World building for a Fantasy novel or story can be incredibly fun and rewarding. But it’s easy to forget about your reader while you craft your sparkly new geography, fauna, and cultures. As the author you know all the ins and outs of your new world and can picture everything clearly. The reader must be introduced to everything you’ve created and can sometimes get intimidated or confused by all the new information. I’ve made a list of tips that can help keep your reader engaged with your new Fantasy world.
1) Keep some things familiar.
The reader needs something to use as an anchor while they explore your new world. Try to keep at least one thing familiar so the reader can feel connected to the story in some way. If you invent a magic system, add monsters, change the way seasons work, and change the social structure, the reader may feel completely lost at sea in your story. It can be intimidating to try to learn all the new details.
2) Make your changes and inventions meaningful.
You may have invented the coolest things ever but if they have no impact on the story they will be forgotten, distracting, and/or wasted. Throwing random bits of world building into the story can act like a red herring, making the reader think something important is going to happen and when nothing comes of it, they will be disappointed and possibly miss other important things while they were focused on the random bit. Like Chekov’s Gun, all of the unique parts of your world should impact the characters as they progress through the story.
3) Describe everything clearly.
It’s easy for a reader to misunderstand a nuance to a fantasy world the writer invented. That’s not to say you can’t or shouldn’t use nuance, it definitely has a place, but if the reader is unsure what you meant they will automatically supply something familiar. At best this means your brilliant idea goes unrecognized. At worst the reader will be confused later when that nuance has an impact on the plot. Don’t assume everyone will readily grasp your inventions. Paint a word picture.
4) Ease your reader in if your world is particularly strange.
Too much, at least at first, can seem like too much work for the reader. If you introduce things slowly the reader has time to learn and remember all the details. Remember it’s more than learning the things of the world, they have to learn the names too. Start small. Describe something weird in normal language. Save proper names/terms for a little later. Describe a weird thing in a normal setting or vice versa. I’ve read some wonderfully strange fantasy books, but the author was careful about how to introduce the reader to the world so it wasn’t as overwhelming.
5) Be kind when inventing names.
There are a few things to consider when naming characters, places, and other things in your Fantasy world. Number one, try not to make names too similar. There’s the classic Sauron-Saruman problem. It’s easy to not notice how similar names are if you came up with them months apart. Or if you can tell the pronunciation is clearly vastly different. But your reader isn’t going to be as fluent in your fantasy language as you are. They might not notice the nuances between the different uses of vowels that you employed. If they get confused or annoyed they may stop reading altogether. The same goes for the second warning, try not to make the names too long or complicated. It is likely the reader will supply their own nickname in this case and your brilliant naming schemes will go unappreciated. There are ways to include pronunciation help but doing it too often isn’t advised. You can have a foreigner or child pronounce it and be corrected, or just have the character or narrator come out and say, “This is how you say it,” or “It rhymes with __.” You could also include a pronunciation guide but that in itself can be intimidating. Just use your best judgment when naming and helping the reader with pronunciations.
6) Keep it realistic and connected.
Want flying cars? Cool. But try to keep them believable and maybe don’t mix them with unicorns. Unless that’s what the whole story is about. But you get the point. If you mix too many different kinds of fantasy creations, the reader can get confused. You also run the risk of giving them a different kind of story than they were looking for. If they sign on for flying cars and then you add unicorns, that’s a very different genre and the reader may put the book down. You also want to make sure the reader doesn’t have to make any large leaps of faith or suspend disbelief too far to accept the concepts of your book. There is definitely a place for the absolute fantastic, but if you keep things in world with rules that govern the fantastic, it will be more enjoyable than in a world where the reader must constantly decide if it makes sense.
7) Remember that the characters need to be relatable.
Go ahead and turn society on it’s head, mix up gender norms and race relations. But remember that human motivations aren’t that different throughout history and the world. The whole Fantasy world may be different but the reader needs to connect with characters to keep them there. Some people may read a Fantasy novel for the world alone, but most people pick up a book for the story and the characters.
8) If you subvert something for a message, own it and be strong.
Writing something where women are the world leaders and men must defer? Don’t spend pages explaining how it could be possible for women to earn that position, move on with the story and drop hints as needed. If you act like the concept needs a lot of explaining, the reader will start to dissect it more and doubt its validity. Don’t bludgeon the reader with your message but don’t waffle about it either. It’s worth writing about and worth reading about so trust yourself and your ideas to get that message across.
9) Don’t forget a plot.
As I said above, some people are perfectly happy to read a book simply to get lost in the world. However, most readers want something to happen. Following the suggestion above to give your world building elements an impact on the characters is a good way to keep the balance between world building and plot.
10) Don’t be afraid of feedback.
If someone tells you they don’t understand a certain part of your world, that doesn’t meant it was a bad idea. Maybe it was described with too many other things at once. Or maybe you need to add a few lines or an example to explain more. Is the name too similar to another person/place/thing in the world? The reason could be simple so don’t despair. Ask for clarification if possible or run it by someone you trust to be honest with you. And please, please don’t let one person’s opinion make you think any of your ideas are bad. Make sure anyone you have beta read your story likes the genre and is open to the kinds of things you write about. Some Fantasy is an acquired taste and some readers don’t like it on principle. Don’t worry about those readers, focus on the ones who do like your style.
I hope these suggestions help you craft engaging Fantasy worlds. Let me know in the comments how you engage your readers and keep them coming back for more.