The books I enjoy the most rip me from the couch and drop me into an entirely new world. Suddenly, I’m an explorer, even though I’ve never felt the thrill of charting new territories; I’m scaling snowy mountaintops, even though I’d never even seen snow until I was ten, having grown up in Florida.
This guest post is by Amber Mitchell. Mitchell graduated from the University of South Florida with a BA in Creative Writing. She likes crazy hairstyles, reading, D&D, k-dramas, good puns, and great food. When she isn’t putting words on paper, she is using cardstock to craft 3D artwork, or exploring new places with her husband Brian. They live in a small town in Florida with their four cats, where she is still waiting for a madman in a blue box to show up on her doorstep. Amber’s first novel GARDEN OF THORNS released on March 6, 2017 with Entangled Publishing. You can follow her on Twitter @Amberinblunderl.
Because of my love of world building, I’ve always been drawn to the fantasy genre and knew I wanted to try writing a fantasy. But I found out very quickly that crafting a breathing, living world isn’t as easy as reading about one. Suddenly, I needed to know how long it would take to get from one city to the next on horseback. And how long could a horse travel at top speed in a day anyway? When the main character got to that next town, what does the architecture look like? What’s the hierarchy of authority?
It occurred to me then that I wasn’t just building a world where the main character lives, I was building a world where thousands of people exist. If I wanted to make my fantasy feel real, then I was going to have to understand what was going on beyond my main character’s point of view.
With that in mind, here are a few tips I’ve learned to help craft realistic fantasy worlds.
1. Not every world needs to be based off of the European Medieval period.
I love “classic” European-based fantasy, and the fashion of the medieval period fits so well with the epic fantasy feel. But I’ve found that selecting other cultures as a base for your fantasy world can really bring that fresh feeling to your fiction.
2. If you do decide to base your fantasy world off a certain culture, do your research.
This is such an important detail. I know it’s tempting to start writing after plotting and creating characters, but researching about the culture and time period you’ve selected will allow you to pick the most important aspects to add. Research far and wide, even though you’ll only end up keeping about 10% of what you find. If you’ve done your homework, it’ll show in the informed decisions you make while writing and will make your world feel unique.
3. Say “yes” to yourself.
This is one I had a lot of trouble with in the beginning. It’s hard to trust your gut, but the worst that can happen when you’re writing a fantasy is to get too bogged down in the details. If you find that to be the case, you can edit them out. Better to have many details that you can par down than to have a bare and unimaginative world.
4. Only keep your best ideas.
This one might be in contradiction with the last tip, but it’s really important, too. If you’ve said yes to everything about your world that’s popped into your head, the likelihood of your story being long and reading slow is pretty strong. But now you have so many details to work with. Use the details to craft multiple sentences of the same topic, describing details in different ways. Half of my first drafts are sentences written over and over again describing things differently. It’s easier to shape your favorites after you’ve done the hard work of thinking them up.
5. Give your world a history.
Take the time to go through your world’s backstory, per se. Even if you don’t know who first decided to cultivate the land your bustling main city is on now, make sure there are at least rumors on how the people think their world was created. Nothing is worse than reading about a setting that feels like it just sprang to life because the main character came there. Know the history so you know what shaped your character’s minds—even if you only use a fraction of it.
6. Keep it simple.
Above all, simplicity is always the right choice. If you have to bend over backwards to explain something, it probably doesn’t need to be in your manuscript. If you need to drink an entire mug of coffee to interpret or discuss your world’s over-complicated magic system, you should rethink things. Chances are that the simplest answers are often the strongest, and these details will make your world crystal clear to the reader.
Fantasy novels demand lush worlds. Readers want to discover the world you’ve created as much as they want to meet your new characters. Crafting a world that feels unique isn’t always easy, but if you do it correctly, every place on the page will feel like its own character. And who knows, you might even get readers to say a swear word you created or utter nox when turning out the lights after finishing their new favorite book.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.