15 Tips For Creating A Fictional World That Actually Makes Sense To The Reader

Macall B. Polay/courtesy of HBO

From Narnia to Neverland, literature is filled with fictional realms. There are High Fantasy worlds like Middle-Earth or Westeros, where everything is vaguely medieval and vaguely European (but also sometimes there are dragons). There are Urban Fantasy worlds, where goblins and whatnot lurk just beneath the streets of real life London and vampires pick off tourists in dark alleyways. There are whole entire Science Fiction galaxies, where interstellar empires rule and every planet seems to consist of just one biome for some reason. There are, in short, a lot of different directions to go in if you want to build a fictional world of your own. Here are a few tips to get you started.

You may think that fiction is fiction, and you can just start coming up with whatever and call it a fantasy world. And... technically, you are correct. Go nuts. But if you're trying to write a book or a TV show or a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, you're probably going to want to share your fictional world with other people at some point. And they're going to like your story/script/10 straight hours of role-playing a whole lot more if you stick to just a few simple rules for building a creative, fully-realized, comprehensible world:

1Pick a Starting Point

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It may sound obvious, but pick a tone to start with. Is this going to be a goofy adventure full of talking dragons and subverted fantasy tropes, or a gritty alternate reality where every third baby is turned into a cyborg? Will you have magic? Is it based on our real world with a few tweaks, or set in a wholly different plane of existence? Before you start fiddling with maps and made up languages, you're going to need a general idea of what genre (or mix of genres) you're most interested in messing with.

2Write Some Rules

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Yes, fantasy worlds are fun because they're not bound by our own laws of reality. But you still need some laws of reality, even if you made them up. Write out a few core rules for this world. Perhaps magic exists, but it always costs a terrible price. Maybe humans still can't breathe in space, but vampires can. There could be time travel in this universe, but no way to actually change the future. Pick your own brand of logic, and then stick to it as much as humanly possible.

3Avoid “One Hat" Aliens

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If you're crafting a whole fantasy world (or solar system), you're probably going to have a few different races and cultures. Please, please try not to boil any race down to one single hat. Give them more than one trait. If you want to make a species of bloodthirsty cat aliens that's fine, but what's their music scene like? Do some of them enjoy knitting? Do they have different political factions based on the legalization of cat nip? No one culture should be a monolith, even in fiction.

4Please Don’t Make Caricatures of Real Cultures

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As you try to craft nuanced, multi-dimensional cultures for your fantasy realms, you may be tempted to draw inspiration from real world cultures. Please do so carefully and respectfully. Representing diverse characters is a great thing. But if you realize that all your main characters are noble and coded as European, and all your villains are warlike and riding fantasy elephants and vaguely Middle Eastern, you have made a terrible mistake (I'm looking at you, Tolkien and everyone who copied Tolkien).

5Become a History Buff

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No, you don't need to read all of actual history in order to make up a fictional history. But unless your world is brand new, you should probably think about the broad strokes of your world's past. Have there been enormous empires in this world? Long periods of peace? Legendary queens? Look to real world history if you feel stuck, and remember that the past is long and full of weird surprises.

6Walk Through a “Day in the Life”

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OK, so your story is set on the planet of Gondolier, in the city of Tol-Ki'en. Great. What does a typical day look like there? What do the inhabitants eat for breakfast? How present is the government in people's day to day interactions? What does a polite local greeting look like? Is there nightlife? Do kids go to school? What are some common vocations? Decide what daily life looks like for this society before your plot gets in there is ruin it all.

7Find Real Life Inspirations

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Again, and I want to stress this point, do not take a real world culture and give them pointy ears. That's not good writing. But do look to music, art, cities, and landscapes that interest you for inspiration. Do look up customs from a variety of civilizations and think about how they'd work in the present day. Do look at actual biomes and start asking things like, "If all these tree could talk, how would that change the environment around here?"And of course: do your research, talk to people, get sensitivity readers.

8Do Research, Write Lists

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Lists are your friend. Make lists of common names in your world. Make lists of town names and good reference websites you find. Seek out indexes of plant names and gem names if you need some fantasy-sounding nonsense in a pinch. Basically, you can never have too many extra lists lying around.

9Make Maps

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Some people are more into maps than others. If you feel called to create a fantasy map and fill in every last village and valley, go for it. If you're not so into fussing over the details, just jot down a few notes about how far things are from each other. Either way, have a sense of space and terrain before you start with the actual story.

10Become a Linguist

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You don't have to create a whole fantasy language if that doesn't sound like fun to you. But if you're going to go for language-making, or if you just want to come up with a few fantastical names, take a moment to come up with a few core fantasy vocab words, and then start thinking about how those couple of root words can be used in different combinations to create new meanings entirely.

11Don’t Info-Dump

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You know all the secret nooks and crannies of this world. But your characters probably don't. Make sure that your characters don't want around spouting facts about the founding of their city and the ecological make up of the Enchanted Forest to the North. Let your readers or listeners learn about this world gradually as they explore it, rather than through huge chunks of exposition.

12Think About Cause and Effect

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Ask a lot of "What If?" questions. What if this country had never been colonized? How would that affect the culture and technology? What if everyone had a magical animal soul-companion? Would their theology look different? What if we had superheroes, but they were always smashing up cities in their big fights? Even if you're making on small change to the real world, it could have massive ramifications.

13Get Specific

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Sure, you know what your magical tavern is called, but how does it smell? Your forest may be haunted, but what shade of green are the leaves? What are the dominant tastes in the local cuisine? Get specific about your descriptions so you can evoke a real, lived in place, not just a carbon copy of someone else's world.

14Figure Out Why Your Story is Happening NOW

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Why NOW? Maybe tensions have been rising on your continent for decades, or maybe a strange has turned everything upside-down in this small town. Whatever it is, decide why NOW is that time in your world's history that best serves your story.

15Love Your World

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Create a world that you're excited about, even if that means ignoring most of these tips altogether. If you don't love your world, than neither will your readers. Find the quirks and details that make this world so very you, and try not to feel constrained by copying the fantasy realms that went before. This one's all you.