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Essential Steps to Worldbuilding for Your Fantasy Novel

Kaitlyn Meyers
2019

Creating a world for your fantasy novel can be difficult—if not downright impossible. I

understand; worldbuilding can be frustrating, disheartening, and sometimes even daunting—like a

monster looming over your story. This worldbuilding monster may seem like it’s holding your story

hostage. But building a multifaceted history, magic, ecosystem, language, and religion, allows a

fantasy world to blossom. Even though creating a versatile and realistic fantasy world can be hard,

let me help you with understanding and then breaking down the aforementioned monster.

The Basic One-Two Punch

There’s actually no single way to worldbuild and to start to destroy that monster, which is

why it’s such a difficult subject. Use the classic one-two punch of worldbuilding tactics to bring it

down. You can either sit down and plan it all out at once or do it as you go. Both have their benefits,

even if I don’t wholeheartedly agree with the latter. Here’s a warning against plan-as-you-go

worldbuilding: your story may become disjointed, because you can’t build the lore and storylines into

the lives of your characters as easily as you can if a large chunk has already been planned.

On one hand, the problem you can face with preplanning everything is simply over-planning:

the condition of being so wound up in worldbuilding that you never get around to writing the actual

story or of being so overwhelmed by worldbuilding that you never want to touch the project again.

The former is generally out of love for the world, while the latter tends to be out of anxiety.

On the other hand, planning-as-you-go worldbuilding allows you to freely write your fiery

dragons and wizardly folk without restraint, which allows for a manuscript to be finished faster in

many cases. Freewriting is also a great way to use planning-as-you-go worldbuilding to your

advantage. By getting pen to paper, it allows you to get the creative juices flowing and to make that
monster much easier to defeat. However, be cautious; there may be a lot of continuity errors

throughout that your editor will need you to reconcile.

In order to avoid an extensive rewrite, start small. By starting with small details, you’re able

to do both kinds of worldbuilding: preplanning and plan-as-you-go. This basic kind of one-two

punch can be effective against that monster. Regardless of the method with which you choose to

worldbuild with, you’ll be able to knock out small inconsistencies that can make your story

unbelievable. That’s the critical thing about a fantasy story: making it believable. But before you can

defeat your monster, you have to understand it.

1. Where’s Your Monster From?

The first to learn about your monster before you can slay it is having a history that is

believable. The history is not just how the people got there, but how everything came to be. Yes, I’m

talking about your world’s Adam and Eve. Do research on the mythologies of different cultures,

have an open mind, and take notes. By creating new mythologies that your characters believe in, you

will be able to make them unique and different than our world’s humans.

Now, don’t get discouraged. You don’t have to write a giant textbook to create a compelling

and interesting history. It can be as rudimentary as you want. No matter how simple it is, you will be

able to then incorporate it throughout your story, either in passing or as a major plot point. Major

plot points can include wars, people vying for power, the rise of various political parties, genocides,

peace treaties, et cetera.

Now, you don’t have to create an entire history, especially if you decide that your story takes

place on Earth. If it does, then decide when in history your story takes place, and proceed with

research. Even if your story doesn’t take place on Earth, remember that most history is history that

is repeatable and replicable, and thus realistic. Mankind started in the Neolithic period, then they had

a phase with bronze, then with iron, and so forth until today. If you’re trying to create a world from
scratch, you can instead easily research the history of mankind and apply it to your fantasy realm.

These phases of time can be applicable to most fantasy races—humans, elves, trolls, and even your

unique ones, like how the hobbits from The Lord of the Rings are unique to J. R. R. Tolkien.

2. Where Does Your Monster Stand in the Hierarchy?

Speaking of species—the next part of the monster to understand is trying to decide who or

what will be the apex predator. If not humans, then what will be? There are hundreds of reasons

why humans may not be. Dragons can be vicious creatures that could easily eat a person (and often

do in fantasy stories). What about trolls being the apex predator? You’ll have to remember to ask the

biggest question of the ecosystem: What are your predators’ sources of nutrition? This will affect

how the societies are set up; if humans are the prey of trolls, mankind may live behind tall walls and

leave travel to those who desire death. It will significantly affect how your main character, and their

potential company, interact with the plot, whether it be fulfilling the prophecy, finding their long-

lost father, or changing their destiny.

In addition to the ecosystem, you need to know which species are sapient—either human-

level or higher. Creating mindlessly bloodthirsty dragons is one thing, but making them sapient, such

as Smaug in The Hobbit, is something else entirely. This battle with your monster of worldbuilding

may make worldbuilding more difficult if you do make multiple creatures sapient. This difficulty will

come bearing down on you, because you’ll have to plan out how the sentient dragons live, thrive,

and feel about your main character’s species. As with any changes of this type, there will more

preplanning to do, but it may be worth it in the end.

3. Is Your Monster Magical?

The next trial against your worldbuilding monster to overcome regards magic. At a simple

glance: Will there be magic in your fantasy novel? In a more complex view: How will it react when
met with science or religion? Will there be a specific people or species that can’t use magic? How

does that affect the political sphere? Does it cause strife between the magical and the non-magical?

One great example of this interaction is J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter world, including the

Fantastic Beasts prequels. There is a lot of political conflict happening in the background of Harry’s

plotline, but we don’t really see that kind of conflict until we meet Newt and company in the

prequels. The political struggle between wizard and muggle becomes so great that certain characters,

such as Grindelwald, take it upon themselves to be the “heroes” of the story, even though they want

to destroy the muggles. These political and idealistic views create tension in Rowling’s story,

allowing readers and viewers to be fully invested in it. By doing something similar in your story—

creating a tug-of-war system between two or more ideals—it allows your readers to become invested

in your story.

Next, establish how the magic works. The Force in Star Wars is vaguely explained, but well

enough that viewers—those not in the world—are able to understand it. Knowing and

understanding where the magic comes from allows for the audience to connect to the magic. Just

saying that it exists, however, is often not the best route, because then the reader will sit and wonder:

How does this work? Where did it come from? Having answers for these questions will allow the

reader to not fixate on the magic, but rather the story.

It is also important to know how the magic interacts with the world and its inhabitants. How

does magic fire react when met with real fire? Is there a difference? By creating a magic that can

coexist with the real world makes it even more realistic, and you can show those moments in your

story. However, “realistic” magic is hard to write without a little bit of experimentation. Do some

freewriting of the history of your kind of magic, write down every idea you’ve ever had regarding the

magic, and try to incorporate bits and pieces together to make the ideas work.
You could also go the scientific route and give scientific explanations for how the magic

works. For example, if you have water magic, it may use the water particles in the air to make water

just “randomly” appear. Just like creating the history, you don’t have to write a book of how the

magic works scientifically to implement it into your story. Find a friend, such as Google, and do

some research on what you want and how to make it work realistically.

4. How Does Your Monster Act?

The final thing you must understand about the monster before you can destroy it is the

culture. Behaviors and beliefs should fit a character’s circumstance, such as their upbringing and

political viewpoints. This is the defining feature of culture. It would be unexpected for an elf like

Legolas from The Lord of the Rings to act like a dwarf, because they were raised in separate societies.

As such, there are certain norms that your audience expects to see from your character(s). This

doesn’t mean, however, that you are restricted to your society’s norms. You can create and cross any

boundaries you’d like. Be cautioned, though, that crossing those boundaries may alienate your

audience and create strife between the reader and the story. Instituting a nudist group in your story,

and then fixating on it for no legitimate reason, is an example of an unnecessarily breaking of

modern-day norms, and may cause this divide.

Linked with any society is language. In Despicable Me, the minions are the only ones who

speak their language, because they are a society all their own. Likewise, in Harry Potter, the spells are

spoken in a hodgepodge of Latin, Greek, and Old English, but the spells, which are foreign to

muggles, are understood in the wizarding world. Though there is an entire language for these spells,

only certain words are used. Again, don’t be overwhelmed. You are allowed to utilize the same

method within your fantasy novel. You don’t have to create a whole artificial language, like Dothraki

in The Game of Thrones, for your worldbuilding to be effective.


Religion is another useful aspect to a society’s development during worldbuilding. Many

subliminal decisions, thoughts, and intentions are dictated by one’s religion. As aforementioned, you

can make mythologies, which are often the bases for religions. These religions, budding through

mythologies, can then build tension in your story—as it has in real life. Conflicts between Christian

and Muslim communities have been affecting religion and culture for a long time, and most of said

conflicts have been a result of religious differences. Even if your story doesn’t revolve around

religion, you should have a realistic belief system to be built into the history of the world. However,

not all religions need to perpetrate goodness: there can be cults or terrorist groups that could

potentially cause chaos in your story. Regardless, establish if your religion’s deity or doctrine is

benevolent or antagonistic. Is this god actively involved in the lives of your character(s)? Or does the

god stand as a figure of motivation and inspiration?

No matter how deep or how superficial you decide to make your religion, it’s important that

your religion is reasonable. People by nature are not altruistic, thus their religion should offer them

something in return for their actions—whether that be in an afterlife or miracles during life.

Similarly, a created religion should strike the reader as viable, because religion drives the humans

(and sapient creatures) to act and behave in certain ways, whether it’s related to the physical or

spiritual. This can make actions predictable, relatable, and realistic.

Conclusion

By finding your best combination of the two different ways of worldbuilding, preplanning or

plan-as-you-go, you’ll be able to create a realistic world. A history will allow for the world to be

fantastic yet believable. A species hierarchy within the ecosystem is also vital to understanding how

the fantasy world will be set up. Creating a realistic, otherworldly magic (if your story has it) will

create a believable fantasy element. And finally, a culture—an important part of any story—will

allow you to create a unique twist to your story. Careful and deliberate creations of all these aspects
will make your story believable. Preplanning all of this may be hard for you or may get you in a state

of over-planning. So, don’t be afraid of doing some planning as you go to organically discover parts

of your story’s world that you would not have otherwise. These steps and strategies for

worldbuilding allow for easy thinking while writing and for feasible actions from your characters.

Congratulations; you now understand the monster that plagues your story, and you can now

successfully overcome it. Step forward proudly, knowing that your novel is not only a fantasy, but

can also be a reality.

About the Author


I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, but I moved to Utah to pursue my passion for words and language: I
loved editing for classmates in high school and university. I studied the editing and publishing major at
Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. On top of that, I’ve developed a love for the German language,
and I was able to minor in German. Growing up in a small town, I was able to easily seclude myself and read
to my heart’s content. I was also been able to do trap shooting in high school. I adore video gaming,
worldbuilding, and hanging out with friends.
It was not just coursework that I completed at BYU. Currently, I’m diving headfirst into the editing world by
helping authors become published at BYU’s Leading Edge Magazine.
I have great attention to detail and an excellent understanding of the nuances of the written word, enabling
me to help you improve your manuscript. I focus mainly on fiction, with a specialty in short stories. Being
able to help make a story blossom will always be a waking dream of mine.
I’ve worked directly with authors, creating style sheets for their stories, and developing said stories to be the
best versions that they can be. I love challenges, so I’m willing to step out of my short story comfort zone to
help create a full novel masterpiece. Being able to see a story develop always makes me happy, and that joy is
something I want to share with you.