. It is a difficult balance to achieve.

    2. Hah! I knew you'd call me out on that. I will email to avoid hijacking the comments :)

  3. This is a great post! As a children's fantasy writer, I have to admit that I don't like to perfect my worlds to the upmost degree. The stories should be magical - not necessarily fully logical. That's why they are dreams - to take the reader out of reality. But especially #4 has to hold. Even fantasy needs solid rooting.

    1. Absolutely. Some stories need a fantastical world with very little basis in reality. My favorite thing about writing fantasy is that there are no limits. You can make the unbelievable believable.

  4. Well said. I especially agree with #3 although I might invert it and say that you need to make sure the world you create makes sense for your characters (as well). For me, the story is all about the characters and the world you build is simply the medium with which the characters have to work. Both elements have to work with each other to be believable (which takes us to #4). Good post!

    I have a post about believable fantasy beasts if you're interested. Check it out:


    1. I agree Adam. The story is all about characters for me too. I like how changed my #3. Fits perfectly.

      I'll have to checkout your blog. That post sounds interesting.

      Thanks for commenting.

  5. I agree that that crafting a world would be hard. I think a good story is like a puzzle the pieces need to fit. This is a silly example but the other day I was watching veggie tails, who I actually think are very clever stories. This Easter one suddenly the lead charactor is homeless. There was no mention of her struggling financially or living in the theator that burned down. It bugged me.

  6. Brilliant. One of the tips I've heard to help with details, is that the more fantastical the setting, the more details are needed. makes sense. Great post.

  7. When I started writing, I set out to write fantasy. Epic, magic-rich fantasy. After 120,000 words, six edits, and endless world-centric problems, I decided to try my hand at something else. It was only after setting a story in the real world did I learn this very hard lesson. World building really is overrated. I think it's a problem particularly frustrating for sci-fi and fantasy writers. Yeah, sure, rules for your world are important, but story really should come first. Thanks for the great post. Glad I'm not the only one that feels this way.

  8. @Anonymous, It is harder to craft a believable world than I ever imagined. There are so many small things that you never think about. What kind of foods are in season, what vegetation and animals populate the area, what kind of materials and dyes are available for clothes, and what kind of tools are available and what are they made of. These are just the small things that pop up here and there. It would be so easy just to wing it, but it works better if you think these small details through. Although too often I can't find the answers I want, so I do wing it. :)

    @Sheena, I agree. I should probably say it is more important to put it the right details. The details that make your world a little different from what readers are used to.

    @Trisha, LOL, yes story is king for me too. I think that too much weird in world-building actually can detract from the story. Only put the weird in if it is essential to the story. Just my opinion.


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