Tools for Discovery Writers: World Building and Magic Systems

Lots of world builders like writing fantasy, and lots of fantasy writers like world building, but they’re separate activities. For every world builder who completes a fantasy novel, you’ll find five fantasy writers with a world building addiction. There’s no melodrama here. People with world building disease feel they need to understand the cultural and historical context of a fictional church that only appears in one scene before they start writing. The chronic world builder spends years engineering the humidity in different countries, figuring out the GDP, and making up cool government systems. Building a world in vivid detail takes a lot of a time so these folks dedicate years to constructing their universe piece by insignificant piece. Meanwhile, the actual story becomes derelict, a victim of neglect. 

I fell into the trap of world building. Almost five years passed and I’d written history textbooks on the universe, but I never started writing the actual story. I knew all about the magic system, the geography, the famous historical events, but I didn’t know how to write chapter one. Seems odd, right? The world building problem affects many writers. Here’s how excessive world building can maim your fantasy novel.

Too much world building makes the story harder to write. You have too many cool details you spent months and months on and you want to fit them all in. Every beginning you come up with seems plagued by omission; you’re leaving out the twelfth descendent of the archbishops of Landerin! There’s no mention of fictional economist Ila Gren’s contribution to the world economy! Back to the drawing board.

A discovery writer doesn’t actually need to know every single detail before starting a fantasy novel. Making up world building details as you go, as required, works far more effectively than writing a university level textbook on the world. World building is a means to an end for a fiction writer. We want to grant our world a sense of the concrete, of the real, but we only need enough details to accomplish that. The story should take precedence.

I struggled to adapt the world I built in vivid detail. The idea napped on my shelf as I worked on other novels. Years later, I picked it back up again and wanted to start writing it. I still couldn’t. The world building! It seemed all wrong now. How could I start telling this story without knowing everything? Improvising world building details proved far, far easier than I expected. Tidy up the world building in the editing and revision process.

Don’t slow down to name things. I named countries and cities after real places in my first draft: Egypt, Europe, London, New York, America, Hong Kong, China. These became Lygnt, Yander, Bridgemont, New Free City, Hildenhar, Blynder Bant, and Raneeko. I wanted a name to capture the magic user outlaws who were hated by the rest of society. I originally wrote them as ‘the Condemned’ in my first draft. Hated this name for them, but I didn’t let the crappy name bog me down, I just kept writing. Now they’re called the Ruined and I like this name much more. The magic system details were smooth in the first draft, but they needed work. There were some issues with consistency and a few character’s powers just weren’t that cool. Now I’m on my eighth draft and the magic system works perfectly. Sound internal logic and every POV character has cool, unique powers.

Don’t wait to finish your world building bible. Write the first draft now and do your world building afterwards. You won’t catch world builders disease and you’ll have to do less work. The only world building that matters is what directly impacts your narrative.

Do you need world building to start writing? Do you suffer from world builders disease? Drop in the comments and share your experiences in universe construction. I’d love to hear from you. Follow for more writing tips from a daily discovery writer.

Today’s featured image belongs to the talented Suus Wansink on Flickr.

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