More on building fantastical worlds

I recently attended the Australian National Science Fiction Convention — Conflux 9 — a fabulous four days of hanging out with other writers, industry professionals and speculative fiction fans.

The convention offered many valuable panel discussions and workshops (among other things); I attended a worldbuilding session with Glenda Larke, an Australian epic fantasy author whose innovative and multi-dimensional worlds regularly garner much acclaim. As regular readers of this blog will know, worldbuilding is important to me and I thought perhaps Glenda might reveal some of her secrets.

She did! And I’m going to share some of the key points here today.

To start with, the following two points were emphasised. A successful fantasy world is dependent on two quite separate factors:

  • Building the world
  • Introducing the world to readers

Building the fantastical world

When creating a fantastical world, it’s essential to make it solid and believable — and give it some pizzazz. The author must know more than is revealed to the reader to give it that multi-dimensional quality, that sense the world extends beyond the immediate story.

Some authors spend a great deal of time developing a fully realised world up front, and allow the story to unfold within it. (As I have done to-date.) Glenda, on the other hand, develops her world in parallel with the story.

She said several times that one of her starting questions is “Who has the power?” and then “What do they do with it?”. Everything derives from here. She continuously adjusts the world to fit the plot, and sometimes even the map is changing right up to the final draft. The world exists to fit the story.

This doesn’t mean she skimps on the worldbuilding. But she says she doesn’t need to know everything at the beginning of the story — so long as by the end she has a comprehensive understanding.

Moreover, it’s important to identify at least one thing to make your world original, different from all the others…

As for the details, there are any number of questionnaires and worldbuilding templates available online to assist authors these days. It’s not usually necessary to fill out every single item on each list, but it can be helpful to have an idea, however roughly formed, about aspects such as economics, geography, climate, social structure and so on.

This is all assuming the fantastical world is not based directly on a particular period of our own. If that is the case, then comprehensive research from original sources is recommended.

Introducing the world to readers

Here, the key is achieving the perfect balance between what the author knows and what the reader needs to know. There’s no sense revealing irrelevant details — they’ll only bore the reader and create false expectation.

Moreover, (we all know this, but I’ll reiterate it anyway), authors must avoid the info-dump. The secret to introducing the world to readers is inserting threads of detail gradually, so the reader builds up a picture one tiny element at a time.

Some of Glenda’s tips for subtle inclusion of world detail are:

  • Creating small incidents, which also convey important characterisation, plot information, etc
  • Creating curse words to reflect culture
  • Using calendars of festivals, religious celebrations etc
  • Using unique similes and metaphors in the narrative and dialogue to convey culture and world detail
  • Referring to historical and cultural events

Finally, Glenda says don’t get hung up with getting it right the first time round! She says layering and texturing of the world can take place in subsequent drafts and revisions.

And I agree — my favourite part!

Does anyone else have any worldbuilding tips? I’d love to hear thoughts on fantastical worlds. Let me know your favourite fantasy worlds and their authors too. I’m always on the lookout for great new fantasy reading experiences.


Coming up soon will be a post exploring something else I learnt at Conflux — how important it is to be prepared to talk about your work! We’ll be talking pitching and dealing with that innocent question: “What’s your novel about?”


25 thoughts on “More on building fantastical worlds

  1. I love the subtle tips you shared…curse words, unique similes and metaphors, and historic events are the kinds of details that ground the world.
    Nice post! Sounds like an awesome conference.


  2. I love weird worlds, so this topic is dear to my heart. When I worldbuild, I usually start with one big “gimme”–that wild and wacky, suspend-your-disbelief characteristic I just *have* to have. It could be a sunless world in a mechanical world (Quartz), or a series of connected worlds that are like the folds on a paper fan (Riven) or a human community on the skeleton of a ginormous space dragon (Rainbird). I then build the world around that conceit, trying to draw out implications as best I can.

    I like Glenda’s tips for subtle ways of bringing out the worldbuilding as the story progresses. I once wrote a fantasy novel in which the main character was a historian/archaeologist and had fun having her refer to obscure texts and discarded theories and previous scholars. One of my favorite scenes in that book was when she was hiding out in the library and found herself absorbed in a book whose title was along the lines of “Agricultural and Mining Production in Obscure Province, Sixth District”. *grin*


    1. Oh, ps: If you were at Conflux, and if you went to the launches of anthologies by FableCroft Publishing, you might’ve seen an antho. that I have a story in (which I co-wrote with Jo Anderton). 😀


    2. I love the way your mind works — those world premises sound amazing… And I agree it’s good to start with that X-factor characteristic that almost justifies the fantasy.

      Scholarly texts are heaps of fun and really useful — so long as your protag can read. You’ve just reminded me that I did create some historical bardic songs of note for my world that I’ve mostly forgotten about! That I guess is the problem with creating it all up front – heh.


  3. Great tips! Although I write literary fiction, there’s plenty that can be taken from these wise words and applied to my own weirdo worlds and characters. Thanks for sharing the wealth, Ellen 😀


    1. Yes, I think every story has a setting that needs to be conveyed somehow, no matter the genre. Glad there’s something to be gained for you literary types as well. 😀


    1. Building a world is so much fun! I’m sure that’s why I write fantasy as well. I’m flattered you’ve bookmarked this post, because I’m sure there are a gazillion more comprehensive ones out there — but thanks!


  4. I did a world building workshop a few years ago and the thing I really took away from it (which you also mentioned) is how important it is to know so much more than you actually tell the reader. You need to set your ‘rules’ and baseline stuff that may not even be relevant in your first book. But if you know your world well enough, it means you won’t have continuity issues in later novels.

    Nice post! I wish I had got to the con, it sounds like it was a lot of fun.


    1. Yeah, we missed you, Nat! Your point about maintaining consistency for potential sequels is a VERY good one!

      Personally, I also rather like the idea I can change the rules to suit the story… I’m considering changing something minor to suit the story in the current novel, which will have flow-on effects in the one I’ve already written — but when I think about the impact it’s so incredibly minor the only person who would care or notice is me! Sometimes I do think it’s possible to get too constrained by the world you’ve created. heh!


  5. This is so timely, as I am working on a world in my book. I don’t know that I have any tips, since I’m building right now, but I will say that having a complete picture in my head of the world is essential for me ~ including colors, sounds and smells.

    I love her tips. Thanks for sharing them!


  6. Thanks for sharing what you learned at Conflux. I’m crafting the outline of my next novel and as I’m thinking about the setting, I’ve been worried about how to convey the time (1920’s) and place (New Orleans) with a steampunk flair but not slow down the story with description but give enough to give a sense. It’s always such a difficult thing for me and I spend a ton of time editing and rewriting those sentences. I’ll be putting your tips to good use once I start the actual writing of the story. 🙂


    1. Yep, Glenda’s tips are good ones! (So wish they were actually mine!) Good luck with your first foray into steampunk/speculative fiction, Tami. I sure hope you enjoy it. 🙂


  7. I like to ask ‘how’ when I’m building a world. For example, you have the question, ‘Who has the power?’ One of the questions I would ask based on that is, How did they get it? How do they ensure that they keep it? How does that work out for them? And for each of those questions, we get new branches on our little question-tree. So I keep asking, ‘how?’

    This is a really nice post. Thanks for sharing Glenda Larke’s advice.


    1. Yes, you’re so right. “How” is definitely an important question. Thanks for the reminder.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post – thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.


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