World Building and the Art of Fantasy

All of us have our favorite fantasy novels, both High Fantasy and Low Fantasy.  Here at THE DARK SIRE, our favorite, go-to High Fantasy author is J.R.R. Tolkien for his body of work which includes The Lord of the Ring series, the Simarillion, and the Hobbit (just to name a few).  Low Fantasy would definitely include the Harry Potter series, Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, and Anne McCaffrey’s Dragon Riders of Pern series.  As diverse as all these books are, they have two things in common: 1. Great characterization and 2. Unique worlds in which those characters live.

Characterization deserves a blog all its own and it will get one in the near future.  But, today, I want to delve into the concept of World Building, the chief cornerstone of both High and Low Fantasy.  It’s what makes the genre work.  Without it, your story will crash on the rocks of the readers’ disbelief. 

Simply put, World Building is creating a locale where your story takes place.  A locale that your readers MUST believe in if they are going to believe in your characters. The challenge with World Building is recognizing that your world must function by a specific set of rules.  It is your task, as the author, to establish those rules and map out how your characters will follow them.  The secret is in the details.  Everything – person, animal, or creature – you write about must follow those rules down to the last letter.  This is key in giving your characters a landscape in which to develop. 

Your characters cannot exist in a vacuum.  They have to move, eat, sleep, and perform all the functions that their kind of character must perform to live.  They must have some place real to live.  Not real in our every day existence, but real to them.  And since your story’s world may be different than your readers’ world, it is your job to make the reader understand how your characters can function in a realm that the reader could not.

Think about questions that could guide your world building:

What are the conflicts in your created world?  Does it only rain once every six months?  Are there other species of humanoids and do they require a special environment to survive and if so, can different kinds of humanoids survive in each other’s environments? How do your characters communicate?  Are there different languages?  What do your characters need to do to understand one another?  What is the landscape in which your characters live?  Do different characters need different landscapes? 

Then, set up the boundaries.  Who is in charge?  Do they use magic like in Harry Potter?  And if so, who gets to use the magic, and can others see it?  What is the tone of the atmosphere?  Is this a dark and stormy place or bright and sunny; or is it a landscape covered in ice? 

Define the culture.  What do your characters believe in?  Is there a religion?  Are there several religions? What are the sacred customs?  What is the history of your characters’ interactions? Is there war, peace, tension between peoples? What is the culture’s folklore and mythology?

Don’t forget to use all five of your senses when creating your world.  You need to make your reader feel as if they are right there standing next to your characters – experiencing everything, feeling what they feel, smelling what they smell.  They need to viscerally inhabit your world no matter how fantastical it is.  Your world needs to feel real and functional to someone who could literally not function in it.

Remember, this is a fantasy world created by you, the author.  You need to know how it all functions and be able to pass that knowledge on to the reader without being didactic. Most importantly, you will have to guide the reader seamlessly through your world without breaking the tone or pace of the story. Any note of straying from the story, just to explain an aspect of your world (exposition) will distract the reader – and that’s game over for your story.


Here are a couple of exercises to help you along the creative way:

  1.  Interview your main character.  Ask them questions.  Get to know how they will react to the environment/problem that you have created for them.
  2. Map out your world. What does everything look like? What is where in this new world?
  3. Write a paragraph on each type of being used in your story. List the attributes of the peoples in each group: appearance, language, fighting abilities, magical abilities, spiritual abilities, clothing, food, shelters/lodgings.
  4. Describe the places in your world either to a friend or in a journal. What’s the scenery, weather, animals like? Be detailed in your descriptions so that a person can imagine it in their own thoughts.
  5. How will your story end?  Write the final page.  What are you going to have to do in this created universe of yours to get your main character to that point? Who or what will your character have to face? Are these obstacles part of the world building? Describe them in detail.
  6. Now that you know how your story will end, how will it begin?  What incident starts your main character on his/her/its path of self-discovery? What will your main character reveal on page one that will make your reader want to turn to page two? And most importantly, how will you convey your world building without heavy-loading exposition? For help on this one, read the first few pages of Tolkien’s The Hobit.

We would love to see what you can do.
Show us your world building in the comments!


We’re always looking for good, high-quality fantasy short stories, novellas, poems, art, and screenplays. If you have a piece ready for publication, please submit it. 

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