I Can Show You the World: Worldbuilding in Fantasy
There are a lot of reasons why I choose to write fantasy, but one of the main ones is that I love worldbuilding. Inventing countries with their own histories and economies? Creating systems of magic? Coming up with entire religions, complete with their own holidays and rituals and myths? Yes, please! The only downside is having to name everything, honestly (which, admittedly, sucks).
As we all know, writing is a weird and wonderful art form. There’s no Right Way to do literally anything. I have heard people talk about writing methods that would never work for me in a thousand years. The longer I do this shit the more I start to believe that no two people do things the same way, but I love seeing how other writers do things, and seeing which pieces of their process I can steal and adapt for my own use. So, here is one worldbuilding method for you to check out!
To start, here are some tips for a Happy Worldbuilding Process:
Stay Organized: I have already waxed poetic on my love for One Note in a previous post, so I’ll spare you the details on that here. The point is that you need to keep all your shit in one place. I have done the multiple-notebooks-and-post-its shuffle before. Don’t put yourself through that. Just put it all in one spot. A One Note. A Google Drive. A giant binder. I don’t care. Just keep it all together.
Be Thorough: Make sure you think of details. Like, a lot of details. I’m talking details that will never make it onto the page. You want your world to feel like a real place? Then your knowledge needs to extend past the edges of your story. Your main characters might be lords and ladies or queens and kings, but you should know what the farmers are farming, for instance. For one, it’ll inform other things (like climate, available foods, etc.), but also it will make your world feel more lived-in - more real.
Don’t Be Too Thorough: This is the rule I like to break, unfortunately. There comes a point when we need to stop building our world and actually start drafting. But if you’re like me you will have a moment of “HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO DRAFT IF I DON’T KNOW WHAT COLOR SOCKS THE PRIESTS WEAR?!” And when you have that moment you need to SNAP OUT OF IT, put the worldbuilding pen down, and back away slowly. I mean it.
On the subject of being thorough-but-not-too-thorough, allow me to share my list of details I absolutely MUST know about my world before I even think about drafting. Again, this is just my opinion, and I am a Giant Nobody, so feel free to take this or leave it. Since I started using this method I’ve had a way easier time drafting, but as Chuck Wendig is so fond of saying in his wonderful blog (terribleminds.com), Your Mileage May Vary.
Geography: How many kingdoms/countries/whatevers does your world have? How are they positioned? I am a shitty artist, but I always like to start by drawing a map and filling in the countries, landmarks, and landscape… then scribbling it out and redrawing it roughly 57 times until I have something I like.
Economy: What are all the major exports of your various kingdoms? Do they trade well with one another? Have taxes or tariffs? This sounds boring af, I know, but it’s a good way to root out possible conflicts between the nations/factions/magical orders in your fictional world.
Political Structure: Who’s in charge? How did they get to be in charge? Do we have kings? Governors? A golden retriever in a crown? I don’t know - but you should. Even if your characters are all commoners, they sure as hell know who’s in charge of them - and they probably have an opinion or two about those people.
Notable People and Locations: Even if my characters will never visit one of the countries in my fictional world, I always make sure to create at least a few towns and historical and/or political figures from there. These can be thrown in as references by characters at random. Like, in our world, if I were to say “it’s colder than the North Pole” we all get what I mean. It adds some color and shows that the world is bigger than the immediate place where our story takes place. Yes, I know it means naming more things, and naming things is The Worst… but it’s worth it, I promise.
Customs and Laws: What’s proper and appropriate in one of your fictional countries may be different from what’s proper and appropriate in another. A character may give away that they’re not from around here by bowing instead of shaking hands, or forgetting the second half of a ritualized greeting phrase. You get the idea. A legal system is also important. Your characters may be law-abiding citizens, but you should still know what would happen to them if they weren’t. A fair trial? A single despot as judge, jury, and executioner? Held indefinitely in a horrible prison? Up to you.
Religion: My FAVORITE. I love coming up with gods and goddesses and myths and curses and holidays. Again, even if religion doesn’t take center stage in your story, you should explore it. The blasphemers in your fantasy world are probably not going to express exasperation by saying “Jesus Christ,” but they should say something! What is it? What holidays will they celebrate? What counts as a sin and what counts as virtue? How are outsiders of the religion treated by the faithful?
Food and Pleasure: Not that kind of pleasure. Well, I mean I guess you could explore that too. But I more meant… what do people in your world do for fun? Do they play card games? Sports? Drinking games? Do they read, or watch plays, or sing songs? The first story I ever subbed took place in a pretty bleak world, so I rationalized that no one had time for fun… but that’s not realistic. Even in the darkest, most desperate corners of any world people will find little ways to distract themselves from the misery of their lives. Also, you should know what they’re going to eat. A favorite food or a meal scene can add a lot of unexpected value to a character or a story.
Inspiration Images: This is a fun one! I usually just sit with my eyes closed and think about the different locations in my story, try to picture them, and then scour Google Images or Pinterest or wherever until I find images that are close enough to jog my memory. You may think you’ll always remember what the North Kingdom looks like, but trust me, when you’ve taken six months off this project to draft something else and come back for another round of edits… well, that mental picture might be getting real fuzzy. Best to have those reference images saved somewhere to call it all back!
And that’s it! Usually I’ll know other details as well, depending on what the story requires. It varies a bit with every project, but these are the eight constants that I always make sure I have nailed down before Draft 1. Give it a shot with your next project if this seems like something that will work for you!
Keep your eyes peeled for my next post on character building, and in the meantime… happy writing!