World Building for Epic Fantasy

Staying organized and maintaining a sense of wonder.

Epic fantasy is my favorite genre. Part of what I love about it, and what I think most fans of the genre love about it, is its depth and complexity. It truly feels like you’ve stepped into another world — and not just through the wardrobe, but onto another planet.

Writing Epics are not quite as fun as reading them. There is so much to keep track of and usually a large cast of characters to manage. I’m in the middle of writing an Epic right now so I’m going to share with you a few of the tricks I use to keep my world from falling apart.

First, I break up all my world building info into two categories: Real World and Fantastical.

The Real World category contains all the things I’m using from Earth. This is an important distinction because these are the kinds of things you’re going to have to research to some extent. Horses, for example, are a big one many writers get wrong. So, if your characters ride horses, or if they’re fishing, or hunting, or if they’re a blacksmith, or anything else that you’re taking from the real world then take the time to Google it and make sure you’ve got it right.

Certain readers will always find something to pick at and nobody’s perfect, so don’t sweat the small stuff. You aren’t writing the wiki-page on horses, you just want your stories to have a certain level of realism.

The Fantastical category contains everything you made up that is totally unique to your world. This might include things like magic systems, religions, or even race if you aren’t borrowing from the real world. These things won’t need fact checking because they don’t exist, but they do need a level of internal consistency. I recommend making a document just for these things so that every time you mention them you can make note of it and use it for future reference.

You’ve probably heard the metaphor that a story is like an iceberg: most of it is beneath the surface, meaning it’s not actually in the book but the reader knows it’s there.

Remember, you aren’t writing an encyclopedia. Do you know everything about Earth? All it’s politics, ecology, physics, etc? Of course not, and your characters won’t know everything about their world either.

So how do you make your world feel big without including every detail? Take your list of Real World and Fantastical info. Here’s an example of what you might be working with:

- Religion

- Politics

- History

- Climate

- Culture

You’ll likely have more on your list but let’s work with these five things. You don’t want to go into detail about all of these so you’re going to want to rank them from most detailed to least. Say your plot is strongly tied to politics. You’re going to want to go into detail about it because you want your readers to have a good grasp of how the politics work. You want your readers to be able to know the in-world politics so well that they could predict ways in which the characters could use it to their advantage. Now say Climate is also pretty important. Maybe your world has strange weather patterns that dictate how the characters live.

Brandon Sanderson’s Way of King’s Series in a really great example of this. On the world Roshar, there is a massive storm that sweeps across the surface of the planet in a predictable pattern. People build their homes facing a certain way to protect them from the storm, they must take shelter at certain times, and the storm is the lifeblood of their magic system. It is so central to the plot that readers have to know about it.

If politics and climate are big in-world factors, everything else can be ranked somewhere below them in the order you feel is most important to least important. Then, when you’re writing and you come upon one of these things, you’ll know how in-depth you can go. If you come across culture for example, mention something specific about it. Maybe this culture has a particular way of dressing or they eat food that the main characters find strange. Specifics make a culture feel real and whole, don’t let yourself get carried away by also getting into how they talk and write and cook. Pick one thing and your readers will be able to infer that this culture is robust and unique.

So now you should have two lists, one for Real World and one for Fantastical, and each should be organized in order of detail. Stick to this list. If climate is at the very bottom of your list don’t go overboard with it. In fact, you probably don’t want to allot more than a line or two to it each time it comes up. Things at the top of your list might need a paragraph, maybe two.

These lists are your World Building Bible now. Do not stray from them lest you slip into world building heresy. They will stop you from developing world builder’s disease which makes you world build when you should be writing. There are rabbit holes in your newly or yet to be created world that you don’t know about, and maybe you’ll go down them for a while. It can be fun to explore the inner depths of your planet — but when you emerge from the rabbit hole bury the entrance. Readers will stumble upon the little mound of earth and wonder what’s beneath — if you let them fall to the bottom you risk removing the wonder from your world.

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