A few weeks ago, I broke down some of the major trends in fantasy that might affect what elements of world-building a writer might want to focus on to ensure they had the details they needed to create an immersive world. (See: The 3 Tiers of Fantasy World-Building.) However, that was a general overview based off of books that I’ve read and the trends that I saw within them, and while my library is rather extensive, it is by no means exhaustive.
As a result, I wanted to spend some time this week discussing the art of world-building in a little more depth, taking a look at some of the questionnaires I’ve seen floating around on the internet to determine just how useful they are. With any luck, by the end of this post, you’ll have a better understanding of how to determine for your own book what facets of world-building are necessary and what facets are added flavor.
Bear in mind that this post will be focused primarily on “high” fantasy; that is, those novels which take place on a planet that is not Earth. Writers who prefer the “low”/urban fantasy might find some of this information useful, but not all of it will apply to the urban fantasy subgenre. The post I mentioned above, on the other hand, does take both high and low fantasy trends into account.
The Wave of Tolkienism Still Rampant in the Genre
As Tolkien is considered one of the foundational authors of the fantasy genre as we know it, many authors understandably strive to reach his level of world development. Although books like the Silmarillion and even The Wheel of Time Companion novel are rare and few readers would actually make the argument that an author’s world-building is incomplete if they can’t write a whole separate companion novel on it, there is the general consensus that the more world-building an author incorporates into their work, the better.
The endless possibilities of setting is what drew me in so completely to the fantasy genre, and remains one of my favorite parts of developing ideas. However, in my various setting studies I’ve done for the blog, it’s grown more and more obvious that more isn’t always better, that it’s what details an author chooses to incorporate that matters rather than how much.
This brings me back to my discussion of primary, secondary, and tertiary levels of world-building and the importance of understanding the distinction. In sum, the primary and the plot go hand-in-hand, serving as a sort of outline for the world as a whole. They are the elements that, if removed, would result in a nonfunctional plot. Secondary elements, on the other hand, are those that give context to the plot that will make the story more sensible but are not necessarily required, such as the important “Why now?” and “Why them?” questions I’ve mentioned in previous posts. Tertiary elements are the complete opposite of primary; they are incorporated into the text to give the world a distinct feel but are elements that, if removed, would not affect the plot in any way.
New authors may find world-building guides online with a tagline that says, “Your world-building is not complete until you’ve answered all these questions,” and go into mundane details that are often overlooked. However, it’s worth remembering that formulating a cohesive novel is full of give and take; the more setting details you give the reader, the less space you’ll have for character work or plot information, and while avid fantasy readers may love the genre for its setting possibilities, ultimately, world-building alone will not carry a reader’s interest. And if it’s a choice between talking about the sanitation process of your fictional streets and explaining the motives of a character at a pivotal moment, the former is the one that’ll need to get the ax.
Dissecting Fantasy World-Building Guides
There are many different facets that go into creating a world, especially a fictional one. It requires toeing the line between being familiar enough that the reader can ground themselves visually and be unique enough to inspire awe and intrigue. Below is the world-building web I created to display the various elements that might go into making a new setting, but it’s important to realize that this is just about possibility and, unlike with most of the guides, I would not recommend trying to expand on every single facet.
Of them all, the only facet that is likely to be a primary setting element regardless of story is the magic. This is because magic is usually only included if the protagonist is going to have access to or have to face against such power, and knowing the fundamentals of the magic system is vital for understanding the plot progression. Politics and geography are two that are frequently primary, or at least secondary, elements. History is often a secondary, and culture is almost always a tertiary. But, again, the exact nature of your book is going to dictate what is necessary and what is not. And it’s worth noting, too, that just because magic is a primary element doesn’t mean all of its subheadings have to be. If the book is going to employ a soft magic system, for example, the general structure may be a primary, if only to have a sense of what’s possible and what’s not, but the limitations and cost of use might not need to be explored.
With that in mind, let’s look at some of the guides that the internet has to offer. One that has stuck in my mind is the one below, and what I like about it is that there are several questions on here that a fantasy author is going to need to know, regardless of how in-depth a world they’re trying to create. Tertiary world-building elements go beyond just added flare; it’s also all the little details mentioned in passing that make the world more concrete.
The author need not be specific, but they will have to answer some of these questions in some way or another. Even if it’s just something as simple as, “What happens to trash?”–“Well, it isn’t thrown on the street,” that defines the world in some way. Knowing the building materials specifically might not be necessary, but having a general idea of what it looks like to “live poor” versus “live rich” may be a good idea, especially if class commentary is going to play some role in the story.
But, that said, there are several questions on here that will quite possibly be irrelevant to your story. There’s no point in wasting time and precious creative energy to determine how the sick and wounded are cared for unless your protagonist is going to get sick or wounded. Admittedly, fantasy does frequently incorporate fight scenes that will probably require some first aid for the protagonists, but even so, things like hospitals and other major places of healing are rare in the genre.
The same goes for questions like “how are big objects moved,” or “what do people do in case of a natural disaster?” If that is something that might need to be addressed in the course of the novel, then by all means answer those questions, but for most stories, these will be irrelevant, a waste of time. And, in the cases of those questions, they don’t really speak of the day-to-day life of the people.
There is something about these small passing details that just really give the world a realistic feel. It’s ironic that the smaller details can pack a bigger punch than something more generalized like the aforementioned objects question, but the truth is, that’s just how the world works. There’s a quote by Richard Price that goes, “You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying in the road.” What’s good about that is it means you can say a lot about your world with little text. The only downside is that passing comments make it difficult for consistency, so if you like to world-build as you write, it’s helpful to have some sort of system for keeping track of all these tertiary details. And while things like “cans on a shelf” or “dirty vans” are unlikely to crop up in a fantasy novel, but there are certainly fantasy equivalents one could incorporate.
The last guide I wanted to discuss was a rather comprehensive guide written by Patricia C. Wrede, similar to my own web, with a few additions and a breakdown of questions that might fall under each.
The problem is that, although being able to look at the easily-forgotten elements of world-building can make for some potentially great tertiary details, lists like these are incredibly overwhelming. The author notes that writers don’t have to, and shouldn’t, answer all of the questions, and there’s no set order to the list itself. But it is very tempting to look at this list and feel the need to go through from beginning to end, a lengthy and likely fruitless endeavor.
The thing about world-building is something I’ve said before and will say again: its primary purpose is to support the plot and the characters. If you don’t have satisfying character or plot arcs, then it doesn’t matter how pretty or realistic your world is; it’s going to be a disappointing read, if your readers even make it to the end at all. It is going to read a lot more smoothly if you incorporate details as-needed rather than scribble down a whole bunch of random world-building notes you may not ever end up needing. If you like to plot out your novel beforehand and get as much figured out before you actually start writing as possible, that’s fine too, but bear in mind it’s going to be more efficient to look at your story idea objectively and figure out what elements are primary and secondary details, and then go from there.
As you can see, there are some important questions on there, and it’s helpful to see the multiple choice that many of the questions offer, because it lets you see options you might not have thought about before. But it’s impossible to know what little details you’ll need to know until you actually need to commit it to paper, so a writer may be better off bookmarking a guide like this and then finding specific subheadings to find inspiration for a specific scene. Maybe you’ve got a judge character and you need some random case. Well, the question of “theft” might pose an interesting one: a person’s reputation is an unexpected thing to steal and may make for a more interesting setting since it diverges from the expected “coin purse” or “valuable goods” that a reader would normally associate with thieves. But that is just one example.
Plotting and Character Creation Under the Builder’s Theory Model
Here’s the thing. Every writer’s process is different, and their writing journey will probably vary from book to book, which means there’s no one way to take a concept and develop it into something purposeful and meaningful. The whole idea of the Builder’s Theory is that a writer can use any one of the three foundational elements of novel writing–plot, character, setting–and use it to flesh out the others. If you’re at this post, that means you probably favor character and/or plot and need help with the setting part of it. Honestly, that’s a fortunate place to be because you already have the fundamental information you need and it’s just a matter of branching out. The protagonist has a “loner” vibe? Maybe she lost her mother? (Typical, I know.) Under what conditions? Oh, there’s a war? What started the conflict? What are the political factions and what kind of people flock to either side? That sort of thing.
Trying to go the opposite way, making a plot and finding characters based off of a setting concept alone can be a pretty daunting, although certainly not impossible. (I, personally, have found better luck starting off with a character concept and then building together a world for them to make me remain interested in the project, but again, every writer’s journey is different.)
The important thing in both scenarios is to start off generalized and go more in-depth where needed. Consider your own desires. Remember that you have to sit with this project for however long it takes to write it, and that it can take awhile, so it needs to be a world that you enjoy inhabiting. For me, the bigger the world, the better. I quickly lose interest in projects where multiple cultures are not at play, where I can generate conflict from differences in those cultures. It also has to manageable boundaries. I love catchphrases in books, especially Leigh Bardugo’s, like “No mourners, no funerals,” and “The water hears and understands. The ice does not forgive,” and her most recent addition, “Despise your heart./ I have no heart.” (If you know, you know.) But I also know I’m terrible at writing them, and so right now I focus more on setting elements that I can do, finding different world-building facets that can still add that realistic feel but in an area I’m more equipped to write about.
Either way, the biggest takeaway for fantasy authors is to be careful not to get swept up in the minute details of your world, especially if you do a lot of outlining before writing. Some of it may make sense in an abstract way but fall apart once you try to incorporate it into the work itself. It, like every form of writing, will require some revisions and adjustments as you continue on the writing process, so keep that in mind. It’s also worth making notes of all the little details you come up with because you may need to cut out a descriptive detail for one scene and then find that you can recycle that very same detail for another. Ultimately, the tertiary details you opt to include don’t matter so long as there are some included and they flow with the scene, so don’t stress overly much about figuring out every little thing about your new world.