Three Essentials for Fantasy Worldbuilding

I know, you want to write the next Lord of the Rings, or possibly the next Game of Thrones. So do I, to be honest. But I also want to read as many more epic fantasies as can be brought to the bookshop table, and sometimes I go looking for them in the Kindle shop. Frequently, you can download the first episode of an epic fantasy series for no cost at all, and decide from what you read whether you want to buy the rest of it for real money.

So far, I have to say, I’ve not yet found one I felt moved to spend money on. I’ve seen lots of books where the hero(ine) discovers they’re special, finds a magic weapon and goes off to rid the world of the evil overlord, and in lots of them I’ve felt completely unable to suspend my disbelief. Not because the magic was too outre, or the hero(ine)’s superpowers were too odd, or the secondary non-human race was too strange – sadly. I would have been delighted if they were, tbh. But because the author displayed a complete ignorance about the mundane things of their pseudo-medieval world that I actually know something about.

When you’re trying to sell your readers on the possibility of a world with fantastical elements, the reader needs to know that you are a reliable source of information and have thought about how this works. That is instantly undercut if you get your real-world details wrong. So, here are three very vital things you need to do to prevent your reader from throwing the book at the wall before you’ve even got the story going.

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  1. Understand how your technology works.

And I don’t just mean your gravity defying steam dirigibles. If you’re writing a pseudo-medieval fantasy and your characters are lighting a camp fire, Google “how to light a fire without matches.” Never just make it up, because it is a thing that somebody out there knows how to do, and they will know if you get it wrong. And they will go “Oh, bloody hell, Author! Those are ashes. Ashes don’t burn! If I can’t trust you to get that right, what can I trust you with?”

In the same way, decide on the technical underpinnings of your habitations. Things like plumbing. (Is water brought in to your houses by wooden pipes? Are there fountains or wells in the centre of the village? Does everyone have to walk to the stream every morning? Engineering – how were the heavy blocks that form the temple of doom transported onto site/raised onto the sacrificial platform? (By treadwheel crane? By teams of oxen? By teams of neutered trolls?) Exactly how far is the range of that arbalest? Can I really gallop from Dover to Sherwood Forest in a day? Etc etc.

The more you get right, the more convinced your reader will be that you know what you’re talking about, and the more solid, the more reliably real your world will seem.

Peasants

  1. Understand how your economy works.

Doesn’t that sound dull?! This is something you can paint in broad brush strokes, so it doesn’t have to be as tedious as it sounds. However, I have thrown a book at the wall because it was set in a small community where every single person went to their shop at the beginning of the day, sold unspecified goods, and then went home. The community was surrounded by a wall and isolated from the rest of the world. This made me wonder several things, specifically – if no one is making things, and no one is bringing things in from outside, what on earth have they got to sell in their shops? If no one is farming and growing food, why don’t they starve? Does the author even know the basic facts of existence, such as ‘food has to come from somewhere’, and ‘clothes don’t weave themselves’?

This economy did not work, because nobody was producing anything. You need to ask yourself “What do they eat?” “Where do they get the food from?” “Who produces it?” “Where do they get clothes?” “Who produces those?” “How long does it take them, and who feeds them while they’re doing it?” “Where do they live?” “Who builds those places?” Etc.

In order for your character to have leisure time to go off and become a warrior/magician/assassin/whatever there needs to be a large social infrastructure in place to create enough surplus so that not everybody is occupied at simply trying to survive. As the author, you need an understanding of how that infrastructure hangs together. Even if you lift it wholesale out of medieval Europe, like 99% of other Fantasy writers, you really need to know how it works, or people will ask themselves why your populations are not too busy starving to worry about the return of the Old Ones.

Plus, once you have a basic idea of how your economy functions, it may turn out to be a surprising source of story ideas. If all your country’s food has to travel up river through that bottle-neck between the Fangs of Fear, that’s a prime site for a bandit queen to capture so she can starve the city into compliance.

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  1. Understand how your society works.

This will tie in with how your economy works, because everyone needs to eat. Once you’ve established who’s producing the food and necessities, ask yourself who’s profiting from the surplus, and how.

Is your society a traditional medieval one in which the food producers were barely free, the merchants had a little money and therefore influence, and the top of the food chain were the heavily armoured blokes running a protection racket on top (aka knights and kings)? It’s reliable and so ubiquitous that it’s almost invisible, and you can get right on to your story about the Chosen One confident that the readers are thinking ‘oh, it’s another one of those things.’

But perhaps you want to do something different? Maybe the arable land is scarce and everyone relies on a small powerful clique of farmers to provide food to a starving manufacturing class? How would that affect the things that were respected and valued in your world? Would you have people rebelling by raising their own crops in window boxes? Would seed-peddlers be daring heroes of the proletariat? If you developed that, all kinds of weird things could happen. Your heroes would probably not be warriors, they might be gardeners, but I can’t help but feel that we’ve already had too many warrior heroes. Time for something else, maybe.

Perhaps your society is run by nuns who genuinely do collect from all what they can give and give to all what they need? In our world, Communism has slipped rapidly into corruption, but what would it be like living in a society where everyone genuinely was treated as equal to everyone else? Owned no more than anyone else, and had no more power than anyone else? What would that be like, really? I’d be interested to find out.

Or perhaps your civilisation is an actual democracy and there are branches of magic dedicated to getting the votes of every person in a society that doesn’t have the tech level to do long distance communication otherwise? It’s up to you to say, and so it’s also up to you to know.

These three things may not be as glamorous to think about as that spectacular battle scene you have in your head, but they are the foundations on which your world rests. If your readers catch you making elementary mistakes in these things, you’ll be very very lucky if they (a) ever get to your spectacular battle scene at all and (b) ever read something of yours again. So pay at least enough attention to these so that your foundations won’t crumble and let the whole edifice down. You might even find out you’re writing something much more unique and interesting if you do.

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