Adding Depth to a Fantasy World

fantasy worldWhen worldbuilding, writers tend to focus on topics such as magic systems, fantasy races, kingdoms, politics, and religions. These elements form the settings, the backdrops against which our stories take place.

But consider your world. Not the world you’ve created, but the one you live in.

What is important to you?  What aspects of your life do you take for granted?

Your world consists of things like your job, your family, your education, and your friends. It also includes the places you buy food from, or visit for entertainment.

It should be the same for your characters. They’ve got to eat and have fun too, so they’ll have places where they do those things or ways to do them.

But unless your character is a politician or religious leader, the intricacies of politics and religion are unlikely to factor in to your character’s day-to-day life.  In reality, the world of your character is much smaller than the borders of a country or the tenets of a religion.

Food

Consider food. We all need it to survive, we eat it every day, and we talk about it. Food is a pretty big deal.

Now, in a story you might not talk about food much or even at all, but if you do, how do you do it?

Fancy banquets of beautifully presented whole cooked animals, travel meals of stale bread and smoked meat, stews and broths?

These types of meals pop up in fantasy regularly, and you know what? They all feel the same – but they don’t have to.

I am British. I recently ate a lasagne which my fiancé and I cooked together at home. It is a dish Italian in origin, using tomatoes, a fruit which originated in Mexico, as well as beef, pasta, onions and cheese sauce made, on this occasion, with Canadian cheddar. The cheese sauce was made in a microwave; the beef, onions and tomato sauce fried in a pan in olive oil over a gas hob; and the assembled product then baked in an electric oven using a pyrex dish.

This is all enabled by modern technology and a global economy whereby plants have been brought from one continent to be grown in another, and food is transported all over the place too.

Your characters, if they’re in a world which is unlike modern-day Earth, probably won’t be eating lasagne any time soon.

If they are in a pre-industrial world, climate will dictate what they can grow where – root vegetables will be fine for damp, temperate climates but will struggle in dry, warm areas; rice needs a lot of water to grow and olives can be very tricky to cultivate in places with cold winters.

Trading vessels will be able to transport food which won’t go bad across long distances, but these will be expensive as a result. Most people, whether urban or rural, will eat food produced within a few miles of where they live, with only the rich eating more exotic foods. And because the land required to graze animals is greater than that needed to grow the same volume of plant crops, meat will be expensive too. More reliable crops like barley might be preferred over less reliable but higher quality crops like wheat, depending on what kinds of pressures there are on space for farmland or overpopulation. People living near the coast or a river will eat a lot of fish. You get the idea.

These are all factors which might determine what your characters are eating, and they’re all dependant on the world you have created. Putting in something about the kinds of food a character eats and where they come from will give your reader insight into the world and the attitudes it holds. It will give depth to your world.

Kaylee eating a strawberry in Firefly.
Kaylee eating a strawberry in Firefly.

A good food-related example can be found in the cult sci-fi TV series Firefly. In the first episode, the crew of Serenity steal some boxes of some sort of metallic bar, stamped by the Alliance, the original owners, but it turns out when their buyer checks the product that these are protein bars wrapped in metallic-looking paper. And they’re sufficiently valuable that selling a few boxes of them – enough to last a small colony a few weeks or months – will pay for some important ship repairs and fuel. Also in that episode, one of the passengers pays for his travel with a small box of something not revealed at first, but which is later revealed to be strawberries – fresh fruit is a big deal.

All this illustrates the situation in the universe of Firefly: food is a problem. Overpopulation means colonies were sent out to terraformed planets, but they aren’t fertile enough to produce enough food, so protein bars are produced for general consumption, and fresh fruit is quite the treat.

Clothes

I wear clothes produced cheaply in factories in Bangladesh or Brazil, or wherever clothes companies can get them made most cheaply. They’re made of synthetic materials or cotton, or some mixture of the two. I have a woollen cardigan and a big coat made of wool, but most of my clothes use materials which require a climate different from that which I live in – like cotton – or modern technology.

For characters in a fantasy world, they’re probably wearing fabrics that can be made locally or imported cheaply from somewhere nearby. Linen from flax, wool from sheep, furs from animals, cotton from the cotton plant, or silk from silkworms.

And then there’s how the clothes are actually made. Today it’s all mechanised looms and electric sewing machines in big factories, but in the past clothes were made by hand, using simpler technologies. In the classical Greek world, cloth was produced in the home from raw materials by the women of the household, who used simple tools to turn the wool or flax into thread and then wove it on a wooden loom. In fact it was such a part of respectable womenhood that the loomweights used to keep the threads taut were passed down, mother to daughter, across generations.

Beliefs and Attitudes Outside of Religion

Food and clothes, building materials, tools and so on are an important part of the material culture of a society and the way it works. But what people believe about the world, beyond what religion or science tells them about it, is also important.

The Black Death in the 14th century, which swept through the Mediterranean and Europe, killed a huge proportion of the population, tens or hundreds of millions of people. In the aftermath, in the decades and generations that followed, the memory and fear of the Plague remained, and images of skeletons appeared in much of the artwork that followed for centuries, including the Danse Macabre motif, in which skeletons danced the living away to hell.

Danse Macabre
Danse Macabre

It is thought that the huge amount of death the survivors had to come to terms with as a result of the plague prompted this response, almost as if recognising Death’s power will placate him. In this situation, the experiences of the people led to a reaction which in turn led to a cultural trend to depict Death.

In a fantasy world which has survived a cataclysmic event of the kind often seen in epics, the way people react in the decades which follow can have a profound effect on how future generations view the world around them.

If you are including a cataclysmic event in your world’s history, you can look at the way real people on Earth have reacted to similar events, and how cultures changed as a result of that human reaction. This can come through in small ways, which might not be part of the story or everyday life, but which are visible, perhaps in books and on gravestones, long after the cataclysm has vanished from living memory.

Details Matter

By including these little elements and details, you can add tremendous depth to your world.

Recently I read King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence, a story set in a pseudo-medieval culture a thousand years after nuclear war flattened modern civilisation. Many of the buildings are gone, most of the technology and scientific advancement is forgotten, but the protagonist Jorg does recall at one point a sign deep in the basement of a castle, with the incomprehensible message upon it: “No overnight parking.”

We know what it means, because we live in a world where car parking is a thing, but Jorg doesn’t know what a car is. The inclusion of this small element gave a touch of colour to the world, a reminder that it is a broken world, formed from the ashes of our own.

And that’s the point with worldbuilding for a fantasy story: giving the reader a context, pulling them into the story, and convincing them that this world could be just as real as our own. That’s why you need the details – the food, the clothes, the imagery – to add depth, to aid immersion, to suck a reader in so that they feel, however briefly, that they are part of the world you have painted.

The big things, the frameworks of magic systems, fantasy races, maps and religions, are important. They’re the context of the story, the foundations for the motivations of the characters. If the story took place in a house, they’re the bricks and mortar, the windows and doors and load-bearing walls.

The details, though, are the pictures hanging on the walls, the channel left showing on the TV, the way the corner of the sofa has toothmarks from a puppy that isn’t there any more. They’re the bookmarks in the books on the shelves, and the folded piece of cardboard under one of the kitchen table legs so it doesn’t wobble.

They’re the details that let you know the house is lived in, and not just a showhome or a sitcom set. So don’t forget them.

Where have you seen worldbuilding done well – or badly – in recent entertainment? Which authors have the knack of giving their worlds depth without interrupting the story?

For articles on fantasy, ancient history and writing fiction, visit Alice Leiper’s website, Ally’s Desk.

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Maris McKay
Maris McKay
8 years ago

Thank you for this excellent post. Reading it, I realized I’ve only covered food and clothing superficially in my WIP, and “Beliefs and Attitudes Outside of Religion” are largely ignored. Looks like there’s more editing in my future 🙂

Alkinea
Alkinea
8 years ago

What a great post!
I totally agree: it’s all these trivial details that add depth to a world, but they are essential only if they bring something different from what we are used to. For instance, they can make us think in a different way about what we consider as granted.
In my latest fantasy word, food is a very important element: it shows what could be done to improve our food chain and our relations with our environment.

eds_garage
eds_garage
8 years ago

Food?! I bow down to you Alice! I would never have thought of that in a thousand lifetimes. It’s the little things that can make or break a good story.

livin4mydream
livin4mydream
8 years ago

Sometimes I think about the small details, in books and in movies, (more in movies though, because they are so visual), and I do wonder about things that seem missing. I think it’s a fine line, balancing the small details with the big events, without being boring or too trivial. Somehow you want to make it all seem to flow naturally. I definitely agree with your post! I do like when good food is included, as well as clothing details.

Mike Cairns
8 years ago

Hi Alice
Great post, thanks very much.
Due to the way in which I write (very much pantsing), my world building tends to grow from the details, as you’ve described. I think that beginning with the characters, and letting them set the scene with the things that they know, and what is important to them, allows the world to grow organically. 
I also find that by thinking about the food, clothing etc, ideas are formed about the larger world which can then inform the bigger picture. By beginning with the characters, it is far easier to relate the events in the novel to them, rather than creating an epic story line, then throwing the characters into it in some random way. Of course, as a pantser, I would say that! 🙂
Thanks again, and I particularly liked the house metaphor in the last couple of paragraphs!

Richard Padilla Galvez
Richard Padilla Galvez
8 years ago

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KuokMinghui
KuokMinghui
8 years ago

For my case, I tend to deviate into the lingo system as in there will be certain slang together with how nobility speaks differently from the rest. I do also have that occasional quirk to put in gestures more at home with modern day culture. I think at the end of the day, we all are trapped into the standards set down by Tolkien, that whatever high fantasy stuff must go through whatever Tolkien has achieved. This may be the reason why high/epic fantasy has hit a certain impasse. Everybody’s taking the familiar route and I think we all are equally guilty sometimes, if not most of the time.
Interestingly enough, I do try incorporating elements of Asian race and non-European culture together. Lol I even end up having my own East Asian ethnicity together with my own Tamil and Malay races in my world. imo the greatest challenge comes in the form of playing around with the system. To me, the greatest risk lies in creating the kind of “hey, that’s so Korean/Japanese/Chinese/Arab/Bollywood/etc” reaction. That’s my greatest fear especially since my fantasy world is largely based on individual society and culture unlike what we tend to see in everyday fantasy. It’s something far more grounded into reality and I’ll have to say that creating different flaws within different societies is truly a challenge.

Alice Leiper
Reply to  KuokMinghui
8 years ago

KuokMinghui I agree, getting past Tolkien is a big challenge in epic fantasy. It’s just such this huge thing, this massive influence that we sometimes perhaps forget we can take inspiration from the story and the scale of the world without taking elements of the world.
I think that’s why little things need to be brought in. It’s a way to really show that this world is different, that it is new and unique and that you’ve thought about it in depth; it’s a way to give it a fresh flavour.

KuokMinghui
KuokMinghui
Reply to  Alice Leiper
8 years ago

@Alice Leiper KuokMinghui I believe a lot of it has to do with the perception that if it’s high/epic fantasy, medieval culture is the only way out. This is something we’ll never be able to outgrow, we can only water it down unless we’re doing stuff like urban fantasy.
I really like your article here because it really reflects what I’ve grown into as a writer, yet at the same time reminding me of whatever lingering flaws remaining.
In particular, your statement on food really took me aback because this is an area I’ve yet to try exploring. All the while, I’m utterly obsessed with playing around with ethnicity and society, both individually and collectively. Hopefully I can try devising stuff via this aspect for starters. Hopefully that is… 🙂

kcrosswriting
kcrosswriting
8 years ago

Awesome thoughts. This got me thinking.
Whenever I write in my own fantasy world, I question how much ‘artistic license’ I should allow myself to take. Would my readers be annoyed if my character was eating a strawberry in the middle of winter if I didn’t explain it? I never know, but I myself feel like the more realistic you can make a fantasy world, and the more relateable, the better for you as an author.
Thanks for a fantastic article!

Alice Leiper
Reply to  kcrosswriting
8 years ago

kcrosswriting You’re welcome, glad you like it.

JennaChristopherson
JennaChristopherson
8 years ago

This is a great article and the comments are great! I must admit, I don’t watch t.v. or movies often enough to be able to say anything about the details of them. However, I know I will improve in this area in my writing! Thank you!

Matthew Phillips
Matthew Phillips
8 years ago

The clean clothes always gets me… And the perfect hair in post ap and renaissance times.

Matthew Phillips
Matthew Phillips
8 years ago

Spoiler alert: In a season or two of the walking dead, we are going to see a zombie behind a reel mower that he’s using as a weapon. But his constant walking is getting all the grass as he goes. This will be revealed at the end of a season where the camera zooms out wide and we see hundreds of these all over, some mowing people down with them.

Alice Leiper
Reply to  Matthew Phillips
8 years ago

@Matthew Phillips Of course, it all makes sense. Some would have turned into zombies while in the act of mowing a lawn, and if they’re anything like my dad they’d just stay mowing lawns forever. (My dad loves mowing the lawn and he adores his mower; he was bragging about it when I visited for father’s day)

Mythic Scribes
Mythic Scribes
8 years ago

Morwyn Margaret Peeler, yes, Walking Dead seems to have a lot of mowed lawns. So who’s mowing them? Perhaps my father-in-law. He prides himself on having a perfect lawn. If the zombie apocalypse came, it wouldn’t stop him from mowing. He’d just keep a shotgun on his lap while riding the mower.

Alice Leiper
Reply to  Mythic Scribes
8 years ago

@Mythic Scribes I feel is my dad and your father-in-law ever got talking, they’d become firm friends in minutes.

Emily Hanson
Emily Hanson
8 years ago

Syfy’s Defiance has done a pretty good job of it. I think they also have kept up on the details fairly well.
I agree that Revolution did not do a very good job on the details, which is one of the reasons why I stopped watching it. Some of the things they showed post-SHTF were not realistic given what happened. Even if the characters were getting clothing and materials from defunct stores via scavenging, after 15 years that clothing would not have looked as good. Homemade clothing would look homemade, but their clothes looked manufactured. TV producers need to keep an eye on the details.

Morwyn Margaret Peeler
Morwyn Margaret Peeler
8 years ago

In EVERY post-apocalyptic production I can think of…who has been mowing lawns and beside roads??? There’s a Walking Dead epi supposed to be 3 yrs after the outbreak where someone is driving a 2013 model vehicle. On the good side: Game of Thrones. If it rains, everyone gets muddy. Magnificent sets! (everything is magnificent, but sticking to the world-building). I’m still confused by their climate, but I’m probably supposed to be.

Tony Dragani
Tony Dragani
8 years ago

The NBC show Revolution takes place 15 years after a blackout wipes out civilization and technology. Yet the modern clothing worn by the characters is in excellent condition, whereas it should be threadbare.

Alice Leiper
Reply to  Tony Dragani
8 years ago

@Tony Dragani Maybe they find mew stuff abandoned in stores or private houses? Though come to think of it, a house left empty for 15 years, unheated and unmaintained, would likely suffer from damp (well, in the UK it would anyway) and possibly be lacking a roof. And clothes found in those conditions might not be wearable, much less look brand new.

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