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Issue # 57
May/June 2010

Table of Contents

Realism in Fantasy World Building

By Lena Hoppe

Copyright © 2010, Lena Hoppe, All Rights Reserved

I have been building fantasy worlds for many years. My first country, complete with maps and a language, came into being when I was about twelve years old. I have often been told that my worlds seem very realistic. In fact, one reader said that for a while she wondered whether the places I mentioned in a story might be real.

I have always wanted my worlds to read as if they were real places, and over the years I have learned things that help me achieve this goal.

1) Observe the real world.

If you want to create realistic characters, you are advised to observe the people around you. If you want to write realistic dialogue, you are advised to listen closely to how people talk. And if you want to build realistic fantasy worlds, it can only help to observe some real-world cultures and countries.

College or university classes in cultural anthropology are great and so is traveling, but you can also learn a lot from books, documentaries, photographs and people. The trick is, to be aware of a given document's author and intentions. You are not going to learn much about another culture from a travel guide or a post card. Look for books that are part of another culture, without trying to explain this culture to foreign readers. Meet people from different backgrounds and listen to their world views without judging them.

If you truly want to understand another culture, you have to try to see it from the inside. This means putting aside your own experience, values and judgement and trying to see the world through other eyes. Not an easy thing to be done, but even the serious attempt will help you approach a different perspective.

2) Don't borrow too much.

Looking at real-world cultures can be very inspiring. There's a wealth of cool ideas out there. But think carefully about what to borrow and what to create from scratch.

If you borrow too much (or the wrong things) you can accidentally remind your readers that what they're reading is, in fact, not real at all. If you base one entire country on one entire existing culture, the benefit of familiarity can be reversed by constantly reminding your audience of what you did. They might keep thinking, "Ah, I see what she did there. She based these people on Chinese culture!" Or "I know this term really comes from Irish mythology, but he uses it in reference to a made-up deity."

If you want to create that mixture of familiarity and originality, that's fine. But it can stand in the way of realism because it serves as a reminder of your mixing elements that are not mixed in the real world. If you want to create a world that seems entirely realistic, it can be better to borrow merely a basic idea and give it your own name and context. Instead of basing entire countries on existing ones, try to mix and match parts of different cultures.

3) Don't stereotype.

You know you're not supposed to stereotype other people. Why not? Because no one is a stereotype. We are all individuals. Your characters are, too.

It's easy to make every member of your fantasy culture the same. After all, isn't that why you spent all that time developing their culture and history?

No, it's not. The culture gives you a backdrop, a framework for your characters to interact in. But each character (even a minor one) should still be an individual with a unique personality and perspective. If all of your dwarves (or elves, or northerners, or islanders) act the same and have the same opinions, none of them will seem like real people.

Always remind yourself of how different you are from other members of your own (sub)culture: you and your father, you and your neighbor, you and your co-worker, you and your friend. Each of your characters should be exactly as unique as those people are. They can then still share certain cultural experiences and values.

4) Include only relevant detail.

Even if you spent years creating your fantasy world, don't be tempted to include irrelevant information about it in your novel. And don't over-explain.

Unless you are writing a travel guide, your book should not be about the world - it should be about the characters and the plot. Background detail can go a long way to making your world seem realistic, but it needs to be the right detail and it needs to be used wisely.

If you want your world to seem real, drop in small amounts of detail that are relevant to the plot. And don't make a big deal out of it. Check out how contemporary novels mention things about their setting. Then do it the same subtle, self-explanatory way.

Of course you may have to explain some things to your readers because they will be unfamiliar with your fantasy creatures and concepts. But only explain those that they really need to know, and don't set the plot aside to insert your explanation. At lot of things can be implied by the context you mention them in. Find ways to sneak the necessary bits into your narrative without giving your readers the feeling that they are being presented with an explanation of your fantasy.

5) Be mundane.

Your character and your plot should never ever be boring. But your world might have to be. At least to those who live in it.

As its creator you (hopefully) find your fantasy worlds interesting and exciting. And your readers should enjoy visiting these places in your stories. But here's the thing: Your characters were born in this world and nothing about their hometowns will seem exotic or strange to them.

If you want the place to seem realistic, it must be seen as mundane and familiar by those who grew up there. Your characters should not describe these locations with the excitement that a visitor from our world would feel at being transported there. They should not be able to point out what is strange about it - unless it really would seem strange to them. They should not spend paragraphs explaining concepts that are self-evident to them - unless they are talking to a genuine outsider.

For your fantasy world to seem realistic, you should be able to picture it (in theory) as part of the real world - a unique version of things familiar. Its inhabitants need to be individual members of their culture. And perhaps most importantly, they must take their world for granted. Including magic, dragons, and talking furniture.

The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.
~Sylvia Plath