Creating a fantasy world is a unique pleasure. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve survived a tedious lecture by drawing maps in the margins of my notes. There’s something invigorating and refreshing about conjuring an unfamiliar landscape in your mind and walking down its twisting passes. I’d wager us writers are never bored while standing in line — we’ve always got a world to think about.
I find these worldbuilding games are actually quite useful. All stories need a setting. Fantasy stories especially so. In many ways, the setting is the calling card of fantasy, it’s what separates your book from all the rest. So your world has to be immediately eye-catching. It has to be, well, fantastic.
I read a lot of fantasy. It’s a bit of a guilty pleasure. So I’ve read about interesting worlds and I’ve read about ho-hum worlds. I’ll try to summarize what made the interesting ones stand out.
A Dynamic World
Treat your world just like another character in your story. It has contradictions and hidden natures, flaws and personalities, it has relationships and desires. And just like your characters, your world should change over the course of the story, and it should change in a variety of ways.
The world should be in the process of change even before the main characters are introduced. This adds a layer of verisimilitude. Nobody will believe that a world has been stagnant for hundreds of years. Our world is constantly changing, as politics, culture, technology, and the environment shift like the tides. Your world should reflect this.
Brainstorming what direction your world is changing in will help answer a lot of questions about the world itself. You’ll need to know who is driving the change, who supports it, who stands against it. You’ll need to pick hotbeds of change, chaotic melting pots where the machinery of your world is oiled.
The world should also change as a result of interacting with your main characters. This does not have to be a major change. Indeed, a whole ‘world’ so to speak can be just a small village, and the change nothing more than a few smiling faces along the street. Showing the effect your characters have on the world, though, is a good visual metaphor for how the characters themselves have changed.
A Unique Premise
As a kid, I once explained the premise of a book I wanted to write to my father. Of course, it was garbage — I was a kid. But I was proud of it. My father asked me one of the hardest questions I’ve ever been asked. “What makes your book different?”
At first, I was defensive. “My book doesn’t have to be different,” I wanted to say. “It just has to be good.” But as I’ve grown as a writer, I’ve come to realize my father was right. Your idea does have to be different. That’s what makes it yours.
There are an infinite number of fantasy worlds. Don’t limit yourself to the ones already imagined.
When I brainstorm a premise, I try to make sure that there are several things incorporated into that premise. Conflict, mystery, and potential.
Conflict is straightforward, and it ties into the above section on change. The premise itself should have tension inherent to its nature. Things should feel like they are happening, and that those happenings matter. Your premise should have a certain edge to it, as if the world was on a precipice and anything might tip it one way or another.
Most fantasy and sci-fi stories follow this advice. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, concerns a world plagued by the knowledge that at any minute aliens could come to finish them off, and they wouldn’t have any defense. In The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkein, the conflict concerns the tension between the people of Lake-Town and the dragon Smaug, who live within eye-sight of each other.
In these examples, the conflict consists not of outright warfare, but rather the anxiety that comes from knowing that you are living in the events that precede warfare. (It doesn’t have to be warfare, though. Too often the genre of fantasy fetishizes the military. The conflict can, and probably should, be anything but warfare).
Mystery is also an easy thing to work into your premise. Most good premises have an unknown quantity about them. Figuring that unknown quantity out is the plot of many fantasy novels.
Examples include dystopian novels like The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, in which the mystery is how the world ended. To give a contemporary example, in The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, the mystery is who killed the protagonist’s family. In the same vein, the mystery in The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson is finding out why the mythical ‘Knights Radiant’ disappeared.
A mystery has the potential to immediately hook the reader. The easiest way to keep someone turning pages is to promise a hint at solving the unsolvable. The more impossible the mystery seems, the more invested the reader will be in learning its truth.
In order for the reader to care about the mystery, though, the characters in the story need to care about it as well. When a reader grows to like a character, they take that character’s desires and feelings as their own. So if the character wants to know the answer to something, so will the reader.
Potential is a vague concept. A strong premise should have a sense of unlimited possibility. That the events in the story only scratch the surface of what your premise can offer. The Discworld series by Terry Pratchett is the best example of this. A simple premise — a world that’s flat, instead of spherical. But the sheer amount of content in that world is mind boggling. There is always something new to discover, and things that you thought you knew well are shown to have even greater depth than you could have imagined.
Rules To Follow
Fantasy (and sci-fi) are great because of the unfettered control you have over the world. But randomness is only compelling in small quantities. Readers like to have a sense that the world follows an order. That there are laws of nature, and though those laws may be different from the ones on this earth, they are just as absolute.
Essentially, this boils down to predictability. People get pleasure while listening to music because they can anticipate what note will come next. Their prediction is based off of the pattern that the song and the genre have established. And breaking from that pattern can be pleasing too, just only in small, well thought out doses. Storytelling is the same way.
Each world you create should establish rules of operation. The reader grows to understand these rules and feels confident in their ability to predict what will happen if, say, an apple falls from a tree. When you break those rules, it can be refreshing and surprising. But if you break them constantly, the story feels disjointed.
Limits are far more interesting than powers. An omnipotent god is probably going to be an uninteresting character. But a god limited by a complex sense of morality can be incredibly interesting. Your world functions in much the same way. If anything is possible, then there is no longer excitement in doing the impossible.
This is especially true when designing magic. The challenge is maintaining a sense of power, mystique, and intrigue, while also maintaining a sense of stakes and the possibility of failure. Balancing these two aspects is the core problem for many stories. Often fantasy writers will be criticised for the magic feeling like an unlimited plot device, or they will be criticised for the magic feeling too rule-bound and indeed, not very magical at all.
My recommendation is to blend both aspects. Give your magic rules. But remember that it is still magic, and magic by definition is something that breaks rules. Allow the magic to be just as emotional as it is scientific. If you establish that magic has concrete rules, then scenes in which those rules are broken can be extraordinarily powerful.
It is an unfortunate truth that an interesting world requires an immense amount of research and preparation.
You should know every detail about each country or culture or city or feature of the landscape. How it was created. How it operates on a day to day basis. What if feels like to be a part of it. What are its different aspects and how do they interact with each other.
This will require a decent amount of knowledge about the real world. When I create a fantasy culture, often I will do research on the cultures I’m drawing inspiration from, or simply on the idea of culture itself. What creates culture? What creates conflict between cultures? Real life cultures have dozens of different, interconnected parts. They have customs, history, conflict, religion, clothing, food, all mish-mashed together. I’m always careful to make sure my fantasy cultures reflect this level of complexity. Above all, I try to avoid recreating real life stereotypes in my made up world.
For geographical features, real world accuracy is important as well. If you have a river that spills into the ocean, have you made sure to include a watery delta? If you have a snow coerced mountain range, have you remembered the flooding season in the springtime as the snow melts? When a reader has to ask these questions it removes them from the story, it breaks their flow.
Finally, each of these disparate aspects of your fantasy world should connect to each other. Your characters should feel like they derive naturally from the world that produced them, and your world should feel like it thematically relates to your characters. The landscape should see the effects of the magic, and the design of magic should be influenced by the landscape.
Avatar: The Last Airbender, created by Michael DiMartino and Brian Konietzko, does this extraordinarily well. Each character reflects aspects of the culture that they were born in. Toph, from the Earth Kingdom, is tough, resilient, and unmoving. Aang, from the Air Nomads, is light, playful, yet capably of ferocity. Their cultures created them. But each culture also has thematic resonance with the character arcs in a symbiotic and circular way. Characters and worlds were not designed separately in a vacuum, they were designed together, interwoven.
Avatar also is the most obvious example of tying the magic system to the landscape, in that magic literally derives from a person’s surroundings. Earthbenders control earth, airbenders control air. But it is connected in more subtle ways as well. The Air Nomads live in a place that only airbenders could reach. The Earth Kingdom is defined by immense constructions of stone — something only earthbenders could create. When the world of Avatar was created, DiMartino and Konietzko made sure to consider how magic would influence it.
When I create a world, I try to consider how each element would affect every other element. If I create a nation with a strong religion, I then ask myself how that religion affects daily lives and customs, how it would affect history, how it would affect neighboring nations. If I create a magic system, I ask myself how magic would be used on a day-to-day basis in construction, politics, warfare, and home life.
A great exercise you can do is imagine a local tavern (or the equivalent) in your world. A storyteller sits on a stool, entertaining the patrons. What stories does that storyteller tell? Why do they choose to tell those stories? What do the patrons think about those stories? In answering these questions you can delve into the inner workings of your world in a deeply personal way.