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Worldbuilding 2: the basics of writing fantasy fiction


The basics of writing fantasy fiction


Fantasy fiction is a niche market, but a very popular niche market. It is particularly popular among new writers, and I suspect this is a consequence of growing up on a diet of best-selling fantasy fiction over the last couple of decades. In this article, I will look at the differences between writing fantasy fiction and other genres, and also the similarities. Then I will look at some of the issues involved in writing fantasy fiction.

The internet is positively awash with sites offering help and advice to writers; much of this advice is breathlessly enthusiastic rather than practically useful, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the fantasy market. There are apps out there that will build you a map of an unknown land, invent a vocabulary for an imaginary language, or offer a list of character names; everything, in fact, except write the book for you - and there are probably sites that offer that service too. A key tenet of this minor authorial industry is that fantasy fiction is qualitatively different from other genres; but is this strictly true?

Let's start with the obvious. Most novels are set in the real world (and yes, I use that term advisedly). They rely to an extent on the reader's knowledge of the world for plausibility. The world of a fantasy novel is usually imaginary. It's not unique in this; science fiction, too, is usually - though not always - set in an imaginary world. And there are honourable exceptions in the fantasy genre, perhaps the most well-known being Alan Garner and Stephen King; in their work, strangeness and magic intrude on the mundane.

So, broadly, we can say that setting constitutes a difference between fantasy and other genres; but the distinction is not black and white. Some writers of crime thrillers and police procedurals, for instance, take an approach that is not so far removed from fantasy in this respect. While most thrillers are set in recognisably ‘real' locations, some authors choose to invent a location - a village, town or city - where the action takes place.

Writers who adopt this approach are also, effectively, worldbuilding. They invent the main location and equip it with characters, geography and culture. They may do so against a backdrop of the familiar; the fictional town may be set in a wider landscape recognisably real - the Yorkshire moors, or the Scottish highlands - but the setting is essentially as much of a fiction as the plot. So perhaps the vaunted differences between fantasy and other genres are really more of degree than kind.

Nonetheless, there are differences, and worldbuilding is the arena where those differences are accentuated. If you intend to write a fantasy novel, you will very probably be faced with the task of inventing a world in which your story is set. And here, I think, another distinction emerges, one which rests on where you, as a creator, are coming from.

I have always tended to assume that most people who set out to write a book do so because they have a story to tell; but in reading fantasy fiction I have come to realise that this is not always the case. Some writers begin with worldbuilding; this may seem counter-intuitive, but there are some famous examples, the most famous of all being the author who, more or less single-handedly, invented the genre - Tolkien. Tolkien was fascinated by languages, and spent a considerable part of his life inventing novel languages, a pursuit he referred to as ‘glossopoeia'.

‘The invention of languages is the foundation. The "stories" were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse.' This is how he described the process that eventually generated The Lord of the Rings and inspired thousands of writers to invent worlds of their own. That process involved first creating new languages; then developing a mythos, or culture, in which they resided; and only then creating stories that happen in the new world.

Does it make a difference whether you start with the story and build a world for it, or start with an invented world and generate stories to populate it? I think it does. In the former case, the world you build is first and foremost a vehicle for an existing story; in the latter, the invented world is a generator of story ideas. And those differing priorities have a bearing on how you go about worldbuilding.

When the story is the main driver, worldbuilding is a subsidiary activity and contingent on the needs of the narrative. In this case, you may not need to adopt a totally comprehensive approach (certainly not one as monumental and life-consuming as Tolkien's); you are simply aiming to create a setting that makes the story plausible on its own terms. That doesn't mean you are getting away lightly; if the world you build is not plausible, it will undermine the story, so you must pay attention to the details.

When worldbuilding precedes narrative, the choices and decisions you make are different. The process is more open-ended; it is not constrained by the story's requirements. It is likely to be a more comprehensive endeavour too; creating a credible world is a major undertaking. Be prepared to engage with history, geography, legend and myth, religion, biology, technology and language at a bare minimum.

Whether you start from the story or the world, there are a number of elements that require your attention. There is a broad consensus in the fantasy fiction community around the main elements that all worldbuilding entails. These are:

Geography: how the world looks; climate; distances from one location to another; habitable and non-habitable places

Culture: how the inhabitants of the world live their lives; religion, food, language, politics, the structure of society

Technology: the tools available to the characters; swords and bows, or guns and bombs; horses and carts, or powered vehicles

Beings: humans and non-humans; quasi-humans (elves, dwarves, goblins) or non-humans (dragons, trolls, monsters)

Magic: while it's not universal, magic is a common element of fantasy worlds and stories, and is worth considering

In later articles, I will examine each of these elements in more detail. For now, you can treat them as a rough checklist of the things you need to consider when you embark on building a fictional world. If you are starting from the story, you may not need all of these elements (you may not have characters that employ magic, for instance); if you are starting with worldbuilding, you will probably need to think about all of them.

Ultimately, and this is an important point, the principles governing worldbuilding are not so different from the principles that underlie all good writing. Plausibility, attention to detail, and consistency are the cornerstones of any well-written book. Fantasy has its own joys and pitfalls for the writer, as any genre does, and setting is more important than in some other forms of fiction; but a good story, well told, is the aim of any writer worth their salt. Everything else is detail.


When he isn't editing, Noel Rooney writes a regular column for Fortean Times magazine, and wilfully obscure poetry. He lives in South London with his family and rather too many animals.

Worldbuilding 1: character names in fantasy novels.

Worldbuilding 3: geography and physical location

Worldbuilding 4: technology

Worldbuilding 5: culture

Worldbuilding 6: magic

Worldbuilding 7: it's a kind of magic