World building is an important component of fantasy writing because your fantasy world must be grounded in a history and abide by certain rules in order to persuade your readers to suspend their disbelief when you bring in magic, fantastical beasts and other implausible elements. Below are some of the important questions to ask yourself when creating a fantasy world.
10 questions to ask when creating fantasy worlds:
- Where is the story located?
- Who are the main inhabitants?
- What is the government system (if there is one)?
- What is the rest of the world like?
- Which historical events have led to your scenario?
- How does technology compare to our world?
- What is the average standard of living?
- Does magic exist, and who practices it?
- What are society’s values?
- How is class structured?
Let’s dive into a little more detail:
1. Where is the story located?
Is it a past, future or alternate Earth, or is it another planet or another dimension?
Think, for example, of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the child character Lucy accidentally discovers a passage to a fantasy world while hiding in an old wardrobe. This allows for a parallel world where there are different rules, laws and power politics. A world of talking animals without electricity. A ‘pre-development’ world, like an Eden of sorts (though this Eden is corrupted by the antagonist’s magic).
2. Who are the main inhabitants?
Who are the main intelligent inhabitants of your fantasy world? Are humans the only intelligent species, or will there be creatures like dwarves, fairies, elves and more?
Alternately, will there be species you’ve made up? C.S. Lewis in the above-mentioned series features talking animals who help the protagonists navigate the dangers of their new environment.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series makes birds (owls, specifically) wizards’ message carriers and familiars.
3. What is the government system (if there is one)?
What is the government system in the part of the world you’re focusing on? Is it a monarchy, a republic, a democracy, a dictatorship or something else?
Are the political workings of your world clearly described or purposefully left hazy (as in the rule of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings) to create a sense of mystique or ominous tyranny?
Read up about different types of government system and think about what makes sense for your fantasy scenario.
Brainstorm a full fantasy world
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4. What is the rest of the world like?
What is the relationship between people you’re writing about and the rest of their world? Are they the dominant culture, or are they dominated? If society is egalitarian (equal) or Utopian, where does conflict come from (your world’s inhabitants versus their environment?).
When you create a fantasy world, remember to include the types of societal difference we find ourselves, as this will add depth.
5. Which historical events have led to your scenario?
What wars, alliances and other situations are relevant?
For example, the first book in Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy stages a political poisoning right at the start of the series, setting up a series of dark intrigues.
The first novel in David Eddings’ five-book Belgariad epic fantasy series, Pawn of Prophecy, begins with a prologue detailing how seven Gods created the story’s world and created a lineage of world protectors.
6. How does technology compare to our world?
Creating a fantasy world also requires thinking about ‘development’. In urban fantasy, magic often exists alongside present-day or even futuristic, sci-fi technology such as holographic map and communication devices.
Many epic fantasy series, on the other hand (such as George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, the basis for Game of Thrones) are loosely based on pre-modern times of castles and mythological dragons.
Make sure the technology of your world is consistent from place to place. Regions of your world may have developed out of time with each other, depending on access to resources and specific knowledge.
7. What is the average standard of living?
In fantasy world building, it’s useful to think about general ways of life.
What is the standard of living for average people? How educated do they tend to be? What does ‘educated’ mean in this world? Is there widespread hunger or are resources more readily accessible? How do these elements influence your world’s conflicts? Is there competition for resources?
8. Does magic exist, and who practices it?
If magic exists in your fantasy world, who is able to use it, and why?
Be aware of the various ways magic has been used in fantasy novels in the history of the genre. Certain tropes will seem more derivative than other systems. TV Tropes has great resources for understanding magical tropes in fantasy and which ones may make your story seem sillier (e.g. ‘By the Power of Grayskull!’).
9. What are society’s values?
What are the most important values of the society that you are writing about? Do people practice specific religions or rituals?
Conflict between people’s in your world may stem in part from the differences and oppositions in their belief systems. For inspiration, look at differences between testaments in our own earthly Abrahamic religions.
10. How is class structured?
What is the class situation in the society you are focusing on? Does one gender or race tend to be favoured over another? Is there systemic racism, patriarchy or some other dominant system, or are there other sources of conflict and struggle?
When you create a fantasy world it needs to be extensive enough to create a plausible setting and background for your story, but it cannot substitute for the actual writing of your book. In other words, be careful that you don’t get so bogged down in or fascinated with your world-building that you neglect to actually write your book.
Create your fantasy universe – the Now Novel Story Builder asks additional questions that help you work through your ideas and create a blueprint for your story that is easy to build on.