Speculating Worlds: How to Successfully Build Fictional Realities

Note: The title of this post is a bit misleading as it implies a degree of expertise in the subject that I, unfortunately, do not have. What the following post does rely on is my experience as a reader and I am quite confident about that. I am also certain that Janet has written a wonderful post along similar lines and you may want to check that out. I will be using world/reality interchangeably even though there are lots of differences between the two.

No matter which genre the book you are reading is, there is always a reality created by the author that the characters call normal. Even contemporary realistic fiction defines the world the story inhabits with clear boundaries on what is normal and what is not. In the following paragraphs, I will attempt to list out the elements of what in my opinion is a successful fictional reality, no matter which genre the book is.

1. Relatability 

A reader always needs something to anchor herself to the fictional world. No matter how fantastic the fictional reality/world is, as long as the reader has an anchor to it, the story can proceed without alienating her. The most successful books such as Harry Potter have obvious anchors as the Harry Potter series is set partly in the human world while The Lord of the Rings may have hobbits but they also have locations such as cities and farms that allow the reader to find their footing in an obviously fantastic world.

2. Logic

I feel like this is where a lot of books falter. There is a rule (probably written somewhere) that you are allowed and encouraged to create as fantastic a world as you can but once you’ve laid down the rules for that world, you, as a writer, have to adhere to them. This is why writing fantasy is so tricky. If your world has three suns rising from the north every morning on one day and one sun from the east in the next page without explanation, then there is something wrong. If your vampire walked in the sun to serenade his lady love but near the end of the book dies after exposing himself to the sun…then there is something very wrong. Readers notice these irregularities and when they are irksome enough, they raise questions and shove the reader out of the narrative. It has happened to me  many times.

3. Cohesiveness

Okay, this is a bit complicated to explain but very important nonetheless. By cohesiveness, I mean the link between the characters and the world they have grown up in. If the story you are writing is set in the middle ages, your characters need to be speaking as though they are from the middle ages. If your characters are using words such as “okay” or “what’s up,” it ought to be deliberate (to set a modern feel despite the historical nature of the novel) or explained.  I always find it discomfiting when historical novels use words such as neurons and DNA and genetics because these concepts are obviously modern.

But it’s not just about the language characters use. It is also about the effect the world has on the character. How they navigate the world and the thoughts they have are largely informed by the environment around them during their formulative years. In my opinion anyway. If the protagonist of a piece has spent her childhood in isolation and yet is immediately, without any visible signs of discomfort, able to read and steer her way through society, she is either incredibly skilled at picking up and observing social clues and rules or the author hasn’t thought ahead.


So there you go. Three things that will help you successfully build a world. Obviously there are many other things that ought to be here but as I said, I’m no expert. I just know what I like. Am I missing something important? Let me know and we’ll discuss! Happy reading!

4 responses to “Speculating Worlds: How to Successfully Build Fictional Realities

  1. Logic is a big one, but can, sometimes, be overcome. Harry Potter is an excellent example of a compelling and successful fantasy series in which the world does not follow logic.

    Ghosts are clearly show to exist, in the form of self-aware, fully cognizant undead/spectres, who can communicate, advise and jest. While this indicates that in the magical world, death is not the end, they serve merely as window-dressing and are de-emphasized later on simply because knowing that Severus and Dumbledore could come back as friendly helpful ghosts would devalue their deaths. Similarly, Magicis codified in such a way as could be taught systematically yet functionally has no defined or guiding laws other than what the plot requires. Nothing would stop deatheaters from spamming “word of power – kill” other than the fact that the good guys needed to win.

    Still, just because Rowlings pulled off giving Logic the toss doesn’t mean I’d recommend it ;)

    • I probably should give the Harry Potters a reread. Does Rowling ever discuss what makes the ghosts ghosts? I didn’t notice it on the first reading and I reckon most readers didn’t for precisely the reason you mentioned. But yes, just because Rowling got away with it doesn’t mean we all will. ;)

  2. Thanks for this, Nafiza :) It’s a really easy-to-follow guide on writing Fantasy, and how to write it better, if not successfully. I really enjoyed this.

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