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Oct 1, 2019

World Building 101 for Fantasy Authors

By Bethany Tucker.

World building can be a lot of fun. It’s the sandbox and Legos of writing. Creating landscapes, dreaming up cities or towers. For me, and I hope for you, it’s a chance to play, daydream, and indulge. Imagine an invitation to revel in the vastness of imagination. Dream up the grand, the funny, the poignant and the momentous. Don’t forget the details – small imperfections, the minor annoyances, the hilarious, and the somber. Bring the science. Forge new religions. Riff off the old mythologies. This is what makes fantasy, as a genre, so complex, diverse, and endlessly readable. And so wonderfully satisfying!

In a perfect world, we’d all settle in with a vast array of wonderful classes on architecture, fashion, weaponry, and battle tactics, all while touring the world from the Great Wall of China to Timbuktu and the ruins of Ur to the glass towers of Dubai. Then we’d sit in front of our keyboards or writing pads, armed with all that fodder, to cast our riff on fresh new worlds.

Such time-consuming investment is in no way practical, and also, not terribly necessary. Although, if you get a chance to do any of those things, please, jump in with both feet! What we fantasy writers require, more than a Ph.D. in world cultures, is a willingness to look sideways at the world we already know, mash ideas that haven’t been brought together before, and also, very importantly, steal like artists. Better yet, steal like J.R.R. Tolkein when he met up with Norse mythology and created Middle Earth. Just try not to steal the same things. Put your twist on it. Make it organically yours.

As much as I kicked at the fences when I first started world building, I’ve found the boundaries actually force the story into conflict. Here are a few guidelines to make effective, dynamic world building easier to construct. No matter how much my younger self growled about it, mechanics matter. Consistency matters.

Create rules and play within the rules. No exceptions once you’ve set them. This will give your world internal resonance that lends the perception of reality to your fantasy. No matter how different your world may be from your readers’ world, if the rules stay solid, suspended disbelief will be in play. Break your own rules, and your readers will start to mistrust you. But... but… you might say. Well, yes, sometimes rules need to be broken. If you break the rules, have a reason for how they got broken and make it logical. Make it a big deal and give yourself an escape hatch. Say magic in your world isn’t supposed to (insert your own event). Hm….perhaps there’s a very cranky deity that steps in and plays, for their own personal reasons. Just back those reasons up, and keep the logic within the rules you’ve laid down for yourself.

While you’re creating your rules, give your world concrete points of functionality. If you have a religion, you’ll need mythology and tenants. Consistency is the key point. The ideas of the religion need to be baked into the culture or cultures it serves. Follow through on your construction. If attending a religious ceremony is important, don’t let your character casually shrug off attending. If praying is part of it, then characters need to pray now and then. Or have a good reason for why they don’t. 

Pay attention to your economics. Economics affect everyone. Make sure your characters feel it. If the silk trade is booming and your character is trading in silk, have people on the page also wearing silk, or using it in some way that demonstrates the demand. If there are poor people on the street, have a reason for why unemployment could be low.

Take a hard look at the values of your people groups. Do they look after each other? Do they believe in survival of the fittest? How do they treat trading partners from far away? What are the goods and services they can’t provide for themselves?

Economics and social welfare is a great source of potential conflict in world building. Although I hated it, reading Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith actually helped my world. I would suggest more up-to-date and briefer texts if you’re looking for help in this area. International Political economics is a good keyword to look up for resources as well. Don’t forget to work out some idea of a currency, or currency items like gold bullion or silver bars. If you’re looking for ideas on how to make a fresh kind of currency, grab a visual dictionary of historical currency and spend a few minutes flipping through it. History is an endless well of ideas.

 Be sure to use terminology that makes sense for your world and stays within its history and rules. Think about the history of language and be aware of when words from normal English wouldn’t make sense to use in your fantasy world. If there’s no Shanghai in your world, you can’t say that a kidnapped sailor was “Shanghai’ed! This does, however, give you a chance to “make up” words. Have fun!

Always have a reason for why things happen. For example, if your hero is sneaking a ride in the back of a wagon, make sure there’s a reason for that wagon to be traveling the direction it’s traveling. If that means you have to plant a farming community in the area, do so, but make sure that community is situated so that it has water and land to sustain itself, to maintain the reader’s faith in your fantasy land. If some place seems unnaturally well provided for, have a reason for it. Did a witch bless the place three centuries ago? Does that kind of magic exist in your world? Great. You’re good to go. But maybe put a statue of the witch in the village square, so your travelers have a reason to figure out why this place has tulips blooming in December. Or at least let them scratch their heads.

Give the same care to your monsters as your heroes. If you have beastly monsters, set up the rules about their instincts, habits, feeding patterns, etc. Then stick to them. Are they intelligent or mentally challenged by the wiles of your hero? Do they win in numbers or by cunning? How did they come into the world? Are they naturally present or an invasive species?

Personally, for larger stories, I’ve found maps useful. My current series is set in an alternative universe version of the 1800s. So, I printed out a massive map of Europe, where most of the events happen, and armed myself with a sharpie, colored pencils, and white-out, and redrew the lines of the kingdoms according to my version of Europe. It’s been practically invaluable for large scale plotting. If you want to replicate this for yourself, I suggest trying out some of the online map-making sites. Max Vonne clued me into Inkarnate. His maps for Queen of Zori came out looking quite good, so I suggest giving it a go.

World building, even the basics, is a very large topic. It can encompass almost every part of life and is limited only by what your story requires on the page. If your story is set in a very recognizable setting, then you may not need very much work. But if you’re going as far out as Terry Pratchet, with entire systems of deities and a world origin story, you’ll need to spend more time digging into the intricacies of making your world a vivid place in and of itself. Your work will be stronger, and your readers will enjoy it.


About the Author: Bethany Tucker
Bethany lives on the Kitsap Peninsula in Washington State, west of Seattle. She has been writing fiction for the last twenty years. It’s an urge she can’t escape, nor does she want to. Bethany writes epic fantasy with heavy dalliances in the paranormal under a pen name as an independent author. She is also a freelance editor and formerly an English instructor, though she would point out that teaching English is not actually what leads her to be qualified to edit fiction. She has lived abroad extensively and credits her ability to write diverse fantastical worlds to those experiences.  
The Art and Science of Words