Our Top Four World-Building Myths

honing the craft inspiration tips and tricks world-building May 12, 2021

Post written by Andrew Wall.

There are tons of myths out there when it comes to writing, but I wanted to address the top four world-building myths we see over and over.

World-Building Myth #1: Technology isn’t really that important of a consideration when it comes to writing fantasy.

This is false! Of course technology is important. All of the following questions (and more!) have to do with technology:

  • How do people travel?
  • How do they move products?
  • Do they make maps?
  • Are there books or scrolls?
  • What sorts of weapons do they have?
  • What sorts of defenses do they employ?
  • How do they communicate over long distances?

Technology can be simply defined as: “Any non-natural, non-magical means of affecting the world or accomplishing a task.” In other words, technology represents how people augment their natural abilities in order to accomplish tasks they wouldn’t normally be able to.

Sure, a punch hurts, but swords and spears hurt more. I might be able to yell really loud, but a carrier pigeon is a more effective and successful method of communication over long distances. I might be strong, but I’m not strong enough to carry 500lbs of goods. That’s why I use a cart with wheels drawn by a domesticated horse.

Whether your genre is science fiction or fantasy, thinking through the technology in your world is an essential part of world-building.

World-Building Myth #2: A timeline is the same thing as a history.

Did you know that coming up with your timeline is NOT the same thing as coming up with your world’s history? In fact, your world probably has more than one history, especially from the point of view of the characters who inhabit it.

When we talk about timelines, we are talking about chronology: how events progress over the course of years. Chances are that your characters, including your protagonist, don’t know the whole chronology of your world. It is more likely that they are familiar with “a history” of your world.

Unlike chronology, history is the collection of stories used to explain or justify why things are the way they are from a societal perspective.

For example, a really large war may have happened in the course of your chronology and two different characters might be familiar with the event and the dates associated with it to an extent. Yet what is more important to them is how the war has affected them and their nations in particular. What they know about that is going to be filtered through how people talk about the war. One character may see the war as a triumph of good over evil because that is how it is talked about and portrayed in their society. The other character may, instead, see the war as an injury against their people, an uncalled-for aggression based on jealousy that has left them destitute and stolen their autonomy.

Both of these perspectives will be perpetuated by how the story of the war is told. Without the dates, it might seem as though they are talking about two different wars! This is what “history” is and how we should approach it from a world-building perspective if we want to end up with diverse and complex-feeling worlds.

World-Building Myth #3: Religion is not important for writing fantasy or sci-fi.

Most writers’ assumptions about the role of religion in fantasy or science-fiction writing are WRONG or at least misguided.

A lot of the time it feels as though religion is placed in manuscripts as a sort of filler. However, religion is actually one of the most essential building blocks of a society at any point in scale between fantasy and science fiction. It may not look anything like what religion looks like in our world or our time, but religion must be taken into consideration when it comes to world-building.

From a world-building perspective, religion represents how a group of people has come to understand their purpose in relation to the dominant society. Some examples I made up to demonstrate this:

  • The Dragon Cult of Xoth thinks the fact that humans self-govern is despicable and so they try to overthrow society to bring back the reign of dragons.
  • The Great Unity represents all of the core values of society and all citizens are expected to participate in its virtual education program in order to learn what sorts of things to hope for, root for, and guard against the corruption of less advanced civilizations. All must be assimilated into the Great Unity.
  • The Priesthood of Rin’s teachings are opposed to tyranny and oppression and so they fight back against their kingdom’s despotic ruler by disciplining themselves in the art of thievery so they can steal from the corrupt and pour out support to the struggling.

Religion, especially a multiplicity of religions, in your world add depth and flavor and story. Whether your civilization is floating amidst the stars or fighting back hordes of orcs, figuring out different religious perspectives and how those perspectives orient people in relation to the society they live in is VERY IMPORTANT and adds a TON of value.

World-Building Myth #4: Fantasy must include a magic system.

Did you know that having a system of usable magic in your fantasy world is NOT a requirement? Instead, you must include something supernatural for it to be considered fantasy, but magic doesn’t have to be that thing.

“Because it is a fantasy world” is not a great reason to include anything in your world. Really dig into why you want to include magic, if that is something you want to do.

Here are some alternatives to magic (or at least a system of usable magic) that could make your book a fantasy book:

  • fantastical laws of physics (floating mountains, flat planet, etc.)
  • non-sentient creatures with strange abilities
  • naturally occurring ghost, spirits or other sentient supernatural forces

That being said, magic systems are super fun and are absolutely one road to the fantasy genre. If you are writing a fantasy story and having a hard time with your magic system, though, it is absolutely possible to cut it out and push forward without it!

The most important thing to consider is this: is having magic in your world serving your story or is it just...there?

What do you think? If you're ready for an outside perspective to help you with your world-building and any of the pieces related to that, contact Andrew regarding his one-on-one world-building consultations. You can also check out our digital store for world-building resources.

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