When I was reading The Way of Kings, an epic fantasy by one of the masters of worldbuilding, Brandon Sanderson, I came across something that emphasized how deeply he had thought through his world.
In this world, everything has evolved to cope with massive, destructive storms that blow through on a semi-predictable basis. Consequently, the world is populated with entirely new animals and plants, many with shells or ways of retracting into the ground.
Not only has Sanderson created imaginary plants to feed the human occupants of his world, he has also invented pests that target those particular plants—as well as a method farmers use to eradicate the pests.
That is worldbuilding at its finest.
As a fantasy author myself, I have spent many years fleshing out the imaginary world where my novels are set. My world has a several-thousand-year history, with major turning points mapped out on that timeline, and a dozen distinct realms with their own customs, architectural styles, physical traits, and beliefs.
Building a world from the ground up is hard work. Most authors just grab useful elements of the time period their world is based on—knights and castles for a medieval-style fantasy, for instance—and leave the background details fuzzy.
I wanted to dig deeper. My fantasy world is much closer to our own than Sanderson’s is, but every time something makes an appearance in that world, it needs to have an explanation.
And that is the key to building fantasy worlds that feel as real as our own: questioning everything.
Say you wish to fill your city with wooden houses. Where is the wood coming from? If there is no readily available supply of tall hardwood trees, there must be some sort of trade system in place to supply the wood, which means this is probably an expensive building material. Thus, this must mean either the occupants of the city are fairly wealthy, or there are only a few wood houses surrounded by structures of stone or brick or mud. Following this further, it would suggest wood itself is a sign of wealth, and that wood merchants are fairly well-off.
Or imagine you have a world with a very different religious system to any in our world (or perhaps none at all). If you want your characters to refer to concepts like prayer, heaven, hell, gods, etc., you need to decide what their equivalents are in your world—if any exist. And if not, you must decide how people would think about concepts such as what happens after death.
Most of these details will never appear in your story, but they will inform how you present your world from the ground up.
Often, following these questions to their logical conclusions can seem difficult, which is why authors end up filling their worlds with quasi-Christian religions, quasi-European settings, and quasi-medieval trappings. This has its place, but not every reader wants to revisit that same quasi-medieval world each time they read fantasy.
If you want to create a completely new world that still feels rich and lived-in, with a long history and a complex web of international relations, you must take the time to think through these tiny details.
Question everything. Don’t make assumptions. Think through the implications of everything you include, and your world will come to life.
About the Author:
R.J. Vickers is the bestselling author of the Underground Academy series (YA fantasy) as well as numerous high fantasy novels set in the world of Baylore and the Kinship Thrones. Her upcoming fantasy, Forbidden Queen, is slated for release on March 3rd, 2020. Originally from Colorado, Vickers now lives in New Zealand, where she divides her time between writing, crocheting, and outdoor adventures.