Doing Research for Fantasy Worldbuilding


Don’t be deceived. Every sort of novel needs worldbuilding. Even in a contemporary novel you have to decide what parts of the contemporary world will be included— and what the interpretation of these parts will be. But it is the writer of fantasy and science fiction that has to do really hardcore worldbuilding— creating a fictional world from the ground up.

Worldbuilding requires research. You can’t get a book that tells you about life on planet Nescianto, because you’ve only just made that planet up. But you can get books that will help you build up that world, by showing you how things have been done in the real world.

The best books to consult are what are sometimes called ‘social histories.’ These books often have the phrase ‘everyday life’ in the title. In my own collection, I have books called: ‘Everyday Life in Ancient Rome,’ ‘China’s Golden Age: Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty,’ and ‘Everyday Life in the Viking Age.’ Look in your local library for such books, and don’t forget to check the children’s section. And it is well to buy a book or two of this nature for your personal writing library.

Which books to consult? If your fantasy world is related to a specific real-world culture, such as medieval England, ancient Egypt or the Viking world, it’s good to study the culture in question closely. Your readers will include people who are keen on that culture— unless you make dumb mistakes because of lack of knowledge. But since you are writing fiction and not a historical essay, it’s also good to read up on a very different culture or two. You may want to have a purist Viking culture in your world— but it helps to think about how other cultures would have done things differently, and you can always use the contrasting culture if you have to create cultures for elves or orcs.

One thing to beware while doing your reading is author opinion. I have a book on everyday life in the American West, and the authoress presumes that all of the women in the West— from whores to respectable women— longed for effective contraceptives as much as if they had been brought up with our modern birth-control mentality. This isn’t true, and when the first church body allowed for the use of ‘birth control’ in some circumstances in 1930, it was very controversial and many people didn’t accept it. There are people today who still don’t accept it! So don’t take author opinions as Gospel truth.

How do you turn the mass of facts in a social history book into the worldbuilding material you need for your world? It helps to go from topic to topic. Rebekah Loper has a workbook out on worldbuilding, ‘The A-Zs of Worldbuilding.’ Use it to get some ideas of what worldbuilding topics you may need to consider. Rebekah Loper’s blog: https://rebekahloper.com/

The important thing about doing research in this way is that it will help prevent you from creating a #MeToo fantasy world that’s just like everybody else’s fantasy world. It will help you create something with its own character that may attract loyal readers.

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