Guest blogger of Believable World-building in High Fantasy Fiction, Amelia Connell, is a University of the Sunshine Coast student. She’s completing a Bachelor of Creative Industries, majoring in Publishing & Creative Writing. Amelia is currently undertaking a 208-hour internship with Gail Tagarro.
When writing a work of high fantasy, there must be an element of world-building. High fantasy is fiction that involves an ‘otherworld’, a completely new world, a parallel world to the real, or a world within a world. It is essential to reader enjoyment to create believable world-building in high fantasy fiction. If things don’t make sense or are implausible, the world-building will fall flat, and your story will suffer
This post focuses on the social elements of world-building, including the mythology or religion, the history and the political and societal structures in your work. It does not go into landscaping, geography and weather in this post, which may require research and common sense. For example, deciding whether a flood in winter is realistic in the humid climate of your world.
Mythology and Religion
Are there mythological beings in your story? I’m referring to the creatures that have been in your fictional world for thousands of years and have become myths (an example would be dragons). If these creatures are prominent in your story, be sure to mention them early on. When you eventually introduce the creature or character, the reveal will be sweeter after setting up their rarity. If the creature is sentient, make sure it behaves differently to a human. For example, dragons in your fantasy world may speak, but they don’t eat the same food as humans.
Does your fantasy world have deities, or a belief in a higher being? Are they prominent in the world, or are they becoming forgotten? If deities are not relevant to the plot, you can be a little light on the details. It’s unlikely your character would know much about them if the idea of religion is becoming outdated. However, if your plot plays with themes of destiny or fate, consider adding in a few deities. This could be as simple as a single God, like ‘the Mother’ in Sarah J Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses series, or an entire pantheon, like the Greek gods in Greek mythology.
If your fantasy world has a magic system, consider linking it to your mythology or religion. This link will make both your magic system and your world-building more believable in your high fantasy fiction
Adding a history to your world-building will add solidity to your work and make your world more believable. Try to avoid pages-long passages on the history of your world, and instead use dialogue to ‘tell’ the history, or have a character read about it in a book. The history could be anything to do with your world; the kingdom, the people, the species. If there’s been a war or a division in the kingdom in the past, be sure to include this—especially if your plot makes use of these events as well.
A common theme in works of fantasy fiction is that of history repeating itself. Be sure to include details in your history if an event is relevant to the plot. You might exaggerate these details, or make lay false breadcrumbs for your readers, and then implement the discoveries later in the plot.
The most common political structure in high fantasy fiction is the monarchy. A monarchy will usually have a ruling family that inherits the throne through the generations. There will be a matriarch (queen) and/or a patriarch (king). Often with western-inspired monarchies in fiction, there will be either a king and queen consort, or a queen and prince consort. If the culture in your story is inspired by a real culture, be sure you have heavily researched it to ensure you are representing the culture correctly. Research correct terms of address for the royal family. A governmental system to represent the citizens may complement a monarchy. If your world has only a monarchy, this is known as an ‘absolute monarchy’.
Nevertheless, you need not restrict your high fantasy world to a monarchy. If you’d prefer to have a governmental system, you absolutely can. The most common governments in high fantasy fiction are dictatorships and democracies. There are ten different types of government, and each has different associated subcategories. Be sure to research which would fit best with your plot. For example, if your plot includes a rebellion against tyranny, your political structure could be an absolute monarchy or a military dictatorship.
Including details of the societal structure in your work will make the world-building of your high fantasy fiction more believable. How have you structured your world? Are there upper, middle and lower classes? Is there a nobility (e.g., lords and ladies, counts and countesses, dukes and duchesses, etc.) with authority over the other classes? Consider if you’ll include people in servitude, and be careful not to alienate any future readers by basing this class off a particular race or culture in the real world.
If you have non-human characters in your world, consider how they fit into society. If there are any ‘half-breeds’, consider how their treatment may differ to ‘pure’ descendants of each species. Do the characters in your work treat them equally, or as lesser? An example of this is the ‘half-fae’ in Sarah J Maas’s Throne of Glass series. In the three different kingdoms in the series, the ‘half-fae’ are treated in three different ways: hunted and executed in one kingdom, disliked but tolerated in another, and part of the royal family in the third.
For believable world-building in your high fantasy fiction, be sure to include the history of the setting, any mythology and religion and the political and societal structures. If you want to delve deeper, you could include details on the economy or agriculture as well. Avoid putting all your world-building information together in your story. Instead, try to place it where it’s relevant and makes sense.
Maas, SJ 2015, A Court of Thorns and Roses, Bloomsbury, US.
Maas, SJ 2012, Throne of Glass, Bloomsbury Publishing, US.
Photo credit Arte Sapegin Unsplash
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