Fantasy Worldbuilding: Part One

Posted by on Mar 9, 2011 | 4 comments

If you are working on a fantasy novel, these are a few questions you might ask yourself to make your worldbuilding believable and satisfying to the reader.  Three more questions will follow next week!

1) Are you thinking of worldbuilding as an element of character?

Consider how much of who you are is informed by your culture, your religion, the attitudes of your family and your society.  Now consider how much of your daily life is affected by where and how you live—city or country, rich or poor, hot climate or cold.

The world you live in is not a backdrop for your life like a stage set, it’s what has made you.  And that should be true for your fantasy characters as well.  The great fantasy characters— Sabriel, Bilbo, Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea, Katsa in Graceling—were as much shaped by their environment as you or I.

As a fantasy writer, I used to see setting as something separate from character, but it became more helpful to see setting as a shaper of character—and that helped me to put fantasy worldbuilding in its proper place as something quite essential to the story.

2) Have you considered what came before?

Giving the impression of backstory, even when it is not spelled out, is one of the most effective ways to make a reader believe in your world.  JRR Tolkien was, of course, the king of this.  Middle Earth has a rich and detailed history that Tolkien knew intimately.  Even when we only get hints and snatches of that history, the reader fills in the details and infers a rich and full past.

3) Have you taken each element of your world to its logical conclusion?

Let’s say you’ve written a story in which ten percent of the population is psychic.  Or can fly.  Or can use magic.  Have you considered how a criminal might take advantage of this?  And how law enforcement would respond?  How would religions interpret these abilities?  How would society?  How would people in power try to use this to their advantage?  How would people not in power fight back?

Making just one small change to the world we live in would have an enormous ripple effect, and as writers, we are usually making many more than one change.  The farther you can follow that ripple to the unexpected alterations it would have on your fantasy world, the more believable your story will be.

For example, in Airborn by Kenneth Oppel, the existence of hydrium, a stable gas that is lighter than helium, creates a domino effect on the culture:  Transport via airship becomes possible in the Edwardian age; airplanes are never developed; and different cities and countries rise to power based on their ability to take advantage of this resource.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on worldbuilding.  Check back next week for Part Two!


  1. Although fantasy isn’t my genre, I think the first and second points are important for all writers. Even if I’m not worldbuilding in my contemporary stories, it’s equally important for me to remember that my characters are a product of the world in which they live.

  2. I completely agree. Often when you’re writing contemporary, there are things the reader will be able to take for granted about the setting, so you might not always have to go into as much detail as with a fantasy novel, but the characters are just as much a product of their environment. Thanks Beth!

  3. I just found you on the blue boards. Congrats on your upcoming book. I love MG and YA fantasy. I tend to write urban fantasy so there isn’t as much world-building. Great post. I look forward to stopping back.

  4. Hi Kelly! Thanks for dropping by!

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