As a reader, one of my favorite things is entering a new world that feels like it existed, in all of its glorious complexities, far before I opened the book housing it. I feel like a discoverer of a lost or hidden world. In other words, the setting feels real. Isn’t that the ultimate goal of fantasy?
As an author, I can appreciate how difficult it is to achieve that level of world creation. Unless you are writing spin-off novel eight, most likely the setting WAS created just for the story currently unfolding. So, how do you avoid having the world feel ‘new?’
There are tricks to making a world you are creating as you write feel solid. Follow these world building tips and tricks to get you started creating a world that is immersive for the reader!
Tip 1: The characters know their way around
First off, if your character grew up there, they know their way around. Unless they were extremely sheltered or a prisoner all of their lives, they know where to go to buy food. The reader is new to the story, yes. But don’t have the characters play tour guide like they’ve never walked through town.
There are other methods of unfolding a landscape – like a map! Stick one in the novel as a reference. But it is only a reference and most people are not going to jump out of the story to see where the city of Xanthia is in relation to Trykk. Instead, use days of travel, direction via the setting or rising sun, use clues to fill the reader in. If they are going to the harbor, they are most likely walking downhill. Or you hear the sound of seagulls. Need food? – bet you can smell a bakery or roasting meat. Don’t have your main character stop and ask for directions unless they’ve travelled somewhere new.
Tip 2: Wars don’t start just so there is someone to fight
There is a lot that goes into running a country such as creating a political structure, managing resources and armies. A government does not simply exist so the heroes have an enemy. Wars start for a reason.
Sure, maybe the invading country wants more land. But why? Are their resources depleted: no clean water or running out of farmland? Maybe they’ve done so well they are overpopulated? Time to invade the neighbors!
Ruling people is a huge bother, especially if they are going to fight back or revolt. There has to be a good solid cause for the fight. Finding one will add depth to the story by providing a history that existed before the novel began, one that sweeps up the main characters rather than being there to give them something to do.
Tip 3: Build from the ground up
Step back and see through the eyes of your character. Where do they live? Is it a forest, grassland, desert? Maybe a city, but what is beyond its borders? How far to the nearest stream? The coast? The next town? The capitol? Think about what it would take to make the civilization you have in mind. How have the food, resources, and industry been developed? Do they have metal to make weapons? Where do they get it? What has become scarce (and might mean you need to invade someone?) Have past wars influenced politics, potentially even the mindset of your characters? Think about the age of the country. Are the streets worn or are they new? If new, why was a new town built? Expansion? Destruction?
This is where I start drawing maps. Shaping the actual land creates variables – ones that you might not have considered when writing. It adds swamps and mountains to cross. Plus, all of that adds up to weather! Did you forget about weather? Create a mountain range, and it will have a rain shadow on one side. Wind patterns dictated storms. Maybe there should be a rainy season. You don’t need to be a meteorologist to understand what creates weather. These issues add uniqueness to the story AND give it a purpose beyond being a backdrop.
Tip 4: Go for the science
You can really create amazing worlds if you are into science. Push the world a little closer to the sun to create vast deserts with barely habitable poles. Pull it further away for a frosty world. But you don’t have to be a scifi geek to tweak a variable or two to create something special.
In my fantasy world of Myrrah, I decided I wanted to have one moon, but that it was on an elliptical orbit. When close to the the planet, the moon was referred to as the ‘greater’ moon and farther away, the ‘lesser’. Its light changes from bright blue-white to a faint rose depending on location, which adds a few challenges for anyone sneaking around at night. But more than that, since Myrrah is a world based extensively on water and sailing, when the greater moon was full, there are some major tides!
Think about the impacts of having multiple moons, volcanoes, a shorter day, or elliptical orbits. You don’t need to use more than one scenario, or use it extensively, to have it add something unique to your story.
Why all the bother?
This might seem like a lot of time on detail, but this is character development for land masses and countries. And it will add just as much to your novel as a well developed character. Which will keep readers coming back for more.