top of page
  • OSS Writing

World Building in Fantasy Novels: Creating Believable and Engaging Settings


book coming to life, world building in fantasy novels

World building is a crucial aspect of writing a successful fantasy novel. When it comes to world building in fantasy novels, writers have different approaches. Some writers develop their world as they craft their story, while others find it beneficial to brainstorm and develop a world prior to starting their story or plot lines. The latter approach allows writers to create a more detailed and cohesive world, with a clear understanding of the rules and limitations that govern it. Creating a believable and engaging setting can help readers immerse themselves in the story and become invested in the characters and plot. Here are some tips and best practices for world building in fantasy novels:


Start with the Basics

Before diving into the intricate tapestry of your fantasy world, it's essential to lay a solid foundation by starting with the basics. This initial step in world-building sets the stage for everything that follows, ensuring your creation is not only captivating but also believable to your readers.


Geography

Begin by envisioning the geographical features of your world. Is it dominated by vast, towering mountain ranges, sprawling forests, or endless deserts? Perhaps it's a world composed of floating islands amidst a sea of clouds. Understanding the geography helps shape not only the physical landscape but also the cultures and societies that will inhabit it. For instance, mountainous regions might give rise to hardy, isolated communities, while coastal areas could foster maritime cultures.


Climate

Consider the climate of your world. Does it experience extreme seasons, perpetual winter, or a temperate climate year-round? Climate influences agriculture, clothing, architecture, and even the day-to-day lives of your characters. A world where summer never ends might lead to different societal norms and values compared to one where harsh winters dominate.


Natural Resources

Take stock of the natural resources available in your world. Are there magical minerals, exotic flora, or unique creatures that hold significance? These resources can be the lifeblood of your world's economy and magic systems. A scarcity of certain resources could lead to conflicts, quests, and adventures that drive your story forward.


By laying down these fundamental aspects, you create a framework that guides the development of your world in a coherent manner. This foundation not only makes your world-building process more manageable but also provides readers with a consistent and immersive experience as they explore the depths of your fantastical creation.


Develop a History

Every world has a history, and your fantasy world is no exception. Develop a history that explains how your world came to be, including any significant events or conflicts that have shaped it.


Origins

Begin by exploring the origins of your world. Was it born from the fires of creation, crafted by powerful deities, or the result of a cataclysmic event? Understanding the birth of your world helps you define its core essence and can influence the beliefs and religions of its inhabitants. For instance, a world created by benevolent gods might be steeped in divine reverence, while one formed from a cosmic catastrophe might be a place where survival is paramount.


Significant Events

Identify the key events and conflicts that have shaped your world's past. These can be pivotal moments that have left lasting imprints on its culture, politics, and landscapes. Wars, revolutions, and great discoveries can all play a role in shaping your world's identity. Consider how these events have affected different regions, societies, and individuals within your world.


fantasy goddess, world building in fantasy novels

Legendary Figures

Introduce legendary figures and heroes who have left their mark on the annals of history. Whether they were valiant warriors, wise scholars, or enigmatic mystics, these characters can add depth and intrigue to your world's past. Their stories can become the stuff of legends and folklore, influencing the aspirations and ideals of your characters in the present day.


Cultural Evolution

Explore how cultures have evolved over time. Has there been cultural exchange, assimilation, or divergence? How have belief systems, traditions, and languages developed? The history of your world should be reflected in the diversity of its cultures, each with its own unique customs and values.


Ancient Mysteries

Consider weaving in ancient mysteries and unsolved enigmas from your world's past. These can serve as intriguing plot points or quests for your characters to pursue, adding an element of intrigue and adventure to your story.


As you develop the history of your fantasy world, remember that it's not just a backdrop but a living, breathing entity that influences the choices and destinies of your characters. It's a tapestry of stories waiting to be unraveled, and by delving into its depths, you create a world that feels real, authentic, and ripe for exploration.


Crafting a Culture

In the vast tapestry of your fantasy world, one of the most vital threads is the culture that inhabits it. The culture you build is not merely a background detail; it's a mirror reflecting the essence of your world and the people who call it home. Crafting a distinctive culture adds depth and authenticity to your narrative, making your world all the more immersive and engaging for readers.


Customs and Traditions

Begin by defining the customs and traditions that govern the lives of your world's inhabitants. These can range from daily rituals to grand celebrations. Think about how these customs shape interpersonal relationships, ceremonies, and the way individuals interact with the world around them. For example, a culture might have a tradition of storytelling around the campfire that strengthens familial bonds and preserves their history.


Belief Systems

Explore the belief systems prevalent in your world. Are there multiple deities, a singular omnipotent being, or perhaps a pantheon of gods and goddesses? How do these beliefs influence morality, ethics, and decision-making? Consider the role of religion in shaping societal norms and conflicts within your world.


Language and Communication

Develop unique languages or dialects for different cultures within your world. Language is a powerful tool for conveying the nuances of a culture, from the words that express emotions to idioms that reveal cultural values. Pay attention to how language barriers or misunderstandings can become sources of tension or humor in your story.


Social Hierarchy

Define the social hierarchy within your cultures. Who holds power, and how is it maintained or challenged? Social structures can range from monarchies and aristocracies to tribal communities or egalitarian societies. These hierarchies can greatly influence the dynamics between characters and the overarching plot.


Art, Music, and Aesthetics

Explore the artistic expressions of your cultures. Consider the styles of art, music, and architecture that are unique to each society. These creative elements provide visual and sensory cues that immerse readers in the cultural tapestry of your world. For instance, a nomadic culture might be known for its intricate textile artistry, while an advanced civilization may excel in architectural marvels.


Taboos and Stigmas

Delve into the taboos and stigmas within your cultures. What actions or behaviors are considered unacceptable, and what are the consequences for breaking these norms? Understanding taboos can lead to compelling conflicts and character development in your story.


Remember that culture is not a static entity; it evolves, adapts, and responds to changing circumstances. It can be a source of unity and division, a wellspring of conflicts and alliances. By crafting vibrant and unique cultures within your fantasy world, you breathe life into its inhabitants, making their experiences and interactions all the more captivating for your readers.


magic, magic in world building

Establish Rules and Limitations of Magic

Magic is often a key element in fantasy novels, but it's important to establish rules and limitations for your magic system. This will help you avoid plot holes and inconsistencies in your story. Also consider the impact that magic can have on the world as a whole.


Define the Sources

Begin by defining the sources of magic in your world. Is it drawn from the elements, celestial bodies, or mystical artifacts? Understanding the origins of magic can provide insight into its nature and limitations. For example, if magic is tied to the phases of the moon, it might be stronger or weaker at different times, creating strategic opportunities and challenges for characters.


Costs and Consequences

Consider the costs and consequences of using magic. Rarely should magic be a limitless resource without repercussions. There might be physical, mental, or even moral costs associated with wielding magic. These costs add depth to your characters and plot, making magic a compelling aspect of your world.


Specializations and Schools

Introduce specializations and schools of magic. Not all magic users need to be equally proficient in all aspects of magic. Specializations can include elemental magic, healing magic, necromancy, and more. These divisions can lead to conflicts, alliances, and unique character journeys.


Restrictions

Define any restrictions on who can wield magic. Is it a talent innate to certain individuals, or can anyone learn it with the right training? Are there societal or cultural restrictions on magic use? Clarifying these boundaries adds realism and depth to your world.


Spells and Incantations

Develop a system for spells and incantations. How are spells cast? Are there specific words, gestures, or ingredients required? Understanding the mechanics of magic can create tension and excitement when characters attempt to cast spells, particularly in high-stakes situations.


Limits of Power

Establish the limits of magical power. Every magic system should have its boundaries. Characters should not be omnipotent, as this can lead to plot inconsistencies. Knowing the extent of what magic can achieve allows you to maintain tension and avoid deus ex machina solutions.


Magical Artifacts

Consider the presence of magical artifacts in your world. These objects can hold immense power and play pivotal roles in your story. Define their origins, functions, and the consequences of using or misusing them.


By establishing clear rules and limitations for your magic system, you not only create a more believable and immersive world but also add opportunities for conflict, character growth, and plot development. Magic becomes a force to be reckoned with, and readers will eagerly follow your characters as they navigate the intricacies of your enchanting realm.


creature, world building in fantasy novel

Develop Unique Creatures

Fantasy worlds are a canvas of boundless imagination, and one of the most delightful ways to color that canvas is by populating it with creatures that defy the laws of nature. These unique beings can breathe life into your world, adding wonder, danger, and intrigue. Crafting creatures that are distinct to your world not only sparks the imagination but also enriches your storytelling experience.


Imagination Unleashed

Give your creativity free rein when designing creatures. Consider the blending of different animal traits, the infusion of magic, or even the creation of entirely new anatomical features. The more inventive and unexpected your creatures are, the more they will captivate your readers.


Ecological Roles

Think about the ecological roles your creatures play within your world. Do they serve as predators, prey, or symbiotic partners? Understanding their place in the ecosystem adds depth to your world's ecology and can provide story opportunities. For example, a forest guardian creature might become the guardian of a hidden treasure sought by your characters.


Behaviors and Social Structures

Define the behaviors and social structures of your creatures. Do they have complex societies, hierarchies, or communal bonds? Are they solitary hunters, nomadic herds, or elusive beings that rarely interact with other species? The interactions of your creatures with each other and with your characters can drive the plot forward.


Unique Abilities

Grant your creatures unique abilities or magical powers. These abilities can become plot devices, sources of conflict, or tools for your characters to utilize or confront. A creature with the power of invisibility, for example, can introduce challenges and intrigue to your story.


Mythology and Lore

Incorporate mythology and lore surrounding your creatures. What stories do people tell about them? Are they revered as gods, feared as monsters, or misunderstood as misunderstood beings? These narratives can provide context and depth to your world's history and culture.


Origin Stories

Consider the origin stories of your creatures. Were they created by divine forces, the result of magical experiments, or the product of natural evolution? The origins of your creatures can be a source of mystery or wonder, and they can tie into the larger lore of your world.


Interaction with Characters

Think about how your characters interact with these creatures. Will they befriend, battle, or study them? The encounters your characters have with these beings can reveal facets of their personalities and drive the plot in unexpected directions.


Incorporating unique creatures into your fantasy world provides opportunities for exploration, discovery, and adventure. These creatures can be sources of wonder, peril, or companionship for your characters and readers alike. They are the inhabitants of the extraordinary realm you've crafted, and they breathe life into your fantastical narrative.


fantasy realm with technology, world building in fantasy novel

Consider the Impact of Technology

Technology can also have a significant impact on your world. Consider how technology affects the economy, politics, and social structure of your world.


Technological Advancements

Decide on the level of technological advancement in your world. Is it a medieval society with limited technology, a steampunk world with elaborate machinery, or a futuristic realm with advanced science and technology? The level of technology will set the tone for your world and dictate the tools and resources available to your characters.


Impact on Economy

Consider how technology affects the economy of your world. Technological advancements can revolutionize industries, leading to changes in trade, agriculture, and manufacturing. For instance, the introduction of magical transportation devices might lead to booming trade routes, while advanced agricultural tools can increase food production and population growth.


Political Influence

Explore the political ramifications of technology. In some cases, technological advancements can centralize power in the hands of a select few who control the means of production. Alternatively, it can empower the masses, leading to social revolutions and shifts in power dynamics. Think about how different factions or nations within your world might harness or suppress technology for their gain.


Social Structure

Analyze how technology shapes the social structure of your world. Does it create disparities between the rich and poor? Are there guilds or organizations dedicated to specific technological crafts? How does access to technology affect the opportunities and social mobility of your characters?


Ethical Dilemmas

Consider the ethical dilemmas posed by technology. Are there debates over the responsible use of magic, the ethics of experimenting with forbidden knowledge, or the consequences of artificial intelligence? These moral questions can add depth to your characters and plotlines.


Cultural Impact

Think about how different cultures within your world might embrace or resist technology. Cultural attitudes toward innovation, tradition, and progress can lead to conflicts or alliances between different societies. Some cultures may view technology as a means of enlightenment, while others may see it as a threat to their way of life.


Plot Opportunities

Use technology as a source of conflict and plot opportunities. Technological devices, inventions, or discoveries can serve as MacGuffins, driving characters on quests or missions. Additionally, technology can malfunction or be exploited, leading to unforeseen challenges and dilemmas.


By carefully considering the impact of technology on your world, you add a layer of realism and complexity to your fantasy setting. It becomes a dynamic, ever-evolving place where the interplay between magic, technology, and societal structures creates a rich tapestry for your characters to navigate.


fantasy world map, world building in a fantasy novel

Develop a Map

Maps can be useful tools for world building, helping you visualize the geography and locations of your world. As we touched on above, geography can help to paint a picture for the reader, and a map can provide a tangible resource. A map is not just a visual aid; it's a gateway to the immersive world you've crafted.


World Consistency

A map ensures consistency within your world. It's a reference point that helps you avoid continuity errors and maintain the realism of your setting. Readers appreciate when the geography matches the descriptions in your narrative, and a map is a valuable tool to achieve this consistency.


Storytelling Tool

Your map can also serve as a storytelling tool. Mark important locations, landmarks, and points of interest on the map. These can be places of significance to your characters, such as a hidden village, an ancient temple, or a haunted forest. When characters embark on quests or journeys, readers can follow their progress on the map, enhancing the sense of adventure.


Reader Engagement

Maps are not just for your benefit as a writer; they engage your readers as well. Many readers enjoy studying maps and tracing the routes of their favorite characters. It adds a layer of immersion and involvement that can enhance their reading experience.


Expanding Horizons

A map can also hint at uncharted territories and unexplored lands, sparking curiosity and anticipation for future stories or adventures within your world. It creates a sense of a larger, interconnected world beyond the boundaries of your current narrative.


Whether you're a visual artist or not, creating a map for your fantasy world is a valuable investment of time and effort. It provides clarity, consistency, and a tangible connection between your world and your readers. It's a powerful tool for world-building that enhances the richness and depth of your fantastical realm.


Develop Unique Cultures and Societies

The diversity of cultures and societies within your fantasy world is a treasure trove waiting to be explored. Each culture adds layers of richness, history, and depth to your world, making it more immersive and believable. By crafting distinct societies with their own customs, traditions, and beliefs, you breathe life into your fantastical realm and provide readers with a captivating journey through different facets of your world.


Religion and Belief Systems

Religion and belief systems are fundamental aspects of culture. Consider the pantheon of gods or spiritual beliefs that shape your cultures. How do these beliefs influence daily life, rituals, and morality? Are there religious conflicts or syncretism between different faiths? Religion can be a source of unity or division, adding complexity to your world.


Language and Communication

Language is a powerful tool for conveying culture. Develop unique languages or dialects for different cultures within your world. Explore how language barriers or misunderstandings can become sources of tension or humor in your story. Consider the nuances of language, including formal and informal speech, slang, and idioms.


Social Customs and Etiquette

Social customs and etiquette vary widely between cultures. These norms dictate behavior in various social situations, from greetings and gift-giving to dining etiquette and courtship rituals. Understanding these customs allows you to create authentic interactions between characters and societies.


Governance and Politics

Different societies may have varied forms of governance, from monarchies and republics to tribal councils and dictatorships. Examine the political structures, power dynamics, and ideologies that govern your cultures. Political intrigue, alliances, and conflicts can be integral to your plot.


Gender Roles and Family Structures

Consider the roles of gender and family within your cultures. Are there distinct gender expectations, or do some cultures embrace non-binary or fluid identities? How do family structures vary, from nuclear families to extended clans or communal living arrangements?


Traditions and Festivals

Traditions and festivals offer opportunities to showcase cultural celebrations and practices. These events can serve as backdrops for important plot moments, such as a grand tournament or a mystical rite of passage. They also provide insight into the values and priorities of a society.


Economics and Trade

The economic systems and trade networks of your cultures influence their prosperity and interactions with other societies. Consider the types of resources they produce or rely on, as well as their trade partners and economic disparities.


By developing unique cultures and societies within your fantasy world, you not only create a rich tapestry of diversity but also unlock countless opportunities for conflict, collaboration, and character development. Your characters' interactions with these cultures can lead to growth, change, and unexpected twists in your narrative, making your world a dynamic and compelling setting for your story.


Be Consistent

Consistency is key when it comes to world building. Make sure that the rules and limitations you establish are followed throughout your story. When you maintain consistency in your world-building, you create a sense of trust with your audience and ensure that your fantastical realm feels believable and immersive.

Maintain Internal Logic

Your world should follow its own internal logic. If you establish rules for magic, technology, or the behavior of creatures, stick to them. Inconsistencies can jar readers out of the narrative and create confusion or frustration.

Character Behaviors

Characters should behave consistently within the rules and norms of your world. If a character possesses a certain skill or knowledge, they should use it consistently, and their actions should align with their established traits and motivations.

Historical Events

The history of your world should also remain consistent. If you've detailed past conflicts, alliances, or pivotal events, ensure that references to these events align with the established history.

Foreshadowing and Chekhov's Gun

Use foreshadowing and Chekhov's Gun (the principle that every element in a story must be necessary) to set up future events or plot developments. Be sure to follow through on these setups to maintain consistency and satisfy reader expectations.

Beta Readers and Editing

Enlist the help of beta readers or editors to spot inconsistencies in your manuscript. Fresh eyes can often identify discrepancies or lapses in continuity that you might have missed.

Consistency is a sign of respect for your readers. When you uphold the rules and limitations of your world, you allow your audience to fully immerse themselves in the story without distractions. It also demonstrates your commitment to crafting a well-crafted and believable fantasy world.

By striving for consistency in your world-building, you create a foundation upon which your story can flourish, capturing the imaginations of your readers and drawing them deeper into the enchanting realm you've created.

Avoid Info-Dumping

While it's important to establish the rules and limitations of your world, it's also important to avoid info-dumping. Instead, try to reveal information about your world gradually, through the actions and dialogue of your characters.


Show, Don't Tell

Instead of directly telling readers about your world's rules, customs, or history, show these elements through character interactions and experiences. For example, rather than explaining the magical rules governing your world, depict a character performing a spell or grappling with its limitations.


Use Dialogue

Engage in natural dialogue between characters to convey information. Characters can discuss world-specific topics, share stories, or ask questions, providing opportunities to organically introduce world-building details. Make sure these conversations feel genuine and relevant to the characters' context.


Use Perspective

Utilize the perspectives of your characters to reveal the world around them. Describe what they see, hear, and feel, focusing on sensory details that immerse readers in your world without overwhelming them with exposition.


Integrate World-Building with Plot

Weave world-building into the fabric of your plot. Introduce relevant world-building elements as they become necessary for the story's progression. If a magical artifact is crucial to the plot, reveal its significance as the characters interact with it.


Consider Character Expertise

Tailor the depth of world-building details to your characters' expertise and experiences. A character who grew up in a certain culture might not need an explanation of their own customs, while an outsider might require more explanation.


Trust Your Readers

Allow readers to make inferences and connect the dots themselves. Readers enjoy piecing together the world-building details as they progress through the story, creating a more engaging and interactive reading experience.


Reserve Info for Impact

Save essential world-building revelations for moments of high impact or tension. This keeps readers engaged and eager to learn more as the story unfolds.


Supplement with Appendices

For complex worlds with intricate rules or histories, consider including appendices or supplementary materials at the end of your book. These can provide interested readers with additional background information without overwhelming the main narrative.


Show Diversity

Present diversity in your world-building. Introduce different cultures, perspectives, and societies gradually to create a layered and immersive world.


Remember, world-building is not just about conveying information; it's about creating an emotional connection between readers and your world. By revealing details organically and allowing readers to explore and understand your world as they go, you create a more engaging and memorable reading experience.


Striking the right balance between world-building and storytelling is an art, and it takes practice. Trust in your ability to guide readers through your fantastical realm one piece at a time, allowing them to savor the journey of discovery.


Get Feedback

Once you've developed your world, it's important to get feedback from beta readers or writing groups. They can help you identify inconsistencies or plot holes and provide suggestions for improvement.


If you keep these concepts in mind while developing your world, you can create a magic system that is consistent, believable, and compelling, and take your fantasy novel to the next level. And if you run into problems, remember One Small Step Writing Services has skilled editors who can help! Our team of experienced editors can provide feedback on your world building, character development, and plot, helping you create a compelling and well-structured story that will keep readers engaged from beginning to end.


176 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page