What's the Word on World Building?

Updated: Sep 2

So, who else here likes to read fantasy? (Seriously, I can’t be the only one. Raise your hand!)

I love to immerse myself in a good fantasy book. It's like I’m playing a mental Dungeons & Dragons game. Magic, talking creatures, sarcastic companions…sure, these could play a part in a wide range of genres, but in the fantasy genre, it’s all an important by-product of world building.

I’d say world building is the most important part of the fantasy genre. (And yes, I will draw my longsword, straighten my crown, and choose this as my hill to die on.)

So… what’s world building?

World building is the craft of literally building your world. You can get into all sorts of technical terms—like the Kansas/Oz ratio where an author must use some details grounded in realism (Kansas) before delving into more fantastical story lines (Oz)—but it’s essentially how you can create a world that feels plausible for your reader, even if they’re reading about elves riding dragons in a fantasy world, or reading about a grizzled ex-cop who governs the supernatural who live alongside humans in a realistic world.

Basically, when I think about world building, a couple of examples come to mind (and conveniently, they are some of my favorites): The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, The Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, and The Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones. They represent different levels of the “world building spectrum”.

Let’s start with Dragonlance, shall we? This series of books is actually based on a D&D game. We see a wide range of creatures showcased, from humans to magicians to halflings to elves. We see a wide range of magical abilities and potion-making as well as character classes like “bard”, “rogue”, and “fighter”. We don’t see any technological advancements that would signal that the story takes place in the modern age. There are castles, and dragons, and danger involving long treks into an unforgiving and mysterious wilderness. There are magical companion creatures that help make the journey interesting.

And in this beautiful, magical world, our motley band of characters forms a troupe to venture forth for a quest. Honestly, when I think ‘fantasy’, this is the usual format: a mystical world that is so fantastical that it’s easy to lose myself and forget the problems of my modern existence. Here, the Kansas/Oz ratio heavily favors Oz, but there are still realistic stakes that help to connect the reader to the characters: they are working to avoid war, they are dealing with the betrayal of a close friend, they are struggling with romantic triangles, and friendships that are proving to be superficial. Though these problems are seen through a fantastic lens, there is enough there for the readers to connect with.

Now, good ol’ Tolkien, the standard by which much of fantasy is measured. We see many similarities between The Lord of the Rings and Dragonlance—here is our motley band of different races and magical abilities venturing on a quest, facing fantastical and supernatural elements—but Tolkien had created a world that was so deep that he actually invented different languages for his races. He created whole histories for the races that spanned thousands of years prior to, and following, the events of the main trilogy. He delved so deep into world building that it must have been a struggle to resurface. But man, does it make for some phenomenal reading.