Building a Fictional World: A Novelist's Guide
By Michelle Barker
The first time I wrote a fantasy novel, I had truly no idea what I was doing. An idea popped into my head, and I sat down and wrote the first draft in six weeks. I was super excited about the world I’d created and sent the draft off to the writer who had been my mentor for years. Instead of responding with a letter full of praise for my brilliance, he sent back a list of questions.
- What is the government in this world?
- What kind of legal system do they have?
- What do people eat?
- What is the weather like in the winter?
- What do they wear?
There were about fifty such questions. Of course, he was asking them because I hadn’t thought of a single one of these issues. I’d never heard of the term world-building before and had no idea what it meant. This was my first lesson.
Experts make it look easy to build a fantasy world. But think about Quidditch in the Harry Potter books. Think about what it would take to make up a sport. Or think of a hobbit and how much detail goes into creating an original and convincing creature and history. We take things like Quidditch and hobbits for granted, but when you are facing the blank page and coming up with completely original material, it can be pretty daunting.
If you Google “world-building questions,” you will end up with many of the same questions that my mentor sent me—questions about things you probably haven’t thought about and, to be honest, things that might not even be important. Much depends on the type of fantasy you’re writing.
So, should you bother with these lists?
I think so. Having learned from my hasty dive into writing with that first terrible fantasy draft, I think it’s essential to spend some time envisioning your world before you start writing. The more work you do here, the more authentic your world will feel to readers. And in fantasy writing, authenticity is a key piece of the puzzle. Whether this involves developing a magic system or envisioning an entire world, part of your job will involve convincing the reader that this place feels real.
And it also has to make sense. The weather patterns have to match both the crops that are being grown and the clothing people wear. The landscape has to match the transportation system. The history has to fit with the system of government that is presently in place.
Down the Rabbit Hole
Having said that, I would also urge caution on two levels.
First, these sorts of questionnaires can become a very deep rabbit hole that can turn into an effective form of procrastination. It feels easier to develop an elaborate system of government than to sit down and write the novel. It’s also easy to get carried away. If your readers need a flow chart to understand what you’ve done, you’ve made it too complicated. Simplicity is essential in fantasy writing.
Second, your answers to all these questions can cause problems down the road if you expect to use every one of them. You will end up with a manuscript filled with infodumps on all that world-building you worked so hard to develop—because you worked so hard to develop it. Of course, you want to get it in there somehow. But you’ll have to resist that temptation.
Yes, you need to know these things about your world. But then you set it aside and filter it in for the reader on a need-to-know basis only. Most of the world-building work you’ve done won’t make it into the novel… or not in the way you think. It will appear in more subtle ways. You’ll know instinctively what a room looks like or that your female character will feel short of breath because of the corset she has to wear. These are small details, but they do a surprising amount of heavy lifting in a fantasy novel to contribute to that feeling of authenticity you’re aiming for.
The World is Not the Story
Another common pitfall is to turn your elaborately conceived fantasy world into the story itself. Again, you’ve worked so hard to develop it and it’s just so cool that the world ends up taking over and elbowing an actual story out of the way.
Repeat this to yourself: the world is merely the backdrop. It is not the story. It will want to be the story. It will try. But you can’t let it.
Think of The Hunger Games. Very cool world. Suzanne Collins could have written an entire book just on the concept—but it would never have sold. No matter how great your idea might be for an alternate world, remember that a fiction writer’s mandate is to tell a story.
Give Readers a Foothold
How do you introduce these new world-building elements to your readers without inundating them with information?
It’s worth taking a look at the moment when the reader first encounters direwolves in George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones to see how he handles it. He doesn’t stop the story to explain what direwolves are. He doesn’t give us a biology lecture on the genus and species of the direwolf. Instead, he weaves the information seamlessly into the narrative.
The chapter is from Bran’s point of view—he’s a boy of seven at that point—and so Bran compares the direwolf to things that he knows: his pony and the dogs in his father’s kennel. As it turns out, these are also things the reader knows. Immediately we can picture how big this animal is because it has been compared to animals that are familiar to us. We also know there’s something strange about it being there. Not because we’ve been told, but because of how the characters react to seeing it. They draw their swords. They talk about direwolves not having been seen there for two hundred years. They don’t like it. All of this information comes to us naturally, through the interaction of the characters in scene.
Remember, you know your world, but your reader is coming to it with totally fresh eyes. Ease them into it. Give them landmarks—familiar things they can picture. A landmark can be something as simple as a goat grazing in a nearby field or a vase of tulips on a kitchen table.
Martin gives us several familiar landmarks: dogs and horses, swords and snow, all things that are easy for us to picture. The one foreign element is the direwolf. That’s all we are being asked to process: one new thing at a time.
It’s fun to make stuff up, but fantasy writers can easily go overboard. You don’t want to bombard your reader with all the weird and wonderful things you’ve created. You’ll lose them. I’d also recommend against being weird for the sake of being weird. If your made-up creature has four legs and a tail, and barks, and acts exactly like a dog—call it a dog.
The Circus Mirror of World-Building
What makes fantasy so attractive to so many writers is that it’s a lot of fun to write. When you write regular fiction you’re bound by the rules of our world. When you write fantasy, you get to make those rules up. But it’s a double-edged sword. You make up the rules, and then you have to follow them. You can’t change them arbitrarily because they suddenly don’t work for you anymore.
I believe the best fantasy holds up a circus mirror to our world and says, here, have a look, this is the true nature of greed, or jealousy, or ambition. Sometimes a circus mirror works better for that sort of revelation. A real one would be too spot-on, a little too much like being hit over the head with a two-by-four.
In one of her essays on fantasy, Ursula Le Guin wrote: “We like to think we live in daylight, but half the world is always dark.” She called fantasy the “language of the night.”
If you do your world-building homework properly, you might end up with a novel that shows us something about ourselves and our world in a way we would never have seen before.
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have been published in literary reviews around the world. She has also published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). She loves working closely with writers, both at the developmental level and on finer line-by-line issues. Many of those writers have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.