Writers get to create entire civilizations from the ground up, which can be equal parts tedious and fun. Yes, works of fantasy can take place on regular, old Earth. This is the case of my current WIP, Secrets of Sorcery. But authors can set their novel in a whole other world, which is the case in my other WIP, Kingdom in Shadow.
When it comes to world building there is a TON to consider, however, the most important part is creating a world that best serves the story. At the end of the day the story is what is most important.
Since world building is a huge component of the fantasy genre, I’ve decided to curate a list of tips based on the world building advice I’ve received and have taken in stride.
1. You can’t avoid world building
It will always be important to set the scene. Very rarely will characters be hanging out discussing important plot points in an empty, white room. (Even then I used the description empty and white.)
Even if your story takes place somewhere that already exists here on planet earth, you still need to invest time into setting the scene. Just like plot and characters, developing the world requires some foresight and planning.
2. World building is more than just the setting
Yes, setting is HUGE. But there is more to world building than the physical landscape. World building is all about culture. How does the setting affect the lives of the people living in the world?
Consider the larger controlling forces of the world. These could be aspects such as religion, government, magic systems, classes of people and races. Then there are the smaller details that round out a world. These could be things such as clothing, food, weaponry, or even nuances of social conduct.
Keep in mind that one aspect of a world might directly impact another. Such as: a hot and arid climate might mean that the people wear a very specific style of clothing.
There are a ton of pieces to consider while world building and it can get a little overwhelming to think of everything. Here is a super comprehensive list that I’ve used when developing worlds for my stories.
*Try to answer only questions relevant to your story, but the list can help spark new ideas about your world
3. Include diversity
Here on planet earth we don’t all speak one language, we don’t practice one religion, and we don’t all live in the same climate. Include diverse landscapes and people in your world and even amongst certain groups. Avoid monoliths, stereotyping, and uniformity. For example, if your world contains a sentient race of garden gnomes, not every single gnome should think, act, and speak exactly the same.
4. Know the history
Unless you are creating a genesis story, the world did not just appear the day the story began. Consider what happened prior to the events of the novel and how they have shaped the world the main character lives in. I most often see this done with political and military histories. But it can also include origins of magic or the natural history that has shaped the geography.
A historical context can explain why certain aspects of the world exist. This will help avoid any “that’s just the way that it is” moments and can further connect the significance of the world to the story.
5. Strike a balance between creative and familiar details
If there is nothing unique about your world, it can get boring fast. Fortunately, writers are creative types and unique details tend to come naturally. But writers also have a tendency to fall into world building clichés, like a Medieval European setting for a fantasy novel. Be fearless when world building and introduce elements that are quite literally out of this world.
However, if you include too many creative details, you risk the reader having nothing they can anchor to. Familiar details are just as important to include, as they give the reader a chance to relate to the story. Plus, when there are details that are familiar, you don’t have to use up valuable story space describing things. A sword is a sword, got it!
6. Do your research
Even if you construct a new world from the ground up, it’s still helpful to do research. First of all, research can be super inspiring. I took a lot of inspiration from ancient Greek and Egyptian culture and tucked it into the world building of my current WIP.
When creating a fictional civilization, there is always going to be some tendency to lean in to an already established culture. Doing research helps clarify which details you want to avoid and which ones you want to cash in on. Plus, it can help save your brain juices for when the creativity really matters
7. Keep things consistent
Rules can be crucial in helping readers understand the world and to establish the stakes of the story. Whether these rules are scientific laws, political policies, or social customs, it is important to keep established rules consistent throughout the story. That doesn’t mean the hero of the story can’t try and change a rule, in fact, that would raise the stakes. But if you establish that the sun rises in the west on page one, it should rise in the west every other time (baring some major celestial intervention).
Consistency is also important in regard to names, which will reflect the tone of the story. There is a big difference between “the crap shack” and “Lord Nightingale’s Manor.” When thinking about the name of any person, place, or thing, keep it consistent with how you want the reader to perceive the world that is built.
8. Keep yourself organized
World building is a lot of work. At times, it can be tedious to keep all the details straight. What helps me is to draw things out. If you are building the world’s history, chart out a timeline. If you are plotting the geography, sketch out a map.
When I have large pieces of world building, such as the foundation of a magic system or an entire pantheon of gods, I type up wiki pages and keep them along with my pre-writing resources. I use Scrivener to write my novels, so they already have a built-in feature that helps me keep all of my materials organized.
9. Don’t cram in all aspects of the world
Remember Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory! When it comes to describing the world in your story, keep it simple. It’s okay to have a complex magic system, but don’t bog down the story with all of the intricate details. Avoid the urge to info dump and let the world unfold with the action and the plot.
The world should support the story and not the other way around. It’s easy to get excited about your world and want to tell the readers everything. Do yourself, your readers, and your story a favor by only including necessary details. Preserve the mystery of the world, and reveal certain elements when the plot demands them.
10. Build a world you love and love the world you build
This should go without saying, but write about what you love. If you’re bored by the world you’re building, there’s a very good chance that the story is going to feel tired. It can be difficult to creatively construct seamless worlds. Writing and world building are a labor of love.
Never sacrifice your enjoyment of the story because you don’t like the world building. Feel free to be a constant architect and perfect your world so that it is something that calls to you and excites you!
Thanks for reading! This article is prompted by the Instagram #fantasychallengeaugust. Also, I’m excited to have finally expanded my horizons and created a Twitter account. Feel free to follow me, L.P. Savage, on Twitter and Instagram for even more content.