Every fantasy reader loves a fully fleshed out world. They might see only a tiny fraction of it (they’d *better* see only a tiny fraction of it), but they can feel if it exists.
In a fully fleshed out world, the forests are greener and every carnivore knows what it’s hunting. The sky might be purple, but we have the physics to explain why. And you’ll always know which lord build the castle that saved your hero from demons, and how much it cost them.
So if your goal is to give your readers what they want, here are five ways to go overboard with your worldbuilding.
Of course, if you follow these instructions you may never get around to writing your story, but isn’t the price worth it?*
* In general, it’s not.
How to go overboard designing your fantasy planet
Your story probably takes place on a planet, possibly on more than one.
An “Earthlike” planet will save you a lot of work, but where’s the fun in that?
I suggest you start with the world’s sun. Is there just one? If not, you’d better brush up on your physics to make sure your poor hero’s planet won’t plummet into a fiery hell or icy void.
How big is the sun? How hot? Where is it in its lifespan? What combination of elements does it consist of, and so what colour does it burn?
How big is your planet’s orbit? What is its orbital eccentricity? How long is a year? How long is a day? What is the planet’s angle of axial tilt? (For reference, Earth’s is currently 23.5 degrees, but it varies between 22.1 and 24.5 degrees.)
These are things you have to know!
And of course how big is the planet? What shape is it? How far from spherical? (Don’t forget this will depend on the velocity of its spin and the make-up of its crust.*)
* I made up the crust thing. It may be true.
Speaking of which, what is the chemical composition of the planet? How old is it? What percentage ocean? How strong is its magnetic field? (If it’s too weak, you might end up with a flock of confused migratory birds, and no one wants that.)
How to go overboard with your fantasy geography and geology
Alright, so if you’ve gone carefully through the questions above and checked the physics and chemistry to ensure none of your answers are contradictory, you’re ready to think about the surface of the planet.
Your characters are probably going to explore only a fraction of the planet, but don’t just start inventing biomes.
First you have to think about tectonic plates!
And not just where they and the boundaries between them are now, but where they were in the past and which way they’re moving. At each plate boundary, which plate is pushing up and which is plunging into the earth? How fast is each moving?
This is important. It will determine your mountain ranges, volcanoes, deep sea trenches, and of course the shapes and locations of your land masses. Remember the unrealistic mountain ranges on the Lord of the Rings map?* Start from tectonic plates and you’ll never have the same problem.
* Sorry, but they are.
Then you’ll need to know the ocean currents and where they carry warm water from the tropics, affecting the climate. The last thing you want is unrealistic snow.
Thinking higher up, how do the prevailing winds vary across the globe (or disc)? This will help determine climate and biomes and all that good stuff. Don’t forget the conditions that result in the five different types of desert–subtropical, interior, coastal, rain shadow, and polar.
Now drop rain on your landforms (based on climate, of course) and figure out where the water would run to form rivers. Don’t forget how erosion and the formation of exciting features such as alluvial fans will change the geography over time.
Don’t forget the surface of the earth is made of dirt, rock, rotted plants, and the occasional fossil. But what type of rock is where? If your characters take shelter in a cave, what process formed the cave? Are you sure?
How to go overboard with your fantasy flora and fauna
Congratulations! You now have a vaguely plausible physical world. But what lives in it?
Everything evolved for a reason, and everything in each ecosystem has a place in the food chain. You’re going to need a massive diagram and several graduate degrees to get this part right.
But don’t give up. Your readers will thank you.
Just remember that if you want your dragons to fly, it’s not as easy as it looks.
How to go overboard with your fantasy history
Now we come to people. You can sketch a few major wars from the last hundred years, but that’s hardly going overboard.
At a minimum, you’ll want to go back to the development of agriculture. Where in the world did agriculture first develop? Why there, and what happened next?
You don’t need all the details, just a sketch of the geographical extent, social context, economic power, and level of technology of all the civilisations that existed between the development of agriculture and the present day. And how they interacted with each other and why they collapsed.
For the most recent thousand years you’ll want more detail. Things like the names and biographies of each leader. Main industries, trade routes, social movements, religions, and famous entertainers.
And wars. Everyone likes a good war. You’ll want these to be well motivated, and you’ll need diagrams that describe each battle that involved more than a dozen combatants on each side. Don’t forget to detail the military technology available by each side at each point, how this evolved, and the role it played in the outcome.
I’m sure there’s more to history than wars… You’ll want to know that other stuff too.
How to go overboard with your fantasy language
Your fantasy characters probably speak a language other than English. Maybe you’ll use a phrase or two at some point in your book.
But don’t just throw together a bunch of letters that look vaguely pronounceable and call it a day. You’re using a foreign language, so you have a lot more work to do: you need to create a language.
And I mean things like alphabet or alternative written form, sound combinations, dictionary (aim for at least 10,000 words if you’re a serious writer), grammar, noun declensions, verb conjugations (but don’t make any of these too regular because we want to be realistic), and regional and class variations.
Again, you might need a few graduate degrees to get these things right, but is any effort too great for your art?
Now you know five ways you can go too far in your fantasy worldbuilding. I’m not going to say which are based loosely on my life.
Do you ever go to ridiculous lengths to make your worlds plausible? Care to share?
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