Today I’m pleased to welcome back Rose Atkinson Carter – who brings an informative post about worldbuilding.
Rose – over to you…
Building a whole new world for a fantasy novel is a massive undertaking. You have to consider every detail, from the overall geography to the minutiae of everyday life. Although your fantasy novel doesn’t need to be set in another world, there’s something appealing about disappearing into a place that’s completely new and different, and the process of creation can be just as fun as writing the actual narrative.
That said, there are so many moving parts involved in worldbuilding, that a lot that can go wrong and pull your reader out of the story. To help you avoid that, here are five worldbuilding mistakes you should watch out for.
We meet our protagonists as they set off on their quest to find an ancient treasure, but whose treasure is it, and if it’s so old, why does it matter now? This is one mistake many beginner writers make. Simply starting your story and making up the world’s past as you go along can be tempting. What tends to happen though, is the history ends up disjointed and sparse, not really giving the sense of being a real world. Much like your characters, the setting also has a backstory that grounds it in the present day and should be considered with as much seriousness as you would give your main character.
If you’re a pantser, it’s fine to make things up as you go if that’s what helps you stay productive on the first draft — but make sure to reconsider everything carefully when self-editing.
Remember, a history that’s too clean and linear can be a problem as well, because it can come across as too simplistic. Rarely is any history cut-and-dry, so adding some twists, turns, and misconceptions will give your world extra depth.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from underdeveloped history is the writer who loves the details. While there is a benefit to thinking out every aspect of the world from what clothing different cultures wear to the feuds going on between different royal families, it shouldn’t bog down your plot. This mistake often leads to the dreaded infodump, pulling people out of the story as they start to wonder when you’re going to get back to the action.
A lot of worldbuilding is about striking a balance between too much and too little detail. Detail can help your writing remain plausible, but explaining the political and cultural significance of the monarch’s crown jewels when they don’t feature heavily in the plot isn’t useful to you or the reader. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t mention it, but keeping it to a few sentences rather than a few paragraphs will give you the effect of realism you want without overwhelming the story.
It’s far too easy to fall into the trap of making each setting entirely separate from the others. Obviously, you don’t want your fantastical magic race to be exactly like the neighboring human kingdom, but it would be strange if nothing passed between them, whether that’s legends, clothing trends, languages, or useful inventions.
Even the most isolationist of countries will have some interaction and trade with other places. Consider how different peoples interact and what the effect on the overall world would be. Each country’s approach to trade, political alliances, and even intermarriage will have an important impact on the world and shouldn’t be neglected in your writing process.
No culture is an absolute monolith. People are different and can have varying views even if they were raised in the same place with the same values. Even if the elves in your world largely believe humans are weak and inferior, it wouldn’t make sense for every elf the reader encounters to think that way. There could be differing degrees of this belief, from extreme hatred all the way to extreme compassion, but no two people should or could have the exact same opinion.
Culture is also prone to change and rarely remains stable for decades, let alone centuries. Though certain ideas may persist, the strength of them will likely be variable over the years, influenced by current events and even other countries. It stands to reason then that people will be just as variable. After all, culture is just the overarching or dominant point of view that exists, not the only one.
If you’re having trouble visualizing what this can look like, think of all the regions within countries seeking or talking about independence, from Catalonia to Scotland. Then, think of the many ethnic minorities existing in every place — it would make sense for a fantasy world to have minority groups within its society, too, whether that’s due to differences in religion or actual species.
People come to fantasy novels for the magic, to see impossible things become probable. When anything is possible, it’s tempting to create all kinds of interesting powers and artifacts. But this can easily lead you into the trap of having magic that only works when the protagonist needs it to, without any reasoning behind it. In order for your world to be believable, there should be some rules to its magic.
You don’t have to include Brandon Sanderson levels of detail for your magic system to make sense. Having a few simple guidelines for yourself will create a consistent world without an overpowered protagonist and keep your readers interested. Considering the limits of power will allow you to not only write an interesting story, but add underlying themes as well.
There’s a lot that can go wrong beyond what’s been outlined here. The process itself can be magical though — the sheer number of fantasy and sci fi novels published on Amazon every year are testament to that. If you’re struggling with worldbuilding, concentrate on having fun and being imaginative — you can always work with an editor later.
Rose Atkinson-Carter is a writer with Reedsy, advising authors on all things publishing, from finding a literary agent and crafting a successful query letter to understanding ISBNs and book copyrights. She has previously written for Books Uplift, WritersFirst, and more. She lives in London.