One thing readers of fantasy look for is a journey to a magical world that is unlike the mundane world we all inhabit, so building that world is one of the most important tasks of a fantasy writer and also one of the most fun.
There are two basic types of world builders, sometimes called architects and gardeners. Before they even begin to write the story, an architect takes days, weeks, months outlining every intricate detail of their world from economics to politics to magic. They will create whole notebooks full of climate data, geography, types of inhabitants, religious systems, and even holidays. There are two basic dangers to this type of world building. The first is using it as an excuse to delay beginning the actual story. It can become a distraction/procrastination tactic to combat a writer’s anxiety about whether or not they are truly good enough to be a writer. (An anxiety nearly all writers share.) So a writer needs to know when to stop world building and start writing. The second danger is to use every detail imagined within the novel itself. You spent time creating it, so you need to share it, right? Wrong. The writer will always know more about the world that actually appears in the story itself. As an author, you only reveal as much of your world as the reader needs to know. The details of the world should emerge gradually as they are needed for plot and character development, not be dumped on the reader because the writer created a cool aspect of their world that doesn’t matter to the story itself.
The second type of world builder is often called a gardener. A gardener will have the seeds or the very basics of their world in mind and allow that world to grow as they write the story. They don’t know everything about their world when they begin, but allow it to emerge as the story needs it. This type of world builder also faces potential problems. The first is a shallow or insufficient developed world with too many aspects of it unexplored. A shallow world will not satisfy the reader. The second problem is continuity errors. The author may claim one thing about the religion on page 5 that is contradicted by the scene on page 94 that doesn’t mesh with what they bring out on page 296.
Either method can work and work beautifully as long as the author is aware of the dangers and guards against them. The problems of both methods will be inevitable in the first draft and is one of the many tasks that will need to be addressed in revision.
Some people believe that since they are creating something that doesn’t exist, they can do anything they want with it. This is true only to an extent. When you are creating a new world, you are asking your readers to suspend their disbelief for the length of the story. The reader knows that dragons and magic don’t exist, but during the time they are emerged in your story, they should be willing to pretend they do. In creating a suspension of disbelief, the author will find the reader a willing accomplice. Fantasy readers come to a fantasy novel with an absolute willingness to loose themselves in a make-believe world. If they didn’t want to temporarily believe in unicorns and fairies, they would have chosen a different genre. But the reader will turn against the author if the author doesn’t create a believable world, and once a reader loses their suspension of disbelief, it is almost impossible to get back. They probably won’t finish the current novel, and they certainly won’t read another by the same author.
So how does an author keep the readers’ suspension of disbelief? The following 4 rules lay that out. (Note: The only unbreakable rule of writing is, does it work? However, if these rules are followed, it will work most of the time.)
Rule #1: Your world needs consistent rules. Unicorns can’t be drawn only to virgins at one point in the story and then come to your non-virgin main character at the moment she has need of a unicorn. Dragons can’t need 100 lbs of meat a day, but exist in a desert without much life. Fantasy doesn’t mean illogical. Readers will readily believe something that they know not to be true, but they will balk at anything that insults their sense of logic.
Rule #2: Anything in your world that also exists in the real world either needs to be consistent with what the reader knows of reality or have an explanation for why it isn’t. So if you’re including such aspects that you have little experience with, you need to research them. One glaring examples of this problem are horses. Horses are a staple of epic fantasy, but few in the modern world have had much interaction with horses. They aren’t like cars with legs, which you can ride all day with only brief stops to load them with fuel and simply park and forget about at night. They are living beings that need a lot of care and have restrictions on their physical strength and endurance. If you are going to include horses in your world, make sure you understand horses.
Rule #3: Include diverse people. No group of people (or elves, fairies, or dwarfs) is all good or all bad. If you have a large enough group, you will some assholes in the mix, some truly caring and good people, and a whole lot of people with varying degrees of assholeness and niceness. Nor will they all think, believe, or act the same way. You may decide in your world that dwarfs are obsessed with mining gold and gems, but if your novel has a large enough sample of dwarfs, there should be some who prefer to play the lute or carve pictures into the rock walls of the caves. A society of only knights and nobles also couldn’t exist. It would also need farmers and artisans.
Rule #4: Your world needs to be structured in such a way that it addresses real world realities, such as food, clothing, shelter. If a society is to exist, human needs must be met. If they aren’t, society is unstable and won’t last long.
What’s your favorite fantasy world? Please tell us in the comments below.