Fantasy Worldbuilding: Part Two

Posted by on Mar 16, 2011 | 6 comments

Last week I wrote about backstory, worldbuilding as an element of character, and taking each changed element of your world to its logical conclusion.  This week I have three more questions you might want to ask yourself if you are writing a fantasy novel and want to make your fantasy worlds rich and satisfying.

Okay, I realize this one is similar to #1, but at the risk of repeating myself:

4) Have you made your characters a product of the society you created?

One of the things that really makes me sigh in high fantasy is when an author creates a medieval- (or other-) style world full of sexism, racism, sexual repression etc. and then plunks a hero into it with completely modern sensibilities.  Let’s face it, in such a setting, a boy who has grown up a peasant farmer is not likely to value literacy.  Even the kindest mother is likely to believe that corporal punishment for children is a good idea.  That’s okay.  Readers can still love flawed characters.

No, this is not a license to be politically incorrect; it’s an opportunity to explore where these attitudes come from.  Removing our ingrained mindsets from the politically charged context of our own world and allowing us to see them in a new light is one of the reasons fantasy is the greatest genre ever, People!  Take advantage!

Todd Hewitt in Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go is the perfect example of a character who has been warped by the hypocrisy, sexism and religious zealotry of his own culture, but we still want to follow him through three books, and we still write fawning emails to Patrick Ness begging him to write faster.  (Or is that just me?)

5) Have you integrated the fantasy elements deeply enough into your world?

Comedians often talk about something called a callback.  This is a joke that refers to one that has been told earlier in the set, but that is presented in a different context from the initial joke.  I don’t know why the surprise of a callback is so funny, but hearing a reference to another joke that you’d thought you were done with just makes us laugh for some reason.

You can use the surprise and delight of a callback when creating a setting as well.

For instance, in Witchlanders I created a red-leafed tree called a zanthia, at first purely as a visual effect.  My main character, Ryder, was watching his two sisters making the sun positions, a yoga-like form of prayer, and I wanted to have the image of a red mountain, covered with red trees in the background.

Once I used this image, though, I knew I’d have to integrate zanthias more deeply into my world.  As it happened, the witches in my book—goddess-worshipping religious figures—wore red.  I began to see that the color red, and zanthis trees in particular, could be used as a metaphor for the witches.  Later in the book, I wrote:

As they neared the top of the mountain, Ryder noticed that the zanthia trees had become squat and stunted, bent backward by an ever-present wind into gnarled poses, like witches bending to the sun.

I was calling back the zanthia trees, but in a different and enriched context, which I think helped to solidify the reality of the trees—and the world—in the reader’s mind.

6) Have you gone too far?

And finally, it’s important to come to terms with the fact that you probably know more about your world than the reader wants to know.  Heck, I could tell you so much about hicca, the mainstay crop of my fantasy world—its history, its cultivation.  (It even got so bad that when my writing group wanted to ask me about my writing, they’d say: “how’s life in the hicca fields today, Lena?”) Sadly, though I found such details quite scintillating, my agent and editor disagreed.

Info-dumping is a danger when writing any book, but as fantasy writers we have to be doubly careful.  Just as you don’t need to reveal a character to a reader all at once, you don’t need to reveal the setting all at once either.  Like your characters, your setting should be developed gradually.

Franny Billingsley is the perfect author to read for richly developed fantasy worlds that are never overwritten.  Whether it’s the caverns where the Folk live in The Folk Keeper or the creepy swamps in her latest book, Chime, her settings are always gradually and satisfyingly revealed.

Wait!  Was that a segue?

Yes!  Like how I did that?  Next week, I will be posting an interview with the incomparable Franny Billingsley.  BUT you won’t find it here, you’ll find it over on the Enchanted Inkpot blog.  Don’t worry.  I’ll post the link next week.


  1. I like the section about have you gone too far. We tend to know everything about our world and our characters, but it’s important to know what the reader should know and what should just be left to our own minds.

  2. Thanks Kelly! Yes, that’s a big one.

  3. OOOH! I love this post!

    I’m such a fan of worldbuilding. It’s so funny, ’cause I know if you started talking to me about your hicca fields. I’d be like, “Oh, that’s so cool! And when do you harvest it?” and I’d be so totally involved in understanding how you came up with this crop.

  4. Lena, I don’t write fantasy and don’t plan to, but you make me want to. Great advice in this post!

  5. Katrina! Thanks for dropping by. I will bend your ear about hicca any time.

  6. Hi Jocelyn and congrats on your new book contract. Yes, I think a lot of what can be said about worldbuilding really applies to setting in general. Thanks!

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