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How do I create a believeable and immersive fantasy world?

Updated: Dec 30, 2022

As a writer, one of the most exciting and daunting tasks is creating a believable and immersive fantasy world. Whether it be a sprawling medieval kingdom or a futuristic society, the world you build can make or break your story. It’s important to not only create a believable world, but also one that is immersive and engaging for readers. Here are some tips on how to create a believable and immersive fantasy world.




On Believability


First, some thoughts on creating a believable world in the first place. The human imagination is a strange and fickle beast, it requires that we envisage places and people that are beyond our direct material experience, but if we don’t create the means by which the mind can accept a story or an entire world, it will reject it. Have you ever seen a fantasy or a science fiction movie that was unconvincing? Think for a moment what it was that didn’t have you sold.


Was it how the characters talked and related to one another (let’s leave aside the possibility of bad acting for a moment, that’s beyond our remit as a world building and role play gaming blog!). Was it the basic premise? Was it the fact that the film or TV show seemed to break its own rules and contradict itself? Invariably, it’s one of these factors.


A fantasy world creates believability through coherence, certain rules are laid down from the start and if the creator of the world breaks that, they start to undermine the foundations of the house they are building.


A great example of rule setting is the preamble at the start of any Star Wars film, that ten seconds of context that sets the scene for the story that is about to unfold. The fact that we’re told that we’re in the middle of a galactic civil war and the Empire is winning shapes all the interactions that we’re going to see for the next couple of hours. Any character that breaks this (duh), breaks the film.


A rather obvious point to make, you might say, but an important one when considering the mechanics of fantasy. JRR Tolkein knew the parameters of his fantasy world well and by adhering to them, created a coherent story in the Lord of the Rings.


Because, in the Third Age, magic isn’t as prevalent as it had been in the First and Second Ages, a wizard like Gandalf (even though he’s a demigod Maiar in his own right), can’t go using magic to fix every problem. Gandalf’s spell casting is comparatively restrained and there are only a few moments when he really goes for it; much of what Gandalf presents to the reader in terms of his wizardyness is the fact that he knows things that most mortals have forgotten or never knew in the first place.


Gandalf’s power is restrained because if he casts lots of spells Sauron will be able to see him using the Palantir and send the Nazgul to defeat him and the Fellowship. Having iron rules about what magic is, how much of it there is, how it can be used and what happens if it is over used shapes the world and supports the ability of the reader or watcher to ‘believe’ in the fantastical.


The mind will believe or accept something that is coherent and has an internal logic of its own. Every political, economic, religious or cultural abstraction is based on this premise; these are concepts that lie beyond the direct material experience of the individual (if you think about the economy, the nation or the doctrines of a political party, the first thing you have to do is basically imagine them), and each has to tell a story that basically makes sense and can’t contradict itself.


The same is true of fantasy worlds, the moment we tell ourselves ‘ah, they’re a wizard and can do all sorts of stuff,’ without getting clear on what the wizard can and can’t do and what it costs to do the doing, we start to create weaker worlds.


We've created a list of eight world building maxims below, with some addition thoughts and minor rants to accompany them.



1. Start with the basics


It’s important to have a clear understanding of the basic building blocks of your world before diving into the details. This includes things like geography, politics, and culture. What kind of terrain does your world have? Are there multiple countries or just one? How do people in your world live their everyday lives? Answering these questions will give you a solid foundation to build upon.


It's hugely tempting to think of a continent, then a nation, then a capital city, then the castle in the city, then the king, the queen, the knights that serve them and the dice game the knights play when they're bored. Don't go there, not yet, because by the time you have created all the first order concepts, the dice game might be quite different. Create all the continents before you start to create all the kingdoms, realms, territories, republics etc. Think of world building in tiers, geography being tier one, political entities (nations, city states, leagues, federations alliances) as tier two, people (rulers, significant players) as tier three. Cultural, social and economic forces are created by people and their circumstances (tiers three back to one). These tend to write themselves once the foundations are in place, so if you think of a knight's dice game, make a note of it, then revisit it when the rest of the world's context is established. The dice game might have a very different meaning then.


2. Consider your world’s history


A world’s history can shape its present and future, so it’s important to consider how events in the past have impacted your world. This includes things like wars, revolutions, and other major events. It’s also important to consider how your world’s history differs from our own. For example, if your world has magical beings, how did they come to be? What role do they play in your world’s history?


Duh.


Without some kind of meaningful history nothing much will make any sense at all. If we consider history as the study of change over time, then the key factor to ask yourself is 'what drives change in your world?' Why does change happen at all? Our world is shaped largely by the particular phase of economic activity and ownership we happen to exist under (this is a broad brushstroke I know), but in Tolkein's world - an endless middle ages - economics changes nothing. Rather, the history of Tolkein's world was the history of the struggles against Morgoth and Sauron and the various disasters that befell men, elves and dwarves along the way.


What makes change happen in your world. What historical epochs are there and why are they organised in that way (who keeps records and writes the history books? How does anyone know about the past for that matter? Are they educated formally or is knowledge of the past transmitted through folklore and oral history?).


3. Create realistic and believable cultures


One of the most immersive aspects of a fantasy world is the cultures within it. It’s important to not only create cultures that are unique and interesting, but also believable. This means considering things like language, customs, and traditions. For example, if your world has a culture that is heavily influenced by nature, what kind of rituals do they have to honor the natural world? What kind of clothing do they wear? How do they communicate with one another?


How do we define culture? One simple catch all is that culture is a shared system of meaning. We understand the same words and symbols, their subtext, meaning, inference and their relative value. The cultures and subcultures that human beings (and in fantasy worlds non humans) create for themselves are conceptual tools that make their societies work. Shared ideas about the nation, the family, about gender, sexuality, freedom, nature, happiness, good and evil are both the glue that binds a society together and the concepts that tear it apart. Think what concepts unite and divide your world, think about what strangers meeting in a desert or a wilderness would have in common or what collective sense they would make of things. Think about what subcultures might exist and how people in the subculture might identify with one another and show their distinctiveness from the rest of the world.


Culture rests on what we 'know' to be true. The culture of Puritan New England was based on beliefs and certainties that very few people now in the 21st Century share. It could be seen as a culture rather than a set of random ideas and black buckled hats because of the hegemonic nature of the ideas in question. A hegemonic idea is one that is all conquering and all pervasive, sweeping all rival concepts in its path; Christianity in 17th century Virginia, consumerist capitalism wherever you are reading this now. A hegemonic idea is one that a majority accepts as categorically true and which shapes all other decisions, choices, outlooks, preferences and behaviours. What is a concept that exists as an article of faith in your world, one which people would kill and die for?


4.Don’t forget about technology


Technology plays a huge role in our world, and it’s important to consider how it affects your fantasy world as well. Is your world more advanced than ours, or are they behind? How do they use technology in their everyday lives? It’s also important to consider how technology impacts your world’s culture and society.


Where, technologically, is your world? The moment a firearm is invented, most other projectile weapons become obsolete. Compasses are only possible when explorers and cartographers understand certain truths about the nature of the world they are exploring. Societies armed with both with easily conquer and crush far larger societies that have neither. What do the physicians in your world think or believe about the body and illness? Do they work with healing chi energies, do they understand about circulation, anasthesia, blood loss, shock, bacteria and antiseptic? The reason why this is important is this: if we choose to have a world where some people have guns and other people have bows and arrows, and we choose not to replicate the babarity that resulted in our world from such disparities of power, then we need a theory of change (or the absence of change) that explains that.


The most recent phase of scientific understanding, in our world, is about four hundred years old. Of course, human beings have been making scientific discoveries since the beginnings of the species, and Egyptian, Islamic, Greek, Chinese and Byzantine scholars were observing nature long before Isaac Newton, but our ideas about evidence, hypotheses etc are the product of the early Enlightenment. If you have a particular technology, a kind of metallurgy that enables swords to capture magical energy for example it might be worth asking:

  • Who did this first

  • Who recorded it first

  • Where in the world did it originate and why

  • How far did the idea travel and who adopted/adapted the idea

  • How did the spread of the idea change or challenge other societies around the world?



5. Pay attention to details


While it’s important to have a clear understanding of the basics of your world, it’s the small details that can really bring it to life. This includes things like fashion, food, and even the names of your characters. Consider the kind of clothing your characters wear and how it reflects their culture and social status. Think about the kind of food they eat and how it’s prepared. Even the names of your characters can reveal a lot about their culture and background.


Ok, so this one is pretty much low hanging fruit, but it's surprising how often it gets missed. Let's imagine you have a warrior from the border lands of Tythe, where, it has been previously established, bear wrestling takes place and people drink neat spirit and live in long wooden huts. They're all expert wood worker are the Tythefolk and tell their children stories and 'Old Oakbones' the dark spirit of the woods who lures innocent villagers to their death. There's some real riches there, but how often do you the GM or your players use any of it in the actual game? Where do you talk about bears, wood carving or evil spirits? All too often it is written on a character sheet and filed away while we simply go through the mechanics of slaying monsters and disarming traps.


6. Use world-building tools.


There are a variety of tools available to help you build and organize your fantasy world. One popular tool is a world map, which can help you visualize the geography of your world. There are also tools like mind maps and timelines that can help you organize your world’s history and cultures.


Ok this is an easy one. If you want to build worlds use:




This should answer most of your needs.


7. Don’t be afraid to borrow from other worlds.


It’s okay to borrow elements from other fantasy worlds, as long as you put your own spin on them. For example, if you’re creating a medieval fantasy world, you might borrow elements from real-world medieval cultures and societies, but add your own unique twists. Just be sure to give credit where credit is due and avoid outright copying someone else’s work.


Nothing is original. Not your idea, not mine, not anyone's. It's a brutal truth to swallow but once you've knocked that one back you'll feel much happier. Now we can stop trying to do original for original's sake and start focusing on 'good'. We don't need to find something that hasn't been don before, we just need to do it well; if you want to do a Tolkein-esque high fantasy world, great, but you need to at least attempt to do it in the depth that he did. Audiences have no problem with tales of Elves, Dwarves, Humans and Halflings fighting the lord of all evil, but they do have a big problem with a half arsed attempt. Perhaps incorporating a new and original take on the genre can work (changing the geography or the era - how would an Arctic Lord of the Rings look, or a Victorian one?).


8. Keep it consistent


Consistency is key when it comes to building a believable fantasy world. Make sure that the rules and laws you establish for your world aren't contradictory, or don't suddenly cease functioning because you forgot about them.


Again, another of our no brainers here. There are plenty of ways of filing and controlling information (you don't have to overthink this either, again, look at World Anvil for this sort of thing), but if you change an aspect of your world, make sure that flows through everything you've written so there aren't glaring inconsistencies later on. The best fantasy world imaginable (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Bladerunner) would be killed stone dead by a rookie error like this, so avoid tripping up.




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