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Fantasy World Building

Fantasy is fun to read, isn’t it? I read a book with a nuanced, intricate fictional world and I’m usually blown away by the amount of detail that’s there, the loads of planning I imagine it took the author to build the world, and the way it all fits with the story being told. How did they do that? I wonder. Also, How the hell did they manage to keep all that detail in mind as they wrote?

I’ve learned the hard way that detailed notes on your own world are the way to go. When I was young, innocent, and more positive, I thought I’d be able to remember all the shit I was putting into my books. I wrote it, after all.


Now I know better. Now I know that I won’t remember, no matter how vibrant, amazing, wonderful my story is. I just won’t. Other things crowd in. Memory (as we know) is a sketchy beast anyway. We think we remember things perfectly but we don’t. (Oh, how we don’t.)

There are things that can both help you world build as well as keep the details you’ve created close at hand as you write.

Tip 1: Create your World Bible on day one.

“What?” you ask. “Why would I create a world bible for a single story?”

Because, as I said above, your memory is an asshole. It wants you to think you’re remembering everything perfectly, even as it slowly enhances, reshapes, and reworks what you think you once knew.

However you keep your bible, keep it well. Put in the details you’re sure you’d never forget. “My main character’s nickname is Ole Blue Eyes! Of COURSE I’ll remember that her eyes are blue.” Riiiiight. Until that day you are opening up the file for book six and you wonder if you were just being ironic or what. (Trust me, it happens.)

In your world bible, you want:

  • Space for your characters and their characteristics. (Don’t forget birthdays! You’ll think they won’t be important and then BOOM! Suddenly you need to know when everyone is born and it’ll slow your roll. Don’t let birthdays slow your roll. Put them in your bible.)
    • Add phrases your characters say a lot.
    • Add gestures, physical tics, etc … that define your characters.
    • Add your characters’ kids, their families, etc…
    • Add nicknames.
    • Add favorite foods, drinks, etc … Hell, add their fav brands, too. Whatever defines your character, make a note of it in your bible.
  • Places, place names, locations, and why they are significant to your story.
    • Knowing what chapter you mentioned a town in can help you find it again when you’re trying to remember just WHY you mentioned that town. (Some of this recording will feel tedious and you’ll want to stop. Don’t. Trust me. It’ll save you a lot of grief in the long run.)
    • Add in descriptions of the buildings, rooms, etc …
    • Make sure you tell yourself WHY you made the main character’s room pink when she always wears black when she’s working.
  • Languages
    • If you’re creating a language for your world, make sure you note all the words you use, even if all you do is sprinkle a few things here and there. Note which chapter they come up, again, so it’s not a nightmare finding the reference again.
    • If you are creating a language, make sure you add references to the people and culture using the language. Explain to yourself why the speak the way they do. You’ll forget.
  • Miscellaneous
    • Anything you can’t find a place for or a category for, write it down anyway! It might end up being important later. Glorious bits of detail, a concentration of the color red, a particular smell–whatever it is, write it down.

Tip 2: Give yourself time to dream

If you want a gloriously detailed world, you don’t pack it full of shit first run through and hope for the best. Describing the leaves in minute (and dull) detail won’t make people gasp at the gloriousness of your world building. They’ll just throw your book across the room and find something else to read. Real world building takes time. (This is hard for me! When I get an idea, I just want to write it, who cares about the layers? But layers are what you want when you’re creating a world.

Give yourself space to build on the story idea. You’ll need to know about the culture of the place you’re creating, the economy, the religions, the geography (and how the land/water has shaped the people), the food, the magic system (if any) and its rules, the language, what kinds of weapons they use, the history of war (or peace) in the land (and why), etc …

I don’t recommend just writing down a few things for each and thinking you’re good to go. At best, you’ll have a cursory world in which to set your characters, at worst it will come across as shallow, and the worstest (It’s a word now!) would be creating a world that suddenly doesn’t fit your characters. ACK!

In order to build a great world, you have to start with your characters. Who are they? How have they been shaped by the place they’ve lived? Remember, the best, most beautiful, most detailed world is nothing without people. You need to work back and forth, between character and world, adding a thin layer after thin layer.

“Here’s this woman, she is middle-aged, she lost her family in a war. What war? What’s happening in this world? Who is fighting whom? Is she poor? Yeah, she’s poor, but why? What’s going on with the economy in her town? Is it like that across the country? What happened to make her poor? Is it just her or the entire town, entire region? Let’s say the region is poor because several harvests have failed. Why?”

Those are the kinds of questions to ask yourself as you think about your book and your world and your people. Go back and forth between them. If you find out that they harvest a certain kind of magical rock that only grows in their region, you might figure your character is strong, (magical rocks are heavy and maybe, since they are being harvested and can grow, that they are a bit bitey) and she has rough hands. Her body, her look, her mind is shaped by the world she lives in, the work she does. Your world can be huge, but it can only be as big as the characters who live it. 

Tip 3: Don’t plot everything out ahead of time

This is the pantser in me, but I really think some gorgeous things come from happy accidents. (Bob Ross agrees with me.) If you plan everything out to the tiniest detail, you’re not going to give yourself room to discover new and incredible things in your world. It’s okay to plan things out, but do it in a AAA Road Trip Planner sort of way. (Have you ever seen one of those? They give you a map with the most direct route marked and an indirect route. They give you some ideas for landmarks, and can even give you estimates on how much gas you’ll use. But they can’t tell you what you’ll see or what you’ll experience on that journey. That’s up to you.) You can know your characters wills tart at A in the first chapter and end at B, but you should let them have their experiences on the way, experiences you don’t plan out, no matter how tempted you are. You can always go back and fix things that don’t work, but if you don’t allow them to get off the interstate to gawk at the wildflowers, they’ll never see that mysterious ring glinting in the grass.

Tip 4: Do a lot of research

The research isn’t for you to copy or mimic. I don’t want to read pages of description on how a medieval woman put on her underthings if that has nothing to do with the story. I don’t care that you spent the last five hundred years painstakingly learning the minutia of Renaissance life. I. DON’T. CARE. If it doesn’t have anything to do with the story, it doesn’t matter. What you should be getting from your research is inspiration. Research should be pepper you sprinkle your story lightly with. No one wants a perfectly cooked steak smothered in it. (Talk about sneezing for days.)

Your research about the Aztecs can inform your medieval fantasy world set in AU England. Your degree is ancient Greek mythology (what were you thinking?) can make your Kenyan fantasy more nuanced. How? By finding the humanity in history. That humanity can translate into a number of different stories, no matter where it came from. Now, I’m not suggesting you take an entire religious system from one group of people and copy it into your story. I’m suggesting you really consider what it is about that religious system that intrigued you, lit you on fire, made you think about it for hours, days, months later. Use THAT to create your OWN religion for your novel.

Tip 5: Have fun

Don’t forget that even in the most dire places, there are funny things and people. Don’t forget that you’re writing because you love it. Don’t forget the joy of creation in the slog of work. Ultimately, it’s your world, it’s your book, it’s yours. It’s yours.

And what a beautiful thing it is, too.


Published inWriting


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