By Naomi Jackson
World building is one of my favorite activities. I look forward to a session with my notebook like some people look forward to watching Netflix. This enjoyment of creating a fantasy world heightens my awareness of weaknesses. Even with extensive effort, sometimes a fantasy novel is deficient. I could be reading about the greatest characters ever conceived, but I can’t savor the story if the setting seems implausible. As an author, I never want to commit any of the world-building mistakes I see others make—and as a friend, I hope to help you avoid these pitfalls too.
1. Cultures that Don’t Interact
It’s easy to draw a map that is just a series of circles representing where your various cultures and/or races reside. I’m not judging; I’ve done this myself. But when those maps reflect a mindset of “everyone in their place,” the story becomes stilted. All the elves inhabit the elvish kingdom, the dwarves never venture beyond their own borders, and so on. An invisible barrier separates each kingdom—not even a clothing fad or an idea can pass between the two.
Think about the real world. People speak German while sitting in a French café. England wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t for the Spanish Armada or the Hundred Years War. The center of fashion, even for other countries, is still Paris. Contemplate how different countries and peoples interact, and organically build these details into your story. Which lands are geographically adjacent? Do they have open borders, or do they build walls between each other? Which counties are partners in trade, and is it a mutually beneficial relationship? Or is one side taking advantage? How do they treat intermarriages and half-breeds? Which kingdoms are enemies and allies? Who is ethnically related or prejudiced against each other? Keep asking questions until you comprehend each culture and how they all interconnect.
2. Tolkien Syndrome
Giving each race a distinct language makes sense. But some authors have their characters vocalize entire paragraphs of these languages. We all aspire to write epic ballads in elvish like Tolkien. But he studied Anglo-Saxon and Germanic languages; he knew enough about dialects to devise his own. Most of us are not college-educated linguists; we are inspired amateurs.
Whenever you’re tempted to wax poetic in a language you’ve contrived, consider the reader’s perspective. No other genre routinely includes large (or even short) passages of text in a foreign language—much less soliloquies of incomprehensible and sometimes laughable syllable combinations. On the other hand, you shouldn’t completely ignore the presence of multiple languages.
The best way to handle this is to vary syntax and intersperse a few foreign words to imply how different languages feel. Pretend you are translating dialogue and ponder the quirks that someone speaking English as a second language will develop. Is the vernacular formal? Then script the characters’ dialogue without contractions or slang. Are they fond of adjectives? Then slather their sentences with modifiers.
Recognize that certain words and adages won’t translate into English. I grew up with Cuban friends and learned expressions that don’t exist in English. For example, Americans would say “Good luck,” but what would that phrase be in your character’s native tongue? Does his dialect have special blessings and exclamations? Alternating the dialogue’s structure creates the illusion of diverse languages without the risks of writing foreign babble.
3. A Superhuman Character or Race
This blunder is so common that I consider it a fantasy cliché. I’m not referring to beings that live longer and possess special abilities, but a morally superior character or race. And to anyone who instantly thought of Tolkien’s elves, remember that the horrible battles they fought in The Silmarillion revealed their greatest weaknesses: pride and isolationism. Tolkien’s elves were regal and wise but fallible.
It’s fine for one people group to be right and another wrong, because fantasy usually involves a war or interracial conflict of some kind. But it is difficult for readers to relate to and care about a flawless character. Who are the heroes we love? People like us who have faults and fears, try their best, and make mistakes. Moreover, in the area of character building, a perfect race is nearly impossible to write.
4. Unrealistic Time Frames
As fantasy authors, we are almost expected to have one semi-immortal character or a city that has “stood for a thousand years.” But time is more than a number, and the world changes rapidly. Cell phones weren’t widespread until a decade ago. The United States isn’t even three hundred years old.
A race that endures for millennia will experience vast changes. The people may not age in body, but they aren’t sealed in a vacuum. If a person lives for thousands of years alongside a race with a normal life span, he will have witnessed countless generations reaching adulthood, growing old, and dying. How has he spent those millions of days? What has been built and destroyed?
As for cities and governments, the average duration of an empire is two hundred and fifty years. In one thousand years, our world has gone from the Dark Ages to the Space Age. Putting a world in stasis, without any technological or sociological advances, doesn’t work. There should be scars from past wars and new innovations that shake the older generation. Time is multilayered.
5. Magical Powers or Abilities that Don’t Follow Any Discernible Rules
One of the coolest aspects of fantasy is that you get to make things up! Inventing extraordinary gadgets and abilities is so much fun. But as Natalie Portman’s character remarks in Thor, “Magic is just science that we don’t understand.” And science has rules.
Nothing frustrates readers more than a special ability that appears and disappears without any reasoning behind it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ranted about magic that fails when it’s convenient for the plot. Institute rules, even if only five, and don’t break them.
In the series I’m currently writing, a supernova produces magical gems. Their role in the story keeps changing as I draft and re-draft, but I’m sticking to a few rules.
- The power cannot be harnessed by someone who hasn’t been taught how.
- Each gem has a limited amount of power that decreases as it is used.
- They can be utilized for healing and creative purposes, but a machine or converter is required to wield their power destructively.
- The jewels cannot animate or reanimate anything.
These are general guidelines that allow for numerous possibilities, but they also construct a framework to operate within. Otherwise I could easily contradict myself or confuse readers. However, characters or races with special abilities typically necessitate more complex rules. How much power do they possess? Can anything prevent them from exercising it? What happens when they are tired or scared or happy? Set boundaries for your magic, and your world will be more believable.
The next time you work on your novel, scan your manuscript to see if you detect any of these downfalls. And if you’ve never put much thought into the development of your fantasy world, you should definitely reserve time to brainstorm! Sit down with a notebook or a computer and answer the questions in this article. Read the other awesome world-building articles at Kingdom Pen. Delve into what causes your world to turn. Someday your fans might design pins that declare “I’d rather be in your world.” And it does beat a night of Netflix.
Naomi Jackson is a freelance writer and storyteller who resides in South Florida. After graduating from her homeschool education, Naomi attended the Bill Rice Bible Institute in TN, where she studied Doctrine and Children’s Ministry. When she is not writing, reading, or editing (her least favorite of the three) you can find her volunteering at her church, taking long walks, or hanging out on social media. Her debut children’s novel, Hobo Stew, was published this spring, and continues to consume most of her time. You can find her short stories and thoughts on books at naomijacksonwrites.com.