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The Complications of World Building For an Author

by Doug Lewars (originally posted on

I enjoy writing in the Fantasy genre and World Building is a part of that. It may or may not be extensive. For example, you can simplify your life considerably if you use our existing world and just add a bit of magic here and there. J.K. Rowling uses that technique to good effect in the Harry Potter series. The magic is carefully hidden so we muggles won’t detect it but the world itself is the one with which we are familiar. Using a parallel world or a down-the-rabbit-hole technique is another approach. A fantasy world still needs to be constructed but some or much of the plot can take place here. Creating an entirely new world can be challenging but it’s also fun.

One of the first things you need to decide is how much of your new world needs to be known. You might, for example, take a medieval city, add a few mythological characters along with some magic and write a perfectly good tale in such a setting. On the other hand, you could go right to square one and define your world from the bottom up – even tinkering with the laws of physics and the dimensionality of the place, but doing so will likely force you to pursue some fairly heavy-duty math to maintain consistency so you might want to adopt a slightly easier approach.

Geography is important. Cities work best in lower altitudes, on plains, and near water. They developed that way for expediency. Choose a location high in the mountains and agriculture will become a problem. Where will the food come from? It is necessary to consider how the economy functions and how it is related to location. You might have a mountain city where the chief occupation is mining for various gems or ores and then establish a trade with people in the valley who produce food, but now you’ve introduced politics. What is the relationship between the miners and the agrarian workers? Are they even the same species?

To answer the latter question you need some understanding of the biology of this world. At the very least, it’s a good idea to keep things fairly simple and have your critters carbon based. It’s fine to augment their metabolism, structure and capabilities with magic but to venture into utterly alien life forms can result in plot inconsistencies down the road if you’re not careful.

Consider, for example, your average dragon. Now a dragon is essentially just a large, possibly intelligent, lizard or dinosaur augmented by magic. The magic is needed to make this whopping great creature fly. You know all about lizards – or if you don’t, Wikipedia does – so all you need to do is figure out a few things such a life cycle, diet, population and why such a critter might have such an obsession with gold and jewels.

Magic can solve any number of problems for you but it can create a few as well. For example, consider a character who can magically move items from place to place instantaneously and put that character in a story such as Lord of the Rings. That would simplify things considerable. A quick spell and the ring is in the Cracks of Doom. Mission accomplished. Therefore you need limits on magic in order to keep the plot interesting. A character who is invulnerable to all attacks needs to have at least one weakness. A character with a sword capable of slicing through any substance will pose problems for the author if there is also a character who’s armour cannot be cut or pierced by any weapon.

Overall you need to consider biology, chemistry, the physics of magic, astronomy, geography, geology, economics, psychology, sociology, political science, linguistics, jurisprudence and history. There may be a few others. It is painfully easy to get lost in world building and never write a story so it should be recognized that not everything needs to be worked out in detail – nor could it be for that matter.

One approach to simplify matters is to start with your main character and then decide on sufficient detail to position him or her. Where do they live? What do they do for a living? What is their status in society? What sort of relationships might they have? What might a normal day look like for them? By focussing on one character and moving outward, you can gradually get a handle on the overall society and many of the factors affecting that society. The more questions you ask and answer, the better your understanding of this world will become, but remember, world building is tricky. Between jarring inconsistencies and becoming buried in details, you as the author may face more perils than your protagonist.

Guest post contributed by Doug Lewars. Doug is not necessarily over the hill but he’s certainly approaching the summit. He enjoys writing, reading, fishing and sweets of all sorts. He has published thirteen books on

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