“Good” World-building from a Consumer’s Perspective

by Monica Rivera Sosa

As someone who mainly reads fantasy, it’s become increasingly apparent that world-building is more important than we give it credit for. We must ask ourselves why we read these stories to begin with. For me, I turned to fantasy in the moments I most wanted to escape the mundane. What I want from a fantasy novel is an immersive and encapsulating experience in a world that feels concrete and thought-out, but I think the lines have been blurred as to what makes world-building good. 

World-building has often been imagined as a 3-step program for making an enriching society within  fantasy novels: 

Step 1. Establish the rules of this society 

Step 2. Establish the basic magic system (If any)

Step 3. Establish the politics or government of this world 

This a good template for world-building, but I consistently see authors present the bare minimum of these building blocks and go on to focus on the plot or the characters, leaving the immersion of the reader behind. Authors like Victoria Aveyard, Leigh Bardugo, and Hafsah Faisal spend years working their world building before they write a single word on the page. When we shift our priorities from meeting deadlines and putting out a book to actually crafting a riveting world, your readers will want to live in your writing forever. 

What I propose as a fantasy author’s audience is a set of questions and larger guidelines to follow. 

Does this world have a magic system/powers system? 

Oddly enough, not all fantasy novels have a magic system, but they can have mythical creatures and fantastical devices. You would need to decide if you want your story to be in the low fantasy  or the high fantasy genre. A low fantasy genre does not mean you cannot make your world memorable and alluring. Assuming your world does have a magic system, the next part is more intricate. Is the magic system elemental? Is it based on powers or magic objects/beings? Establish this magic system and all the laws behind the magic that is being used in this world. Now that you have a magic system with laws and precedents, you can decide how important or crucial the magic system is to the overall story. Do all the characters have magic? Is the conflict of the plot caused or influenced by the magic system? 

What government or system of leadership will be present in your story? 

This is your opportunity to have some realism or parallels to any real-world situations in your writing. If you want to make a statement or use symbolism in your story, this is one way to do it. If not, this could be the moment to make the government the most kooky, wacky thing from your wildest dreams. The key to both of these is details. If you give this government lore or hidden secrets that you can slip in later on in your story it gives it more dimension, especially if the governing body will have a bigger role in the plot. Personally, I love being able to go on a tangent to my non-reader friends about how convoluted and detailed the government and world is. A big trend in current fantasy and sci-fi is incorporating politics into the plot. Without getting too much into the actual books, The Cruel Prince trilogy by Holly Black is a very good example of this. The lore and inner workings of the kingdom and its rulers captivate that audience very well. 

What are the rules of this society? 

At this point we have magic and politics in this world, now we will establish what rules the people in this society need to follow. These can be unspoken rules that aren’t necessarily specified or they can be hard and fast rules that are punishable and made clear in the story. You can also make these rules part of the conflict. Maybe there’s a barrier through worlds that no one is allowed to pass through until…You get the point. Don’t confuse these rules with the other two components I mentioned. These don’t have to be as elaborate depending on the plot you choose to write out, but it is important to have a few rules to distinguish yourself from other fantasy novels and worlds. 

These three components together, when done well, create a unique elaborate experience for readers and author’s alike. As a reader, this is what I look for in books—escapism. The plot and story is one of the most important components to a fantasy novel, but if one of your goals is to create a captivating fantasy experience it’s important to not neglect the other components I have mentioned here. I look forward to entering all of your fantasy worlds someday. Happy writing!

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