Worldbuilding a fantasy series

Following on from my last post about getting your facts straight in an imaginary world, this post is all about building that world!

So, what is worldbuilding? Well, in short, worldbuilding is the process of designing a fictional world that feels realistic and multidimensional. Every facet of a world, from its geography and landscape to the customs of its people and the structure of their society, needs outlining by the author – and often ahead of any actual writing.

In the same way you would outline and plot a story, with worldbuilding you are creating the foundation your story will stand on and the world your characters will interact within.

Any fictional story – historical, romance, even a modern day crime thriller – they all require some degree of worldbuilding. Most often though, it’s the fantasy and sci-fi genres that bring out a writer’s inner nerd and compel them to build a fantastical universe, the likes of which you’ve never seen before.

I was lucky enough to hear the late Dave Farland lecture on the use of wonder in fiction a couple of years ago. He described how, when worldbuilding, you create an “iceberg” of facts and information. Your readers will only ever see the very tip of this iceberg, but, if you don’t have the rest of your facts in order, there’ll be nothing below the surface. Which means, you get to decide how detailed you want to make it, but, in theory, the richer you make your imagined world, the better it will pull your readers into the story and keep them there.

How do I build my world?

There are tons of “How to’s” online that will give you an idea of where to start and the key areas you should cover when worldbuilding. When I first sat down to do this, I spent a week scouring the internet for an instruction manual of sorts. What I found was that many of the articles that describe this process, barely scratch the surface. They give you the basic bare bones and a few sample questions to answer, just to get you started, but that’s about it.

I couldn’t find a truly “All-inclusive: How to build a fantasy world”. That is until I came across this comprehensive list of worldbuilding topics and questions by Patricia C. Wrede and the SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America). The level of detail here is insane – in a good way, a great way even – but, fair warning, you’ll have to be incredibly dedicated to get even halfway through the list and still find the process rewarding!

Using a sizeable amount of the questions from Wrede’s list, along with a fair few of my own, I compiled my own worldbuilding toolkit of questions and focus points. I organised the whole thing into topics that made the most sense to me… and then I began figuring out the answers. My goal: all the raw information I could possibly need for my novels – a whole iceberg’s worth!

Are there any drawbacks to worldbuilding?

You bet! The main one: falling down the rabbit-hole of detail-mania!

This is a common problem when worldbuilding. You start with the basics and suddenly find you’ve researched every species of horse, how to care for them, what they eat and how to ride one. Not to mention you now know the name of every piece of tack and harness and how to fight with a sword on horseback… It’s a problem I think many will recognise. I figured I would be too organised and have more than enough willpower to withstand the pull of the rabbit-hole. Guess what…? I was wrong!

Another big issue for many world-builders lies in finding the right balance between historical or “real-world” accuracy and fantasy embellishments. Deciding how accurate the “real” portions of your world need to be and where you can let your imagination run wild with the fantasy elements, can be a challenge. Some may feel they want an equal weight of both, some more fantasy and just a little bit of fact. Whichever court you land in, be aware that coming up with a magic system, dragons and other imaginary creatures can feel like more fun than work, but is often no less demanding than researching the historical context and society your world will be set in. And even if you aren’t using a historical setting, basing your world on ours and using established cultures and societies as a foundation for your own, requires research and respect for the truth behind the tales.

The final issue many world-builders come across is: when do I stop worldbuilding and start writing? That’s a tough one to answer, but the simplest, most concise answer I can give is this: if you know you have enough detail to make your story come alive, but feel like you’d rather continue worldbuilding than start writing, it’s time to stop and shift your focus! All the work you’ve done is there to create a foundation for the incredible story you have to tell. Now go tell it! Don’t keep digging and imagining new details to create a bigger iceberg no one but you will see…

I hope you found a few answers here and if you’re about to start worldbuilding – good luck!

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