Caveat: I don’t believe in rules for writing. This post isn’t meant to be a list of things you must do, or must not do. Fantasy can be as realistic, or as unrealistic, as you wish. Neither is necessarily better; they’re just different. This post is meant only to serve as a brainstorming exercise. It is meant to raise questions that might help you as you think about your story and your world. You are more than welcome to throw any or all of it out for any given story.
As a fantasy writer, it can sometimes be tempting to spend so much time on world-building that the writing is neglected. This isn’t meant to be an exercise in procrastination. Instead, I hope you’ll use this as a general reminder of the different factors that can affect a story and its realism. If you want to be extremely realistic, you may want to do research on different historical periods that can shed light on your story. If your story is set in France in 1792, obviously you would want to do research on the French Revolution… if you simply ignore this real-life event, your setting loses its realism. If you want to invent your own nations governed by glittery dragons, that is completely fine! You don’t have to play by the rules of late 1700s France to do it.
However, even though I don’t believe in rules for writing, I do understand that there are some things that generally work, and some things that generally don’t. One of the things that generally works is making sure that your fantasy world is consistent. Your book can be consistent with history to some degree, but it doesn’t have to be. It probably SHOULD be internally consistent.
Consistency with History
As a fantasy author, you have the freedom to play with history as you wish. Alternate history is a form of fantasy, after all. If you choose to ground your story in real history, be clear in your own mind where history ends and fantasy begins. You don’t have to clear everything up in your story, but readers of historical fantasy may appreciate a note at the end describing what is your invention and what is real, in case they wish to do additional research. Obviously, the glittery dragons are probably not real, but if you take liberties with historical figures in non-obvious ways, this is probably a good idea.
Internal consistency may be even more important for fantasy writers. Since we’re already asking the reader to suspend disbelief in one area, we need to be extra careful not to remind them of it later on. Just as you want to be sure that Susie has blue eyes throughout the whole book rather than randomly changing to brown-eyed with no explanation half-way through, you also must make sure that whatever rules operate in your fantasy world, they are consistent. If there IS a change, it needs to be for a reason.
This isn’t a rule, exactly. Rules can be broken, and broken to good effect. This is more of a concept to keep in mind. Internal inconsistencies jar at the reader, reminding them that “hey, you’re reading a book, and this thing here looks like the author forgot what they already said six pages ago. That’s not how magic/dragons/politics/etc. work.” As a reader, I don’t like to be reminded that I’m reading a book, and I especially don’t like to be reminded by something that looks like a mistake. Let me experience the book. Let me be immersed in a fantastic world. Don’t pull me out of it! Internal consistency is a way to create a world that isn’t this world, but is a world in which the reader can be immersed, even if only for a short time.
What time of year is it? How much time passes during the story? What is the weather like? What is the physical landscape (both natural and manmade)? Rivers, cities, mountains, swamps, villages, buildings, walls, castles, airports, etc. – anything can be significant and can help establish your setting.
What historical events have influenced the locale of the story? Was the country conquered at some point? Is it still occupied? Did the conquerors assimilate or is there segregation of some type? Has there ever been a plague/war/coup/tsunami/other significant disaster or event? How long ago? What effects are still evident, if any? What historical events affect current beliefs?
What is the technological environment? Is it a stone age culture, or a futuristic society? Did different fields of study develop at the same rate as in human history? If not, why not? How does technology affect the culture, political environment, and physical setting?
Ideological and Religious:
Is the culture fragmented along ideological or religious lines? What do the people believe? How does it affect their actions? Has it changed from what their ancestors believed? How? How does it affect family structure? How does it affect politics?
Is there ethnic diversity? If so, how is it dealt with? Is there fragmentation along ethnic lines, and if so, why? Has it always been this way? Are different ethnic groups also separated by ideology and/or religion? Were they on different sides or the same side of previous historical events?
Magic and Other Fantastical Things:
Is there magic? How does it work? Is it accessible or useable by everyone? If not, why not (training? natural talent? laws of inheritance? some other reason?)? Are there monsters or other fantastical creatures? How do they interact with humans?
You may wish to check out this article on Writer’s Digest, which outlines these ideas a bit differently.
Consider thinking through a character sheet for at least your main characters. There are any number of character sheets online, and many of them include everything from your character’s eye color to their favorite car to their least favorite memory of childhood. Ignore the parts that don’t make sense or don’t add anything to your understanding of your character. The point is to understand who your character is and how he or she will act when presented with the challenges in your story. (I used he, but it could be a she too. Typing “he or she” a hundred times was more distracting than helpful.)
What drives this character?
What does he want? What does he need? Do these differ?
What does he fear?
What is his background? What events and experiences have shaped his character and personality? Is his ethnic, religious, or cultural background different than that of other characters? What effect does this have on him and on the story? Is your character a product of the world of the story, or is it foreign to him?
How is he connected to other characters in the story or in his own background? Relationships are important in making characters real. People don’t generally exist in a vacuum, and your characters probably don’t either. If they don’t have any connections, why? There is probably an interesting story there too!
World-Building Before You Write vs. World-Building As You Write
Many fantasy writers do extensive world-building before they begin writing. However, I’ve found that it works best for me (your mileage may vary!) if I do fairly minimal world-building ahead of time. Of course I need to know the big questions – is there magic? In general, how does it work? Does my main character have access to it or not? Certain questions are critical to getting started.
However, I’ve had the most success when I spend less time on world-building ahead of time. Instead, I like to dive into the world and start writing. As I write, I come up with questions… How does this country relate to that country? What social structures are relevant to this character? Etc. To some extent, these questions can be answered as you write. At least for me, focusing too much on world-building can steal some of the excitement of discovering the story as I write. Additionally, sometimes a story takes a new direction as I write, and it’s frustrating to have spent weeks on world-building when the questions and answers that result aren’t relevant to (or actually conflict with) the story I end up writing.
World-building is fun! But it’s not writing. It’s an enjoyable stage of preparation for writing. If you find yourself spending so much time on world-building that you never write the story, try just jumping into writing without a clue what’s going to happen. As you find out, explore your new world. See what works. See what makes it enjoyable. Then during editing, go back and pull on those threads that were most interesting and develop them more.
Most of all, enjoy the process. Writing isn’t always easy, but it should be enjoyable.