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How to build fantasy worlds

As a reader, you only see around 10% of the world the story is set in. But it’s important that you as a writer know the world in which the book is set. Some authors build their entire story around the world itself. The laws of nature, culture and history influence the story itself and how the characters react to different events. I am writing a fantasy series in the magical realism/dark academia subgenre and will use examples from my own series in this article.

Different layers of world building

  • Macro: What does the world look like? What nature laws govern it? Which seasons exist?
  • What are the rites of passage? How is someone celebrated at their birth, when they get married or when they die? Are there completely different rites of passage?
  • What belief systems exist? How does it affect moral values, views on life and death? Take inspiration from existing ones, but feel free to add your own ideas.
  • What politics, religion and history exist?
  • Micro: What does everyday life, rituals, rules and behaviors look like for your characters?

Big things like history and religion influence how characters think, react and talk, even if they don’t practice the religion themselves. Moral values influence how they live and what their motivations are – what is considered status and what is not.

What are the major differences between our world and the world you are building? In my series, it is that magic and magical creatures exist and live side by side with humans. Since I chose to have a so-called “closed/hard magic system”, which contains clear rules and limitations with the magic, I had to work a lot on how it would work, what limitations there are, etc. I have decided, among other things, that you cannot be chosen by more than one element. I’ve also decided that the execution of magic spells comes at a price. An “open/soft magic system” does not have as clear rules.

I’ll admit that, being very spontaneous when writing the first draft, I didn’t have all this in place when I started writing the book series. It’s now when I’m editing that I’ve more clearly defined things and structured them into folders in Scrivener and a Pinterest board for inspiration. I need to remember the rules of the world I’m building in every book that I write in the series, so I think it’s good to have everything in one place. How do you go about building worlds?

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