6 Tips for Fantasy Worldbuilding
Worldbuilding in fantasy is one of my favourite things about writing—if not the favourite thing. You get to be god. You can create anything you want and then you get to control it however way you like it. A whole world—actually, an entire universe— stands open before you, filled with dreams and possibilities. All yours.
But a lot of people get overwhelmed by that thought, and they simply get it wrong in the process, which then results in inconsistencies in the story, as well as flat characters, and the entire premise failing.
We all want to avoid failure, but life is funny and mean, so failing is the only way we can learn from our mistakes and develop our skills to higher levels. Thankfully, you have me. I have failed many times but persisted through all of them, and now I'm sort of a worldbuilding genius. And here are my tips for worldbuilding that will hopefully make things much easier for you. Mind that these are simple tips that I found to make worldbuilding much more effective—this isn't a step by step guide or a to-do sheet filled with all elements that should go into your world. There are plenty of those online already.
1. Start with a Map
This is one of the most useful things I've found about fantasy worldbuilding. Sit down and draw a basic map of all your countries, lands, oceans, etc. Give them names, draw some hills and rivers. It might feel like nothing, but this is where great ideas are born. It's much easier to create a story based on a map than make up an elaborate plot, and then play catch up, trying to make all the things line up together with what your world is supposed to look like. If you go with the latter, I can guarantee plot holes popping up.
If you want to know where to go, first you have to know where you are, and that's one of my main rules of fantasy worldbuilding. This is why readers love seeing maps in books. They can always see exactly where they are in the story. But the best thing about maps is the ideas that they inspire. When I first started working on my book The Unseen, I drew a large section of mines in one of the countries on my map. It was nothing at first, but after a while, the mines became home to a dangerous narcotic powder, which then inspired other countries to invade this land and seize the drug. So take my word for it. Maps are a priority.
2. Create Solid Rules
Every fantasy world needs rules to follow, which will make it a believable place - especially when it comes to magic. Of course there are exceptions but even the most chaotic of universes follow some sort of guidelines. Think about Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings. It is a world shaped by highstorms—huge, relentless storms that sweep over the entire continent of Roshar every week, and destroy everything in their path. We have a whole society, a whole world, shaped by something as simple as weather. We know that a highstorm will come every couple of days without fail, and the only exception is a period known as the Weeping, where highstorms quit ravaging, and instead it rains for four weeks. Then everything goes back to normal again, and highstorms resume.
The reader can always rely on this information, and this is another rule. Always have something to rely on, something that will make your world consistent. It's what makes your worldbuilding vivid and believable, and most importantly, memorable.
Make sure that you create something that you will love.
3. Twist the Rules to Benefit the Plot
I'll always be highly skeptical of a fantasy world where "anything can happen". For example, creating boundless magic for your characters might sound cool, but in reality it's a plain old cliche. Think about it. If literally anything can happen, then that's what your reader will always expect, and you will lose the element of surprise. If you want to surprise your readers, you have to create a sense of stability and control, a feeling of safety. Then, you quietly come in and destroy it. You do the thing that the reader would never expect. It's the best recipe for plot twists.
For example, if you open your book with a scene of a woman lying dead on a beach, you have a guaranteed initial interest from your reader, but how do you make this curiosity linger? You supply a rule. Perhaps you'll have the reader find out that the woman was from a race of immortals, previously thought un-killable. Or maybe the woman's blood is white as milk—something that's never been recorded before. Rules are in place for a reason, but when they do break it should create impact and a sense of mystery—not confusion.
4. Put Time Into Details
The most believable fantasy worlds are filled with detail, and detail takes time and a lot of thinking. Before I dwell into this though, I want to clarify something. I'm not talking about dumping a ton of specifics into each paragraph you write. I'm talking about including the relevant things about a world/culture that will make your story memorable. For example, you don't have to mention that the fork your protagonist uses to eat has been crafted in a faraway land, or that its ornaments resemble some fancy flowers, because that's boring and irrelevant. But you do have to mention if your forks are made from wood because a race of people in your story has metal teeth and they hate the clinking of metal against metal.
Take your time to build. No construction lasts a long time when the builder rushes the work. And that relates to pretty much any creative project. If you want a strong fantasy world, you have to know it as if you had been raised in that world yourself. What do the people in your world eat? Do they attend school? What's fashionable? Do they have superstitions? What's the most common cause of death across your lands? How do your people count time or distinguish seasons? There are a thousand questions like these ones, and each one should have an answer.
5. Be Diverse
I can't stress this enough. And I know this is an opinion like any other, and you're entitled to have your own, but this is something I have to talk about. I will never call it great worldbuilding if all the people in your story are light-skinned, or if you only have like two distinctively different cultures or religions. It's not great if somehow everyone speaks one language (unless there is a specific, complex reason behind it) if there's only humans or human-like races around, only two genders, and the exact same stereotypes we have here on our planet. I mean, come on. You get to be a god. By choosing to create something very similar to what we already have on earth will make you come across as lazy. Remove your mental barriers and go crazy. Create everything and anything, flip your world upside down, shatter it, set it on fire, then remodel it entirely. You can make anything happen.
6. Love Your World
This is the last tip and it's a very simple one. Make sure that you create something that you will love. Just because there are already a million fantasy universes inspired by the Middle Ages doesn't mean you can't create one too and make it interesting with your own spins and twists. I really believe there is too much unnecessary pressure on writers these days to create something original and groundbreaking. That's just nonsense. You will never do a great job at writing if you force yourself to create something that doesn't interest you just for the sake of being different. In fact, you'll be more likely to abandon to project. So go write those dragons and elves and fairies. As long as you make them your own and love them with your whole heart, they will shine.
And that's about it, folks. As I've mentioned before, this isn't a guideline—just a few tips I had gathered along the way. They're all my personal opinions of course, so you might find that not all of them will work for you, and that's all fine. But since they've always worked for me, I thought I would share them.
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© 2018 Julia Skowronska