While you may be an expert at creating characters, crafting plots, and filling in the details of your world, it’s likely that the details and workings of the fantasy world itself have left you confused. How do you get started? Where do you even begin? How do you make a world that’s both realistic and fantastic at the same time? In this post, we’ll walk you through the process, from creating the map to populating the world with cultures and languages.
Understand how worldbuilding started
Magic in fantasy is more than just labels like “D&D-style” or “SFF-grungy.” It’s an important part of any fantasy world, and much like a living, breathing creature, magic forms a symbiotic relationship with the world you’re building. Not all magic systems are created equal. What functions best for you and for your characters depends on the scope you’ve chosen for your fantasy world. To keep your fantasy magic system from sputtering out your readers’ suspension of disbelief, it’s important to read and research worldbuilding tropes and values. Because at the end of the day, no matter how grounded your fantasy world feels, a wildly imaginative array of fantasy magic spells, enchantments, weapons, and creatures can and will demolish any semblance of reality.
The realism of your fantasy world is separate from your magic system, your dragons, and your fiery wizards. Avoid constructing hard rules for elements in your magical system — only define the parts that are crucial to your story. When drawing on mythology and folklore traditions for inspiration, avoid drawing from the too-common well-worn elements like elves, dwarves, goblins, and halflings. Even the most anemic versions of these creatures don’t match up to a modern definition of a fantasy race, and the Tolkienian wheel has turned twice since their original introduction in The Hobbit . When you introduce a powerful new entity into your fantasy world, it should feel downright life-threatening.
Research your world
Creating a fantasy world is no small task, it should be emphasized. So before you get started, take a few hours and do some research on mythology and historical civilizations. The more familiar you are with human history, conversations, and culture, the more easily you will be able to create layers and nuances in your fantasy world. Study the difference between your fantasy and historical settings. One of the major things that you will need to consider when creating a fantasy setting is how you will distinguish your fictional world from the one that most people know. Even though you want your characters and their ethical dilemmas to be relative to your reader, these ethical dilemmas need to be rooted in human history, rather than another fictional world.
Take notes of details that make your setting distinctive. You can also use a few hours of research to get started on some of the specific elements your fantasy world may possess. You need to create flags, currency, food and instruments of war to be able to start writing. You’ll also need to create your religious system, its god or set of gods, taboos, how it was formed, and anything else that you can think of. Remember to consider how religion might be alike in your fantasy world versus real-world religions, or how it might be the opposite. Next, create maps. If you don’t have a background in cartography, you can draw your map with a pen, and it will still be pretty. If you would like to focus on a particular part of your world, choose a perspective, whether that of a real-world fighter, explorer, or spy.
Fill your world with up with things
This means people, places, languages, and products that all need to be exhaustingly researched and included so that it’ll be clear that you’ve put in the effort. You may have to defer or refuse to write something, simply because you’re not qualified to know it. For instance, medieval England might have been your comfort zone, but any scenes in futuristic Kenshin should be left in the hands of those who know more about Japan. The same goes for languages. If your book requires a unique language to be believable, then you may want to reject your first offer for someone to help you. Language is a notoriously tricky subject, so it can help to read a grammar book or two to help you better understand syntax and verb forms.
Character details are another area that can get easily overlooked — make sure to write about their hair’s texture and color, as well as their eye color and skin tone. You need to stay consistent, so while you’re creating a fantasy world’s shopping list, take a moment to also sketch out a family tree showing all your characters’ relations to each other. Keep a separate document of all the products in your world that you’ll need to create a shopping list of all the props you’ll need to compose. This will come in handy when you start to actually build these items on paper, in which case you’ll have to follow this next piece of advice.
Flesh your world with every kind of picture
Before you create your fantasy world, you need to extrapolate its history. Create a family tree or lineage for your characters, and decide what kinds of transformative-world events happened in the past. These events will become details in your narrative as the present-day protagonist is thrust into another type of transformative event, but examining the geological and biological changes of the world can inform your plot. Perhaps something fell from the stars onto the land? Maybe it created new kinds of people and clans? Major events like that will create interest in your fantasy world, because the reader will be able to understand the core elements of the story and the human beings within it. Think of the details you can flesh out with your events. Monsters, wars, locations…there’s even a theological study in the question of what the presence of the object of their worship on their world would do to the beliefs and cultures of your fictional civilization.
Next, create the physical topography of your world. Plan out your fantasy world’s major geographic regions, and remember to be creative. You could get away with being nostalgic and leeching off of your own continent’s borders and backstory, but that’s the kind of derivative thinking that would cause your readers to reach for the off switch. Fantasy worlds are supposed to be freeing, so instead let your imagination loose and focus on synthesizing traits and social archetypes into narratives that are part geopolitical speculation, fantasy, sociology, and history — all the elements your readers will be devouring when they read your bestselling fantasy.
Develop your races
When planning a fantasy world, you usually begin with the geography. You know, mountains and hills and rivers and lakes and the like, and often that’s as far as you get. Though these broad strokes may seem enough to you in the dark days of preplanning, just barely conceiving this world is not enough. You need to do more than just conjure an outline, more than discover the elemental composition of surface terrain. If you want to flesh out a world that wholeheartedly thrives under imagination, your next step is to really delve into the races of humanoids that inhabit your world.
Your races determine your cultures, which in turn define the world more than just the shapes of its hills and the colors of its sky. The humans have split in two different countries that have been at war for years, or the elves keep to themselves, having forgotten all but how to enjoy beauty? Understanding the attitudes and beliefs of your races both individually and as a whole is how you construct the bedrock upon which you’ll set your narrative. It’s also helpful to have a list of names, but the race itself is what you need to study and understand.
Plan your magic system
The level of magic used in your fantasy world is an important distinguishing factor, and the elements of magic will play a big part in defining what kind of fantasy you’ll be writing. Create a history of your world’s magic, starting at its real-world origin and tracing its use over the course of the series’ plot. Going forward, you should know how magic becomes more or less available in the world, and beware overdoing it! Unexplained magic can make your audience say snap! and suddenly something seems false. On the other hand, dry no magic can make the world feel dull and lifeless — and make the story’s outcome seem predictable. This ties directly into library research, in that you should give yourself enough working specifics about your magic system to make it seem realistic, but not so many details that you can make up your own rules when things get interesting.
Another big task in mapping out your world is creating the cultures of the lands that populate it. Weave a rich, varied history for each country and align it with the natural world around it. Create a culture “system,” meaning that fantasy cultures must have social, political, and religious systems. What will determine where one culture fits besides geographic location? Consider how a nation’s land might seem infertile to one culture — or provide rain and abundant crops to another. How do the people survive in their environment?
Investigate creating your own mythology
If you’re writing a fantasy story that’s set in a fictional world, you have a unique opportunity to craft a self-contained mythology that’s all your own. Opting to create your own mythology is a large undertaking — one that comes with a lot of responsibility — but it’s a choice that will far outshine whatever preparatory work you have to do. The benefits of crafting your own mythology can be as simple as providing your reader with an enthralling and unusual world to explore, or as profound as tying together different pieces of your story in a way that makes the whole much greater than the sum of its parts. If nothing else, you’re sure to impress potential readers when you say you’re creating whole new sets of stories and creatures to go along with your new mythology.
Worldbuilding with a focus on your own mythology allows you to provide your fictional creations with rich cultural details, intertwining history and cultural habits. People experience time differently than we do, and have ideas of space and magic unique to their world. You not only provide a detailed imagining of a new and exciting world, you give the people who live in its existing cultural depth. A lot can happen even when you don’t see it happening on the surface.
Incorporate bizarre elements
Not all fantasy worlds fit a template. If you are writing about a magical, supernatural universe, there are fewer restrictions on what kind of creatures, people, and places you can create. That doesn’t mean you should make everything a giant snake dog/deer centaur/weretiger hybrid, though. Unless you are writing in a genre aside from straight fantasy, it’s probably better to rely on more conventional creatures and people.
Wild things can be fun, though — especially if you incorporate them in a way that makes your fantasy landscape unique and believable. What if, for example, you chose to eliminate all non rhinoceroses from your fantasy world, instead of just arbitrarily having some half-hedgehog mess running around? Or rather than a world in which water is just naturally corrosive ice, the opposite is true, and water-breathing humans have built city-boats to sail around in? These seemingly random changes actually give your fantasy setting a different sort of logic within its own universe, and make your creatures, people, and places relative to everything else in the world.
No matter what, remember to keep things simple. “Fantasy,” of course, is sometimes used as a synonym for “complicated,” because there’s often so much going on in fantasy worlds. And some authors may overcomplicate their imaginations. But good fantasy, however over the top it might seem at times, has a kind of logic behind it. If you and your readers are going to follow the events of your story, you have to present to them a fantasy world that makes sense to them. Then your own readers won’t be so anxious and confused — about how to write a fantasy world, or how to read your fantasy book. Creators are writers, so let your creativity guide you as you write your world, and the creativity of your readers will follow suit.
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