What is one thing a lot of epic fantasy novels have? Enormous worlds that take years or even decades to build.
I love fantasy world-building and big worlds with endless details. I really appreciate the work people go to, to bring these make-believe places to life. It’s one of the things that got me into fantasy in the first place, with stories like Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. It’s incredible.
But is it always necessary? How big should your fantasy world be? Does it need to be as big as you think?
Of course, the answer is no. It depends on your story, which is your story after all. You can make it as big or as small as you want. However, I think it’s important to take a look at why fantasy novels use the big-world technique so much.
Why big fantasy worlds are so popular
Big fantasy worlds are great because they’re fascinating and immersive – exactly what any fantasy novel needs.
It’s a great way to show off how rich and vivid your world is (and also to show off all your hard work). Having your characters experience new places and cultures can highlight tension, differences in culture, tradition and religion, and it also gives your characters The Journey. If you love stories that involve epic journeys, then a big world is a must.
This is also why many fantasy novels are quite lengthy. I’ve seen some people write that you can’t have a believable fantasy novel take place in 80,000 words because you can’t possibly have given the reader enough of an immersive experience or enough information to make the world feel real. I don’t know how true that is and would say it probably doesn’t apply to everyone, but I’d say it’s a good thing to bear in mind. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone interestingly is less than 80k, despite being the one that set up the whole HP world.
If you opt for a smaller world, then you could find yourself with limitations in terms of space – but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It all depends on the sort of story you want to tell, and I’d say there aren’t any strict rules you should follow here.
It’s easy to look at the great fantasy novels out there and think I’ve got to write and world-build just like them. But that’s not true. You can still write a great fantasy story set in a city, a country, even a village if you really wanted. It doesn’t need to be on the scale of Middle Earth.
An attempt at both opposites – a tiny world vs a big world
When I started writing fantasy, I was doing a university project where I had to build a fantasy world. Given the small time frame to complete the work, I opted to create a walled city – because I could concentrate my efforts on just one place, rather than numerous continents and all the work that goes with it. My initial idea was to have a city where, as far as everyone knew, there was no life outside it. Convenient right?
Long story short, it wasn’t a great move. It just didn’t really work. Maybe I could’ve made it work, but I had concentrated on getting everything so contained in that city, with nothing else outside that the world building became too convenient. I patted myself on the back for being thorough about where people would get cotton to make clothes, but none of that matters if the whole thing just doesn’t feel right or make sense.
My next big fantasy project was on the other end of the scale. I wanted a huge world, multiple continents, races, languages, religions. I wanted snowy mountain ranges in the north and deserts in the south (original yeah).
For a long time, I’ve been working on this world. But it’s not easy trying to keep on top of it all. Something has just not felt right to me for the past few years I’ve been working on it.
I have too many random strands and story lines. Honestly, I think the primary reason for that was because I wanted to build a big world. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of the great fantasy writers who build planets and language systems out of nothing.
Because that’s what real fantasy is – right???
The thing is, if you’re building something because you think it’s what you should be doing, then is it really the work you wanted to produce? Are you writing your novel or are you emulating someone else’s? That’s not to say that anyone building a big world is copying off someone else of course – but if you’re not feeling it, then maybe the approach just isn’t for you.
The question I’ve asked myself over the past couple of weeks – and I’m asking you too – is does you fantasy world really need to be that big?
Somewhere in between a village and a planet
This is where I’ve ended up. After several years of hacking away at this big world, I’ve started to definitely shift my focus quite dramatically. I asked myself what wasn’t working, which characters were dragging the story down and which story lines could literally be cut without anything changing in the novel.
This little bit of reflection brought up some interesting, though unpleasant thoughts.
Maybe I could just cut half my world out. I could literally halve my characters and story lines.
This was a bit of a depressing thought, given how much time I’ve spent on it. However, no reader is going to care how much time I’ve lost looking at climate differences in snowy vs desert terrains if the story just isn’t working.
It’s the whole ‘Kill Your Darlings’ idea all over again. Except in this case, it’s kill a few characters before anyone knows they even exist. No harm done, except to my own ego perhaps.
I’ve not been quite so dramatic. Most of my characters still exist, just in a different story line and time. The world is still there, but I’m not forcing my characters to go on round-the-world tours just because I want it to be a proper fantasy novel.
For now, I’m going to focus on the main city that I’ve built and keep the conflict slightly more contained. There will be other cities and countries out there that the story will develop out to, but I want my new rule to be – only go there if it actually makes fucking sense to the story and to the characters.
I’ve worked through a revised plot and now I’m plodding through a rewrite. I’ve got a feeling a lot of stuff I’ve already written will end up in the bin, but perhaps that’s for the best. It’s going to be a big hassle, but I think it’s the right thing that needed to be done.
I’d love to hear about anyone else who has done a major overhaul of their WIP. Also, it’d be great to get views on the scale of fantasy world-building that others are using. Are you going for a huge world or a small-scale world? Let me know in the comments!