For those who are inclined toward the fantastic and utterly absurd, writing has extra challenges. Fantasy requires worldbuilding to a level that many people don’t care to try–more so for those of us who write high fantasy. Not only do we go through the pains of creating interesting characters and thrilling plots, but we have to make up new laws of the universe, within which the characters and plot exist. Some fantasy writers are like me. We painstakingly chart out every aspect of our fabricated universe until we have entire notebooks filled with rules and exposition and cultural analyses. Some fantasy writers are on the other end of the spectrum. They don’t plan anything and make up the rules as they go along. Regardless of where you fall, here’s some tips to help with worldbuilding, so you don’t succumb to exposition dumps and confuse your readers.
1. Write as if your narrator was born in the world you made
For some of you, your narrator was, in fact, born in the world you’ve made, and if that’s the case, then make sure you remind yourself of that when they’re talking about the properties of the world. The narrator, regardless of if they’re first or third person, is a character. You are not the narrator (unless you are, but this article isn’t geared toward non-fiction). When the narrator talks as if this is just the way the world is, rather than trying to explain how it works, they engage the readers. For instance, a narrator in a crime novel wouldn’t explain who “police” are. That’s just something everyone knows. While your readers may not know that “Blade Runners” are special types of police officers, it wouldn’t be fun to read a long explanation about Blade Runners. A more effective and engaging method would be for the narrator to talk about Blade Runners as if they’re just something everyone knows about, and the reader gains knowledge of them via context. If a narrator says that Blade Runners catch outlaws or arrest people, the readers get an idea of who Blade Runners are without the narrator ever explicitly saying it.
2. Be just a little repetitive
At the end of the day, the world you created doesn’t exist in reality. Your readers will eventually put your book down and go back to their regular lives. They may forget some things about your world in between reads. It doesn’t hurt just to be a little repetitive. Just a little. You don’t want to hit your readers over the head with reminders about what/who something/someone is, but sprinkle in a reminder here and there. It’s like adding salt to food. Too much, and it’s unpalatable. Too little, and it’s like you never added salt in the first place.
3. Limit the concentration of unfamiliar words
I know you really want to talk about Salini Torsedare’s Janic Osonus Eduratu, but to your readers, too many made up words in a small area are going to give them a headache. Even if your words aren’t made up–e.g., they come from a different language–chances are the majority of your demographic doesn’t speak the lingo. Space out the unfamiliar terms as if you’re breaking them up into bite size, easily consumable pieces. An easy way to do this is go through your word document and look at where you see large concentrations of red underlines. My general rule of thumb is no more than four red words per paragraph.
4. Get inspired by other cultures/religions
When I was working on one of my books, I was also at the height of my anthropology research concerning world religions. In effect, I drew on Islam, Zoroastrianism, Judeo-Christianity, and Hinduism for my story. What I ended up with is a world with asuras, ghuls, qarins, and daevas, which is a mix anyone familiar with these religions wouldn’t have expected. You have to be careful with this, however. If it’s not your culture or religion, you may accidentally offend people who are part of them. Cultural appropriation is a real and problematic phenomenon, so always do your research and be respectful of the beliefs from which you draw.
5. Rules, rules, rules
Last but not least, have rules. Make them before you write anything. Keep them pinned above your computer as constant reminders. I cannot tell you how many fantasy books I’ve read where the rules of the world were malleable, which led to confusion and enormous plot holes (e.g., Harry Potter [which I do love dearly but still had bendy rules]). Your rules cannot bend. They must be as infallible as gravity. Your rules provide the entire structure upon which your world is built. Make them sturdy.