World-building can be one of the most fun but difficult processes, so I wanted to share some of my best world-building tips for fantasy authors! At the end of the post, I’ll also share some books and other resources you can check out to improve your world-building skills. As with any area of writing craft, the more you do it, the more you’ll feel comfortable world-building again in future – although each project will still have its own challenges!
1. Magic should have limitations
Having clear magical rules is so important to help readers both understand your magic system and for them to find it compelling and interesting. The key thing is that magic can’t be a fix-all – there needs to be limitations. If there’s always a magical solution to every problem, readers will grow frustrated and any tension in the story will be lost. Think about the following:
- What can your magic do, and what can’t it do? What are the limitations?
- What is the cost of doing magic?
- Who exactly can use magic, and who can’t?
- What’s the source of magic?
- Can magic be learnt, or are people born with it?
These questions are a great starting point for building a magic system that has limitations. For more ideas, take a look at SFWA’s list of world-building questions for magic.
It can also be helpful to read other books in your genre to get a feel for how other authors develop their magic systems. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, for example, has a unique magic system linked to metals, with clear rules.
2. Remember to infuse a strong (and unique) sense of place
Sometimes, fantasy authors get so caught up in plotting or conveying other elements (such as characters, races/species, or magical and political systems) that they forget to make their setting come alive on the page.
One of the most common things I see when editing and critiquing fantasy manuscripts is vagueness when it comes to the setting. An author might describe things generically, such as saying there are ships in a harbour, or halls and buildings and palaces, mountains, fields, farms. But if you use too many of these generic descriptions, you risk ending up with a fantasy setting that feels cookie-cutter and not uniquely yours.
This is where specifics can help. Put your own spin on things! What type of ships does your world have – are they steampunk style with lots of mechanisms, pirate ships, or grand ocean cruisers? Give your own flair to everything: how do your buildings differ? Are they made of unique materials, shaped differently? Are your fields standard green grass, or do they have bleeding flowers, or glowing plants?
Asking yourself questions about every aspect of your setting – and being specific – can bring your setting to life. There’s a fine line to walk between being vague and overloading your novel with description, so do be careful you don’t go overboard!
Having a time period in mind can also help with this – if you’re basing your novel on a particular era (even if that’s not clear in the text), you can draw on that for inspiration. You could also draw on places in the real world.
3. Avoid info-dumping
Info-dumping (or using too much exposition) is one of the most common problems fantasy authors face when world-building. My tips for avoiding this issue are:
- Scenes, not summary! If you’re summarising or explaining something to the reader, think about how this could be worked into a scene instead. Is there a scene that could show the same knowledge to the reader, without it being stated? Can you include the information via dialogue or an interaction between characters? Although remember to keep this balanced so dialogue doesn’t end up being expositional too!
- Resist the urge to explain. This is a good mantra to have in mind when you’re revising a book. You can be ruthless in cutting most explanations, or you can rework them into scenes, behaviours, and interactions for a more immersive reading experience.
- Balance. There is sometimes a place for “telling” or exposition. Keep this brief, and limited to when you absolutely need to use it.
I have a full guide on exposition/telling that you might want to check out!
4. Give the reader breadcrumbs to follow
When world-building, it can be tempting to dump a lot of information on the reader at once. Authors often feel the reader must know how absolutely everything works before the story can really get going. This can lead to info-dumps, as described above, but it can lead to the reader feeling overwhelmed and confused by so much new information. Readers might give up on a book if they feel too overwhelmed.
My advice here is to give the reader what they need to know to follow the story at any given time. This means giving them enough breadcrumbs to follow along with, but not overloading them by telling them everything about your world in one gulp.
5. Keep your target audience in mind
Some genres have certain expectations when it comes to world-building – in steampunk fantasy, for example, we can expect to see lots of mechanical contraptions and inventions, perhaps a Victorian-type setting. In urban fantasy, we’d expect the story to take place in an urban or city environment.
Your genre and audience will help to shape your world-building elements. This includes your age category. Middle grade and young adult fantasy will look very different to adult high fantasy.
This is why it’s so crucial to read widely in the genres and age ranges you want to write. That way, you can become familiar with what readers (and the publishing industry) expect.
To go with the world-building tips for fantasy authors that I’ve shared above, I wanted to list out some other helpful resources on both world-building and writing for your chosen audience. Some of these are books, others are helpful videos or links:
- The Fantasy Fiction Formula by Deborah Chester
- 101 Worldbuilding Prompts by M.D. Presley
- The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults by Cheryl B. Klein (great book if you’re interested in young adult or middle grade fantasy)
- Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer
- Fantasy worldbuilding questions from Patricia C. Wrede
- Sanderson’s First Law
- Brandon Sanderson’s 2016 BYU lectures (on writing sci-fi and fantasy)
If you’d like editorial help or feedback on your fantasy manuscript, check out my editorial services.