Mark T. Barnes lives in Sydney, Australia. He is the author of the epic fantasy Echoes of Empire series, published by 47North. The series includes The Garden of Stones (released May 2013), The Obsidian Heart (released October 2013), and the forthcoming third and final volume in the trilogy, The Pillars of Sand (out May 20, 2014). You can find out more at www.marktbarnes.com, his Facebook page, or follow Mark on Twitter as @MarkTBarnes.

Five World Building Tips for Aspiring Epic Fantasists

by Mark T. Barnes

Mark Twain once said, “The difference between fiction and non-fiction is that fiction has to be believable.” As readers we’re sometimes more inclined to believe the most incredulous things in the world around us, but are less forgiving about what happens in fantasy.

As a writer, the chance to start with a blank canvas and speculate on everything is one of the best parts of my job. But Mark Twain was right: our fiction needs to be believable, and that starts with the worlds we build. In building my own epic fantasy universe, these were a few of the core principles I found useful:

  1. FOUNDATIONS: Build your world from the ground up. Consider your physical and social geography. How much of your world is land, sea, mountains, rivers, etc, informs how cultures will develop. Draw your maps and understand where your resources are, how rare they are, how easily they areaccessed. Decide who lives near who, who likes who, who is scared of who, and who dislikes who. Names are important too. Think of names that reflect the thinking of your cultures; are they harsh and militant? Romantic and poetic? Barbarian and exotic? Etc.
  2. HISTORY: There are always backstories. Is your world primitive or civilised? Does it have religion (and why)? Is it an age of reason, or enlightenment? What were the causes of the effects that your characters are faced with? Remember causality. Everything that happened in your history happened for a reason, and its effects should help define how your world works today.
  3. FEASIBILITY: Is what you’re building possible or convenient? Ask yourself how something came to exist, why it came to exist, and should it exist in the world you’re building. Giant flying inverted volcanoes may be cool, but how and why? Dragons whose bones are laced with gold sounds great, but how does that effect your economy? The same thing goes for your magic system, or accessibility to modes of transport and mass transit.
  4. PRACTICALITY: Are all the elements of your world likely to succeed? Consider how your governments work, differences in cultural advancement, wealth, science, magic, economics, etc. Everything in a well-planned world effects everything else and while the reader may not need to know it all, you do.
  5. CONSISTENCY: Ensure that your world follows rules. Reliable, repeatable, understandable rules for your world help maintain the suspension of disbelief so the reader is not jarred from the story. Readers may forgive you for deviating from the rules, but you need to have good reasons why you did. You don’t want to turn your readers into an angry mob with torches and pitchforks.

While by no means an exhaustive list, hopefully this helps get you started on creating your own world – be they epic, or otherwise. May readers enjoy spending time in your worlds, as much as you enjoyed creating them!

[Cover art by Stephan Martiniere.]

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