Six Tips for Building a Fantasy World

carolimgEvery novelist builds a world, but if you’re writing fantasy or science fiction, worldbuilding is a bigger job—one I’m often tempted to skimp on. It’s great fun to think about magic in a new world—not so fun to figure out government, taxes, and trash collection. So when I started my second fantasy novel, I willingly gave up a Saturday to take GrubStreet’s class on Worldbuilding, taught by the talented Mark Fogerty.

Mark’s class was a daylong, information-packed workshop that I’d recommend to anyone who needs to do the hard work of worldbuilding. We wrote about our world’s history and culture, its government, politics, social classes, and races. We thought about science and technology, war, religion, myths, and ritual. And we answered a lot of questions. How do people work and play? How do they get around? What do they wear? How do they pay for stuff? What do they eat? What makes them laugh or feel insulted?

See what I mean about a lot of work?

Mark Fogerty had many ideas to help with worldbuilding. Here are a few that really helped me:

1. Limit the scope of your world whenever possible.
Realizing that the central conflict of my story happened in only one location, I ditched a bunch of countries and even got rid of an entire continent, which simplified my book a great deal.

2. Do not break your world’s reality.
This seemed pretty obvious until I started thinking about the main mode of transportation in my book—trains—and realized they conflicted with one of the book’s major premises. Trees are conscious and more important than people, so they can’t be cut down. But you can’t lay tracks and get a railroad through a heavily forested world without killing a bunch of trees. So I had to switch from trains to boats since rivers turned out to be the only wide-open thoroughfares in my world. This also meant moving every village close to a river and developing a river-oriented culture.

3. Make a Map.
I didn’t want to make a map, but once forced to start drawing one, I realized my world looked like a spider web, lots of little villages now connected by rivers, all of which led to a central Capital City, the big, fat spider in the middle. This was exactly the kind of sinister feel I wanted for the Capital. Knowing the geography in advance allowed me to accentuate its creepiness.

4. Steal from everything.
Mark Fogerty argued that originality results from combining diverse sources and pointed out many of the influences George Lucas incorporated into Star Wars: Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, Asimov’s Foundation Series, Herbert’s Dune, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Arthurian mythology, Japanese Samurais, Nazi symbols and many others.

This was a big help when I needed to create a new character. I wanted a very small companion for my protagonist, someone little enough to ride in his pocket. I’d originally thought of using a mouse, but having heard of too many agents who didn’t like talking animals, I followed Mark’s advice and checked other books, eventually adapting the character of Twigleg from Cornelia Funke’s, Dragon Rider. Twigleg is a homunculus, a very small man created by magic or alchemy. Since homunculus is too big a word for my book, I made my little man a cloth doll brought to life with a magic spell.

5. Use research in the real world to inform your imaginary world.
A mysterious illness sweeps through my world causing superstition and fear of black magic to run rampant. To give greater depth to this phenomenon, I read up on the Salem Witch Trials and the circumstances that can lead to mass hysteria.

6. Avoid information dumps.
Once you’ve built your world, add the information into your book in small chunks only when absolutely necessary. This is obviously a tough balance. Say too much and your reader is bored. Say too little and they’re confused and tempted to stop reading. When in doubt, Mark recommended looking at Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. The book opens with the protagonist, Lyra and her daemon. Pullman describes the daemon, but doesn’t tell us what a daemon is for many, many pages. And no one seems to mind.

Good luck building your world. May the force be with you.

5 comments

  1. Lisa Birk

    Oh my god, I love this piece! From your ditching of an entire continent to the discovery that making a map of your world allowed you to emphasize the sinister feel in the capital to the discovery that a tree-reverent world isn’t likely to travel by rail….all of it hilarious and so informative! I want to heighten reality in my second novel, not quite to fantasy level, but just shy of it. A day of world-building is just what I need to do. Can’t wait to read your second novel!!

  2. Stephanie Gayle

    “It’s great fun to think about magic in a new world—not so fun to figure out government, taxes, and trash collection. ” This. Just this. But thanks for explaining why figuring out trash collection is important.

    I’m so excited to read this world!

  3. bellebrett@comcast.net

    Thanks, Carol. This makes me want to build my own world! Your post also reminds me of the importance of taking writing workshops at key junctures.

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