How to create a fantasy world that everyone will believe

Believable world

Learning how to create a fantasy world that feels real to readers is easy when you follow these five steps:

Step 1: Plan the lie of the land

Creating a solid, believable physical world is the first step. The reason some fantasy novelists and readers seem so obsessed with maps is because the act of physically mapping the world grounds it. You don’t have to draw maps; you can make notes instead, but the point is that you need to have a sense of your world as a physical place that has boundaries.

Step 2: Give your fantasy world concrete rules

Just because this is fantasy and not science fiction does not mean that your world can lack rules or simply have arbitrary conditions imposed upon it. Maintaining consistency throughout your world building and writing is crucial. This adherence to rules will permeate every aspect of your fictional world, but to start with, be sure you are consistent in an overall sense. Whether you are basing your fantasy world on legend or real history such as medieval Europe, feudal Japan or Native American folklore or inventing it entirely out of your own head, every aspect must be consistent with the world you’ve created. If your fantasy world possesses a technology that seems out of step with its background, you need to have a good explanation for that whether it’s magic, intervention from a more technologically advanced society or something else.

Step 3: Decide how different inhabitants of your fictional world speak

Another thing to keep in mind is the tone of your novel. For example, if you’re writing a novel of high fantasy steeped in Celtic legend, you might write in a way that recalls the language of fairy tales and legends. Your readers do not necessarily want to begin in the world of J.R.R. Tolkien with its roots in ancient sagas and suddenly find themselves slogging through the bleak and murderous darkness of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series. Maintaining a consistent tone is critical for believability throughout your fantasy novel.

This consistency of tone will be reflected in your characters as well. The values of the world will motivate your characters. In a world where honour and loyalty are considered of highest importance, characters will tend to behave differently from those in a world where power and accumulation of wealth are most valued. Of course, you can create characters whose values differ significantly from that of their world, but that difference is likely to be a source of conflict.

Step 4: Plan magic, religious, social and political systems

Most fantasy involves magic, and rules are important here as well. You can create any kind of magical system that you like, but the key here is that it does need to be some kind of system. Whether it is based on numbers, plants, words or something else, whether characters study for years to become proficient in it or are born with the ability, it needs to be consistent. Characters cannot suddenly develop new abilities or go outside that system.

Step 5: How to create a fantasy world people believe: The importance of plot

The key in creating a believable fantasy world is keeping in mind that ‘fantasy’ does not mean ‘anything goes’. In addition to keeping rules and consistency in mind as mentioned above, the story also usually cannot rely upon a deus ex machina to resolve its conflicts just because it’s fantasy. ‘Deus ex machina’ is the phrase for a plot device that seemingly comes out of nowhere. This can be clumsily or more effectively done. Some have argued that the eagles’ rescue of Sam and Frodo at Mount Doom in Tolkien’s Return of the King is a deus ex machina.

Another example would be the frequent intervention of the gods in Greek myth. Contemporary readers may accept the former but would be frustrated by the latter. Use of a deus ex machina is always risky as it might stretch suspension of disbelief which can turn readers off.

The ‘setting’ section of Now Novel’s story builder will help you to come up with detail for your fictional world, making it easier to flesh out a fantasy world that feels believable and alluring. Start creating your fantasy world and get constructive feedback on your efforts. 

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