The 3 Tiers of Fantasy World-Building

Last week, I wrote a post about genre writing and it got me thinking about how to know when a book has enough world-building and if it has enough of the right kind of world building. (The post was a setting study for Monsters of Verity if you wanted to check it out.) Rather than make an already-long post even longer, I decided to make an entirely separate post discussing the various facets of world-building and how subgenre, plot, and theme can all affect what needs to be developed.

As the title suggests, there are three different layers to any novel’s world-building. We’ll call them the primary, secondary, and tertiary layers. The primary is directly connected to the plot; the story cannot function without these details. It might set up the distinction between the antagonist and protagonist as well as help establish the stakes. The secondary is loosely connected to the plot. It might help explain the “why now” and the “why them,” as well set up where the story might go after the book itself is over. Lastly, there are the tertiary details. These are not important to the plot whatsoever, but instead serve to make the world feel more unique and fleshed-out. These details can help immerse the reader further into the setting itself, and by extension helping them get more emotionally invested in the plot, but the story can function without them.

Naturally, each fantasy novel is going to have its own distinct setting and so will require different facets of world-building to support the plot. But I have looked at various fantasy novels to determine if there are patterns in which a new author might draw from to ensure their own setting properly supports their plot and characters. So, below I will return to my world-building web (which some of you may recognize from the earlier setting studies) and draw from various plot tropes from the different subgenres to see if those aforementioned patterns emerge.

Regarding Urban/Low Fantasy

Urban fantasy requires the least amount of world-building simply by drawing from the reader’s understanding of how their own world works. Fantasy elements are layered on top of real-world ones rather than starting completely from scratch. Generally speaking, location and time are going to be the first major elements to set the scene, but it doesn’t even have to be as specific as New York City, 1951, or whatever the case may be. It’s more a question of rural versus small town versus urban; what area of the world it’s taking place in (democratic, capitalist America versus gloomy, rainy London versus….); distant past versus recent past versus present.

Historical Fantasy

A subgenre that chooses a historical moment or era and adds fantastical or magical elements to the story, generally to explain away some historical mystery.

If you’re writing a historical fantasy piece, that means you probably know the time and place already because you are probably wanting to write about a specific event. You will already have a baseline for all of the other facets of world-building because a lot of it is just research. But it does also mean doing enough research to embody the culture of the character whose perspective you are trying to write from. This can also apply to steampunk.

A reader will need to know if this is an alternate timeline like in The Once and Future Witches or if it is a revision timeline like I am the Great Horse or Romanov. Generally speaking, one of the main differences with a revision timeline is the incorporation of magic, like the Amazons fighting for Alexander the Great in the former and spell mastery in the latter. Choosing one or the other will serve as a primary world-building detail. Secondary details will explain how the alternate details or the inclusion of magic affect history as the reader might know it. Tertiary details will help bring that time and place back to life, like describing the architecture or the fashion.

Hidden World

A setting trope that allows for the existence of magic but keeps it strictly separated from the “real world,” generally involving a protagonist introduced suddenly to the magical world and who must learn their new powers over the course of the novel.

These are books like Harry Potter or The Magicians, Legendborn or Wings of Ebony. If you’re a muggle stumbling into the magic world, expect to have your memories wiped. These books tend to focus more on the magical elements; they can have paranormal creatures–there are werewolves and dragons in Harry Potter, after all–but the existence of these creatures goes on the back-burner.

  • Primary: Might include the location of the school, if there is one; the kind of magic available, the recent history to explain rising tensions and conflict, etc.
  • Secondary: Might include how progressive the magical world is, whether magical creatures exist (and what kind); how widespread magic use is, etc.
  • Tertiary: Might include what happens to muggles who stumble onto magic, hierarchies or prejudices over magic (mudbloods vs purebloods, or perhaps between various ways of teaching magic), games specific to the magical world, etc.

Paranormal

A setting trope that allows for the existence of magical creatures like vampires, werewolves, demons, or fae; usually with a plot where characters must fight fellow humans trying to exploit the supernatural.

Examples of these books would be something like The Raven Cycle or Shadowhunters, Dresden Files or even This Savage Song with its monster populations. The existence of the paranormal is either written off by the general population, as in Raven Cycle or even in This Savage Song’s Prosperity, or it is kept from the public to avoid mass hysteria.

  • Primary: Might include the main types of supernatural creatures and their weaknesses, how the magic of the supernatural might be exploited, etc.
  • Secondary: Might include who is generally responsible for keeping the supernatural at bay, how the supernatural forces interact with each other, etc.
  • Tertiary: Might include how various types of supernatural creatures survive in the modern world, what some of the rarer supernatural creatures are, etc.

Magical Realism

A setting trope that presents magic as a whimsical force of nature, allowing the reader to accept an otherwise improbable solution to the main conflict.

Examples of these books would be Good Omens or The Night Circus, where there is a soft magic system that just sort of exists in the confines of the world. Generally, the book focuses on characters facing unlikely odds, like Armageddon for the former and Fate for the latter. They are lofty and impossible and fairy-tale-esque, all aided by the soft undercurrents of magic.

This particular novel type is a lot harder to pin down in the world-building department because the majority of the setting remains identical to the “real world,” and the only major difference is a magic system whose rules are so few as to be nonexistent. Generally, knowing if and what the magic system’s boundaries might be and knowing whether magic is hidden or not (and, if not, how people view magic) are probably the best place to start.

Regarding the In-Betweens

There are a few novel types that don’t fall easily into “urban” or “epic” fantasy, so we shall focus on them here. And those particular subgenres are going to be portal fantasy, made a little more complex because of its multiple worlds, and superhero fantasy, which can be located in either the “real world” or in some…isolated pocket dimension.

Portal

A setting trope that creates a pathway between different worlds, oftentimes with varying degrees of magical and fantasy elements.

This would be like Chronicles of Narnia or The Golden Compass, Darker Shades of Magic or The Magicians. Whether there’s one world or four or infinite, the “home world” tends to be the least magical of the bunch. There’s usually some unknown danger waiting for the character(s) in the other worlds, which are normally more “medieval” while the “home world” is usually pretty similar to our own “real world.”

  • Primary: Might include the mode of transport between worlds, recent histories of both the home world and the new world(s) to account for conflict, etc.
  • Secondary: Might include the ease of transport between worlds, level of magic in home world (is this mysterious portal the only magic?), general eras off which the new world(s) are based on (medieval? renaissance? industrial?) and how much magic can be found in these new worlds, whether there are mystical beings or not, etc.
  • Tertiary: Might include the myths and traditions in the new world(s) that help accentuate their differences from the home world, ways that magic and mythological creatures affect the politics of the new world, etc.

Superhero

A setting trope that gives characters various types of powers and involves a great confrontation between superheros and supervillains.

Books like these can either go the DC or the Marvel route: make up a random city name and have all conflict take place in that particular area or give random characters a specific magical ability and let them interact with real cities. Examples of these books would be Wonder Woman: Warbringer or Renegades. Not all characters have magic, and usually no two superpowers are exactly the same.

  • Primary: Might include what city the story takes place in (real or fictional), any limitations on the abilities, including how extensive an ability might be (such as Nightmare in Renegades, who not only does not need sleep but who can also put others to sleep), etc.
  • Secondary: Might include how people get their powers (are they born with it or does some event give them their abilities?), how the rest of the world views the superheros , whether abilities are common or rare, how long superheros have been around, etc.
  • Tertiary: Might include products or services present in the world simply in connection to the existence of superhero figures, employment options for both superheros and regular folk (do superheros need jobs or do they earn money by serving people?), conceptual hierarchies of ability, etc.

Regarding Epic/High Fantasy

Because high fantasy takes place exclusively on a secondary world, it will require more world-building to create a more realistic setting. There are certain tropes that can be found in the genre that can make the world-building aspect less intensive, allowing the author to focus more on plot and characters, especially if they’re more interested in a genre feel over a literary one (for more on the distinction, I wrote a post). Readers generally expect to find fantasy books featuring medieval monarchies situated in heavily-forested regions, and will need to be shown early on whether the setting is going to be different from what they have generally seen before. The more an author wishes to diverge from the “traditional” high fantasy setting, the more details the readers will probably require.

She ain’t pretty, but she gets the job done. This is every facet of world-building I could come up with, especially relevant for secondary worlds. Click to enlarge.

The Quest/Hero’s Journey

A plot trope that involves a character being forced to leave their homes, learning new skills on their way to find something, facing evil along the way.

The quest trope is a familiar one to the fantasy genre, found in books like The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, in Eragon, Tess of the Road, and also plays a part in Wheel of Time. It usually features characters who have not explored their world very much and who find themselves rather unequipped at first to handle the craziness of the world at large. The journey might start in a humble country town and take the characters to great cities, introduce them to magic they know little to nothing about.

  • Primary: Might include the geography of the world, or at least a localized map of the area the characters will be exploring, what magic might be in the world, mythological creatures or peoples they might come across, etc.
  • Secondary: Might include recent history to explain the sudden danger, who all can use the magic, how progressive and knowledgeable the humble origin town is (which will affect how the characters interact with the unknown elements they come across) etc.
  • Tertiary: Might include some cultural tidbits like the stories they tell, the various architectural details or fashion that might denote class, slang (either from the protagonist or from people of different parts of the journey, showing regional differences in culture), etc. Might also include a broader sense of history.

This trope can also be combined with the Dark Lord trope, where the protagonists learn they are the only ones who can face off against some unbeatable evil. They fight against the Dark Lord’s hoards while they learn the necessary magic and skills to defeat the evil once and for all. Look to Lord of the Rings and Wheel of Time for this trope, as well as Throne of Glass.

Rebellion

A plot trope where a tyrant reigns over the land and a few determined characters are determined to learn how to fight so they can bring him down.

YA fantasy is filled with such characters, although the tyrant isn’t always who you think. There’s the traditional tyrant-is-king, found in The Gilded Ones, Girls of Paper and Fire, and Eragon. But there is also the charismatic but evil Darkling in Shadow and Bone, the three queens of Three Dark Crowns trying to change the traditions of their own island, and a rebellion in Young Elites that leads to an even worse tyrant, the half-mad protagonist.

  • Primary: Might include what parts of life have been made difficult, and for whom, as a result of the tyrant’s rule (to give protagonist’s motivation), what rebels already exist for the protagonist to join (and whether they’ve been hiding, or how they’ve been holding their own against the tyrant), etc.
  • Secondary: Might include recent history to explain why characters are rebelling now, motivations for tyrant’s allies (so that it’s more than just “they’re all evil”), etc.
  • Tertiary: Might include a broader history to explain why that tyrant was able to assume power (and for how long), how the rebels are financing their armies, etc.

Fairy Tale

A plot trope that serves to retell a familiar fairy tale but with a twist, either with some surprising element or through telling the story from the villain’s perspective.

This trope is used in Goose Girl, a lesser-known fairy tale, in Cinder, where it’s a blend of dystopian sci-fi with a touch of magical thrown in, and Malice, a villain PoV story for Sleeping Beauty. Fairy tales are often short, and these retellings often expand on the setting in addition to making whatever alterations to the story are required to fit the unique traits of the retelling.

  • Primary: Might include some political details such as who holds the power and how they use it (especially if the fairy tale is related to princesses and courts), local geography, rules of the magic systems (if there are any, though there usually are), etc.
  • Secondary: Might include some broader geography, some recent history to explain whatever evil the protagonists find themselves up against, who all can use magic and what variations it might have, etc.
  • Tertiary: Some cultural elements like fashion, food, or fireside stories; what occupations the various classes might hold (especially if it is not a fairy tale retelling of a princess), etc.

This hopefully provides a good start for the various archetypes of fantasy narratives, but if you think I missed any, feel free to mention them below. And, to reiterate, these layers of world-building are based off of my reading experiences thus far, and the story you’re trying to write might require more or less than what I listed above. As I continue my setting studies in the future, though, I do plan on breaking down each novel’s world-building into the three layers to compare them to the general needs of whatever trope it followed in order to get a more comprehensive understanding of the various needs of the genre.


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