Writer’s Insights: Building a Fantasy World

Writer’s Insights: Building a Fantasy World

Writing is fun, but it can also be a lot of work. Some genres clearly demand more work than others.

For example, a historical romance requires plenty of research; any type of historical fiction requires research, or it’s likely to be tossed out by historians and fiction lovers alike. While you can often let some facts slide, you’ll be asked to show your research, particularly if your work challenges common understandings of history. Take, for example, the issue of “Tiffany” as a perfectly medieval name for a woman. We don’t think of it that way, so any historical novel set in the Middle Ages with a “Tiffany” as a character is going to catch a lot of flak. Other, more insidious examples abound.


Another genre that might seem to demand quite a bit of rigor is a thriller or murder mystery. You’ll need to go through some research about how human beings can be killed. What does a bullet do to a body? We all know about cyanide, but what other poisons exist? How do police investigations actually work? Medical dramas require similar research and knowledge about how hospitals operate.


Some genres, like fantasy and sci-fi, appear to need much less in the way of research and the associated work that goes with genres like historical fiction. They do, however, require quite some effort. Most of that effort goes into world-building.

With Fantasy, You Are God

One of the fun things about fantasy is that you get to make everything up. It’s like you’re a god. Everything starts from scratch and you get to build it from the ground up. This world doesn’t have gravity? Cool. Your people have blue skin? Great. They live on a distant planet or use magic? Super.


To the outsider, fantasy looks like a free-for-all. For the novice, fantasy may seem “easier” because it doesn’t conform to the same rules our world does (which means you don’t need to know which poisons exist; you can just make one up). It certainly doesn’t take the kind of painstaking research a historical novel can demand.


Fantasy has another problem, however. As the universe’s god, you are responsible for making the laws of that realm. If there’s no gravity, how do people move about? Do they swim? Do they float, do they fly? What keeps them from floating off their planet into space? If your people don’t need to eat, what do they do to survive? If they do eat, do they eat food? What kinds of food?


There’s a reason many fantasy worlds still resemble ours, at least in some way, shape, or form. Yes, there might be dragons, but there are also trees and mountains and oceans. People may travel on the back of a dragon, but what are the rules of flight? Are dragons moving through air, or are they moving through an ocean? If they’re not moving through air, are they really “flying”?


While you’re free to make up the answers to these questions, you have to ensure they make some sort of sense. That is, they must follow the logic of the universe.

Is There Such a Thing as a Logical Universe?

You might argue fantasy realms don’t need to be logical because our own universe rarely seems logical. There are many counterintuitive occurrences that seem to defy our senses and what we know as “logical.”


However, we do know some rules. For examples, human beings need oxygen to survive. We can’t breathe water and we can’t live without oxygen. Thus, if you strap a stone to our ankle and toss us in the water, we’re going to sink and drown. If, in your fantasy world, you establish that your race of creatures doesn’t need oxygen to survive, then the same method of execution may not work. If your characters are hydras, your executioner is going to have some work trying to behead a petty crook.


Other rules are also extant. Gravity is a big one. Our world functions on the principle of gravity, and if you take it away (as in space), we tend to float around. Gravity gives us the law “what goes up, must come down.” If your world doesn’t have gravity, what happens if you toss something in the air?


This is what’s meant by the logic of a universe. If you establish there’s no gravity, then have a character come plummeting back to earth after being shot out of a cannon, you’re going to need to explain how and why. Gravity isn’t acting on them, so what’s bringing them back down from the clouds?

Consistency in the Universe

A universe’s logic can also be referred to as its consistency. Consistency in fantasy comprises two parts: the logic and the consistent application of the rules. If you make up some crazy alternative to gravity, it will bring your cannon-fodder character back to earth, but it also must bring balls and rocks and whatever else back to earth, unless there’s a mechanism allowing some items to defy the rule.

Baron Muenchhausen rides a cannonball through the air.

I mean, we generally recognize Baron Muenchhausen is absurdist and this doesn’t happen. But it could in your fantasy realm!

This conforms to the logic of the universe and it’s consistent. A feather falls to earth slowly, but it still falls nonetheless. Gravity is consistent unless you find a way to break free. And there are ways to circumvent it. There are exceptions to rules, but those exceptions have to be explained, to some degree.


Consistency is also important in fantasy, because you’re making up the rules. If you say one thing on page ninety-seven, then contradict yourself on page 150, readers are going to notice. And they’re going to be confused. Which is it? What rule actually applies?


Explaining a World without Telling

Now, here’s the trickiest part of writing fantasy. You have to do all the work of world-building, but you also have to demonstrate it to the reader. And no, you can’t sit down and info-dump. You’re writing a novel, not a rule book about your fantasy realm.


Can you imagine how boring and tediously long Lord of the Rings would be if JRR Tolkien sat down and spelled out every rule in his world? Part of the magic and mystery of good fantasy is that the rules aren’t spelled out, yet they’re discernible from what goes on within the novel.

The cover of The Return of the King by JRR Tolkien

I mean, let’s take a moment to consider why a floppy helmet would be a good idea or why the ground is purple here.

This was a point my editor pushed me on recently. When we sat down to talk about the first draft of my upcoming novel, she pressed me on the various ways the incubi characters worked. “How often do they need to eat? Do they eat energy alone?”


What had happened, in that initial draft, was that the rules weren’t really laid out. There were rules, but they seemed muddy and contradictory. Nothing was clear, and so the reader was left with questions—and fairly obvious ones.


There’s something of a balancing act going on here. Most fantasy, if you dig deep enough, reveals some internal inconsistency. Not every rule is applied constantly. Some rules may seem to break other rules. However, good fantasy manages to cover those things up so that the average reader doesn’t necessarily notice them immediately or without repeated readings.


Digging Deeper

Obviously, my editor pointed out some issues in the first version of my manuscript. That’s only one of a number of points we’re working on. But it does speak to a larger issue about how much work fantasy books take.


World-building isn’t a free-for-all. Readers do expect more, and there are rules governing how fantasy is done. World-building is integral. And while it may seem easy to say “it’s just chaos” and go from there, eventually, worlds will try to conform to some sort of logical order.


Human beings like order, and even if a world seems to lack inherent order, we’ll try and impose it. Subconsciously, you’ve probably made your world conform to many of the rules governing our own universe.


Many fantasy realms look quite similar to our own for that reason. We draw on the familiar, but introduce strangeness and novelty through fantastical elements. Much of the world in my novel doesn’t look too different from our own, although it isn’t any real place on this earth. And, beyond even the stranger things, the world still looks and feels familiar in many, many ways. The characters speak, they ride beasts of burden, they build buildings, and they eat food. In many ways, this fantasy realm appears to be a twin earth.


Even as we’re writing the strange, we tend to draw on the familiar. This is because, as much as we can imagine “other lives,” we are all still ultimately bound by what we know and experience. Readers, too, are bound by their experiences.


So while it might be fun to imagine a world where demons are real or a world where gravity doesn’t exist, we have a tendency to explore strangeness and novelty in bits and pieces. We draw on the familiar for almost everything else.

The Imperceptible

Often, we draw on these shorthand rules because we’re not even aware they’re operating. Breathing is incredibly natural and we rarely think about it, unless we’re gasping for breath or meditating.


Unless we want to draw attention to something, we often use the rules that govern everyday life. These are so normal and natural to us, they fade into the background. When we want to call something out, we change it. In that way, it undermines our common-sense understanding of the universe—or at least, a very small portion of it.


But if we were to attempt to radically rewrite every rule governing the universe in a story, I think both writer and reader would rapidly suffer a sort of intellectual exhaustion. By calling attention to one or two details, we allow the reader to challenge their own perceptions of the normal and the natural, without exhausting their capacity.


Otherwise, we’re content to let the normal and natural continue to rule imperceptibly in the background. Fantasy and sci-fi thus challenges us at every step of the way, allowing us to engage deeply—but not too deeply.


It’s finding this balance that is so tricky and so crucial to world-building in these genres.

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