5 Pillars of World-Building

I would like to cover some ground rules for fantasy world-building. This is a deeper look into one of the items from an earlier post: 5 Common Mistakes for Aspiring Authors. Fantasy worlds are the reason readers flock to the genre: We live in the real world, why would we want to read about it?

Now, don’t confuse this with building a wildly unrealistic world. That’s not what I mean. We want a fantastic world… yet is a world that has it own set of rules and regulations. It’s okay if gravity is inverted, but you better be able to explain why!

1. How close is your world to the “real world”?

I notice a very popular fantasy trend is “Urban Fantasy”. Urban Fantasy is a fantasy world set in modern or “real world” terms. I like to think it is popular because this is how a reader can feel as if the world being painted is actually a possibility. Everything in it seems to make sense: there’re coffee stands, people walking their dogs, and oh yes, people flying. It’s so close to the real world that that one tiny extra element is intriguing and exciting. Readers can ponder what it would be like if this slight twist were a reality.

Personally, I find this a cop-out. While there are plenty of magical realism stories that even I have loved, (for example, the faerie lore of Ink Exchange, or teen angel-romance Fallen), it’s so much more exciting to see an author truly build a world from the bottom-up.

You need to decide for yourself how much work you’re going to put into your world. If you want to go the magic-realism route, you have a great opportunity. Make that special fantasy element seamless with the world. Allow it to be so well integrated that no one will blink an eye. Or, you can go the other route, where the magical element is this wonderfully kept secret that only a privileged few get to learn. But you better make it believable that the secret has been so well kept for all these centuries. After all, we live in the real world and we don’t know about it. I like how Charmed did this, they built in a race specifically dedicated to rewind time and undo mistakes when the magical secrets were revealed. Convenient, yet it made the world believable.

If your world is going to be brand spanking new, that’s great! I truly applaud you. But be ready to go through a multitude of supplemental notebooks and papers to document your world’s vast history and infrastructure. You’re going to need it.

2. What is happening right now?

When you start on page one, there will be centuries of world history that’s already happened. Don’t panic and dump the reader with all of this information. When you were born, did your parents shove a book of world history in your face? No, absolutely not. They gave you what you could handle, and that’s exactly how you need to treat the reader. Give them teeny-tiny bits of information. Focus on one mystery at a time. When you immerse us into the world, it’s okay if we’re a little lost. We are but a newborn babe in a new land. We want to search and explore, and we want to know what’s going on right this very moment. We don’t care what happened yesterday, or two years ago, or a hundred years before that. We want to know why our father is yelling at us, where did he get that staff? Why is fire coming out of my hands? What’s going to happen to me? I need to know the present.

3. What races are present in your world?

Any society is going to be composed of many different races. If you only have one, you’re doing it wrong. There need to be different lands with different races that have adapted to those climates. We need to see how these societies have interacted and clashed. What prejudices are there? Why? What are the views of the main character? And it’s okay if your main character is prejudiced, we like flaws.

4. Draw a map

Seriously, draw a map right now. You don’t actually have to draw it yourself. There are plenty of online resources dedicated to this aspect of world-building. I can’t tell you how much it’ll benefit you to have a clear understanding of what lands lie where. Your character will likely go exploring, or running for his life. We need to have a clear vision of where he’s going, what the weather will be like, and what people he can expect to encounter. If you do this before you get deep into your story, it’ll help you create that vital sense of realism that must be present.

If you would like some inspiration, look at the first few pages of The Fellowship of the Ring. You’ll be greeted by an array of world maps (like many fantasy novels tend to do). Why do they do this? Well think about it, didn’t you enjoy seeing the maps? Didn’t it give you a sense of realism that helped you immerse into this foreign world? That’s the whole idea.

5. What are the rules?

Again, this world, however fantastical, needs to be grounded. That means there needs to be rules. This ties in to a previous post: F&SF Writers . . . Do Your Research. I don’t care how wild the world is. I don’t care if mages are flying and lizards are singing. You need to explain every fantastic ability. The mages gain their power of flight from the song of the wind. Without the wind, they cannot fly. That’s why they live in the mountainous region of (book-lore name). The lizards have human DNA that gave them vocal cords, so thus they can sing day and night just as any human would. But if they mate, they will dilute their DNA and new generations will be unable to sing. See where I’m going with this? With limits, I can believe the world. I can grasp onto uncertainty and suspense for what can go wrong. Nothing is more boring than a superhero with no weakness.

These are just 5 pillars of world-building. However, there is so much more that goes into it. If you want to delve deeper into proper and extravagant world-building, I recommend the below sources from published authors:

Amazon 5 star Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction Paperback by Jeff VanderMeer

A Guide to Construct Star Systems and Life Supporting Planets by Stephen L. Gillett

Some help to describe this beautiful world: Writing Vivid Settings by Rayne Hall

Bottom-line: make your world believable. Once your reader is turned believer, they’ll be here to stay.


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