The thing that has always drawn me the most to Fantasy books is the worlds in which they live in. From Middle Earth to Westeros, to Narnia and Hogwarts, Fantasy worlds have always held places in my heart and if I could get a one way ticket to Fantasyland I would. You know, like Disneyland but we fly brooms with the Weasleys and have second breakfast with Pippin and Merry.
Anyway, my favourite part of writing has always been worldbuilding. The idea of getting to create a whole world full of people and places straight out of your imagination has always been the most magical process for me. I have dozens of fantasy worlds lingering around notebooks, my computer, and my head. Worlds that are half finished, fully fleshed out, or just small glimmers of thought.
Why is Worldbuilding Important for Your Novel
You can argue with me if you disagree, but I think that worldbuilding is the single most important element to writing a successful and immersive fantasy novel.
Do you think Lord of the Rings would have been so successful without all the work Tolkien put into creating a language, a history, and fully fledged different races? Or Game of Thrones would have been a best-seller without all the backstory and characters Martin included? Both authors have companion books to their series with pages dedicated to history, settings, characters, and so much more that flesh out their worlds. I honestly don’t think that people would love these series as much as they do if they weren’t so immersive.
Worldbuilding gives readers a place to live in their heads. It creates cities and roads, religions and mythologies, people and creatures that build upon each other to allow readers to imagine what the world looks like, feels like, and even smells like.
As a writer, by creating a fleshed out world, you have built the foundation for everything to come. Your plot, how the characters interact in your world, and their backstories will all be influenced by the world they live in.
So, let’s get into some top tips that I’ve found helpful for developing a believable and immersive fantasy world for your next writing project:
Tip #1: Decide What Type of Fantasy You’re Writing
This seems pretty simple, but it’s the most important point to remember. If worldbuilding is the foundation to the house that is your book, choosing what type of fantasy you want to write is like deciding how big to dig the hole for your foundation.
Are you writing a High Fantasy like Lord of the Rings, a Low Fantasy like The Mortal Instruments? Is it based on Mythology, a Fable, or Folktale? Are you writing a paranormal, romantic, or dark fantasy? Also, are you writing for adults, teens, or children?
There are many different types of fantasy novels and each type comes with its own set of expectations from readers. Knowing those expectations and knowing the tone that is set within your type will help determine what kind of world you are building. A High Fantasy book will require a whole new world with new countries, a new religion, and possibly its own language; whereas, a Low Fantasy novel is usually just an alteration of the real world.
Tip #2: Hit the Library
Every fantasy world is based in some sort of truth, no matter how magical. No world ever created was completely new.
One way that I love to use our world to help build a fantasy one is to use history – events, people, and places that have already existed.
To mention Game of Thrones again, George R.R. Martin was heavily influenced by history (the War of the Roses was a large influence for Martin’s War of the Five Kings).
What better way to build a believable world than to pull from things that actually happened? So, do your research. Look up wars and battles, family feuds, political intrigues, assassination, you name it, history is ripe for the picking.
Tip #3: Make Rules
Every world needs rules or else it would fall into complete chaos. Worlds also need rules because readers can only suspend their disbelief so far. Yes, this is fantasy. Yes, you made it up. But, that doesn’t mean you can just do whatever you want with it. That won’t make it believable. Think of our world – we have gravity for a reason, otherwise everything would just be colliding in space. Rules need to be in place for the world to function.
If your world has magic, what is the cost of it? Who can use it? Are there limits on what type of magic can be done?
What are the rules of the government? What rules do your people follow (ie. laws and regulations)? Are there rules of science, physics, chemistry? Rules of nature?
Figure out how your world works and what can and cannot be done. Once you know the rules you can fit everything else in the world around it and even though you are making up a world, your readers will start to believe it could exist.
Tip #4: Know Your World
Think about all the things that make up our world and include those in your fantasy world.
Things to consider when worldbuilding include: the government, religion, modes of travel, figures of speech, languages, economy, the landscape, the history, magic, daily life, jobs, family life, physical setting, different races of people – the list goes on and on.
No detail is too small. When I am creating worlds, I write down everything that comes to mind. I love details and something as little as knowing what the stores look, smell, and sound like on a street your character is walking down can add that perfect amount of detail.
Tip #5: Think Like the People
This is my favourite tip and the one method of worldbuilding I like to play around with the most. What I mean by this, is when building your world, specifically when naming places, think like the characters who live there.
What is that place used for? Where is it located next to? What do the people think of it?
Specifically – and my favourite question – do the people have a different name for it? Is a district named for the type of people that live there (Merchant’s Quarter) or a road for a specific smell or the nearby graveyard (The Stinks or Graver’s Lane)? Do certain groups of people have different names (ie. politicians called the Stiffs)?
The best way to build a world is to live in it. Think like your characters. One of my favourite things to do is mentally walk through a day in their life in my head. What places do they pass? What kind of people? Are there certain smells or sounds in different places? Are there places they would avoid? What’s the weather like? The season? Do they talk to anyone? Are there any turns of phrase specific to those people?
I like to ask myself a lot of questions and figure out what my character would experience. This helps me build my world and try and make it as believable as possible.
Have you created any worlds for a book you’ve written/are writing? What do you love about it or struggle with? Any tips you’d like to share?