Friday, February 7, 2020

Elements That Make (or Break) a World

Hey'a, everyone! It is February, and that means it's Fantasy Month in the bit of the blogosphere that Jenelle Schmidt influences, including this blog! This year's themes are Worldbuilding and Fantasy Creatures, so most of my Friday 5s posts this month will align with one of those two things, or at least with the general Fantasy Month theme in general. And today, we're talking about worldbuilding elements that really make (or sometimes break) a world for me. These range from the big and mostly-obvious to the small and easily overlooked, but they're all things that, if done well, will take a world to the next level (in my opinion).

Also, on a side note, I'm still taking requests for a Valentine's Day short story over on my author Facebook page. I'm open to suggestions involving almost any character or couple from a story or book I've previously published or shared about in a book or blog, along with a situation or prompt of some kind. So, if you have requests, leave them in the comments on that post. Or, if you don't like FB, you can leave them on this post.

February is Fantasy Month:
Elements That Make (or Break) a World

  1. Language. I don't mean "inventing a whole new language," though if you can do that well, that's great. I'm talking about how people talk, the expressions and exclamations and slang and references they use. Besides setting the world apart from Earth, it tells you a lot about the culture of a particular location and what they value as opposed to other countries in that world. Also, because these expressions usually reference the lore of the world, they help keep significant figures in view and show you the impact those figures have had on particular cultures. Just as an example, you can look at the exclamations in the Tales of Goldstone Wood — in particular, comparing those used in Heartless, Dragonwitch, and Golden Daughter. In Heartless, of course, you have a great deal of "Dragon's teeth!" and "Dragons eat you!" (For those curious: that's where I got it from.) In Dragonwitch, which is set in the same country but significantly earlier, you tend to get "Dragons blast you" — similar, but slightly different. (At least, if I recall correctly you do.) But then in Golden Daughter, you have basically no mention of dragons in the exclamations. Instead, people tend to refer to Lume (who may have had a different name; but same idea). Why? For one thing, Lume is a significant figure in their culture, but more significantly, they don't have experience with dragons (which makes the events of the book even more significant).
  2. Lore. Ok, so obviously this one is important. You have to have legendary figures for your heroes to look up to. And you need to have a history of your world. But making that lore believable can be tricky; it has to be more than stories told by a bard or legends lost to time. The deciding factor? How people reference it and how it affects present events. Everyone isn't going to know every piece of lore perfectly well, and some people will have differing views, recollections, or interpretations of events. (On a side note, fantasy academia — like, real academia — makes me happy. Sanderson does this really well in the Stormlight Archive. You have Jasnah's research, of course, but you also get a lot of it in Oathbringer, even including a lot of research and scholarly debate snippets in the epigraphs, and it's awesome.) And those differing views will have effects on the current culture; a person regarded as a hero by one country may be considered the villain by another.
  3. Religion. Ok, this one is really hard to get right, and I fully acknowledge that I also don't do the best job of it. But I really appreciate it when fantasy authors put thought into the religions of their worlds instead of having a vague psuedo-Christianity or vaguer psuedo-paganism. If nothing else, put a name to the being that people are worshipping — but better still is when authors give an idea of how those beings are worshipped. Hilari Bell, author of the Knight and Rogue series, does a pretty fair job of this — she has two specific deities revered by the people, and she gives us an idea of some of the celebrations, rituals, and so forth involved in that. I'll also mention Leigh Bardugo and her Grishaverse books here. She doesn't always do an amazing job here — I'm still a bit confused about what the pumpernickel Ravka's spiritual situation is supposed to be — but the Six of Crows duology handles it a bit better, as you have two groups (the Djel and the people of Ketterdam) who acknowledge a deity and live in a way that's affected by that deity.
  4. Clothing, especially unique clothing. Speaking of the Grishaverse: I have read all the published books in this storyworld and I still have no idea what a kefta looks like, other than the fact that certain colors have certain significance, it's at least sometimes made of wool, and it can be low-cut. Beyond that, who knows? And that's an example of something that pulled me out of the story a little the first several times I encountered it. Contrast that with Sanderson and the clothing in Roshar. We have a few significant types of clothing in this world, most notably the havah. And in this case, I do have some idea of what it is because Sanderson gives us the essential elements (dress, formfitting upper, left hand covered) in the text, while also acknowledging variation in the styles. It's a small detail, but it helps make the world a little more real and tells me something about the culture. That said, even just acknowledging colors of garments can have an impact — Jill Williamson does this in various ways in the Blood of Kings series.
  5. Money. Which, as I was just discussing with Jenelle last night, next to no fantasy author actually pays a whole lot of attention to. That's kind of odd, but I don't do any better — we all tend to write characters who are utterly broke and wandering around the woods or who are so wealthy that money doesn't matter. As per the usual, Sanderson is the exception and actually does have reasonably explicit money systems in Scadrial and Roshar (not surprising in the former case, since it starts off with a heist). Interestingly, if I recall correctly, Hilari Bell also did a pretty solid job of this — again, not surprising since one of the characters is a former thief used to stretching his funds as much as they'll go.
Is it possible to make a great world that I'll genuinely want to visit without including all, or even any, of these elements? Of course. (I mean, the world of Howl's Moving Castle includes next to none of these until you get to the sequels, and Ingary is still one of the top worlds I'd like to have an extended stay in.) But they do go a long way towards making a good world really great.
What do you think? What elements of worldbuilding would you say make the most difference in making or breaking a world? Any Valentine's Day story requests? Please tell me in the comments!
Thanks for reading!
-Sarah (Leilani Sunblade) 


  1. Hey, this is a great post! I particularly agree with the bit about the keftas. I have no idea what they were supposed to look like either. Maybe like some type of robe? I don't know :P
    I love lore! Its one of my favourite parts of novels like The Lord of the Rings and King Arthur based stories. and I love coming up with lore, myths and legends! It's so much fun :D

    1. Thanks! And I actually did google them after writing this post, and some of the stuff I saw looked like a robe, some looked like a coat, and some honestly just looked like dresses? So I still don't know for sure, LOL.

      It definitely is! And sometimes your lore can end up taking your story in new and better directions (which has definitely happened to me).

  2. This was great! Now I'm trying to figure out what details (or lack thereof) pull me out of a story... but as I've been thinking about it, for me it's often an overabundance of detail that tends to pull me out of a story. If the author focuses TOO much on the world building and giving me a glowing, glittering "oooh, look at this beautiful world baby I just created" my eyes tend to glaze over and I lose interest because in my experience this tends to happen at the expense of character development and it interrupts the plot. (This is why I have a very difficult time reading Charles Dickens, for a non-fantasy example) :-D

    1. Thanks! Yeah, you do really have to find that balance between giving enough info that the reader can see what's going on but not overloading them so it overwhelms plot and characters. That's true of any description, though.

  3. This was such a good post! Your points are all the reasons I love fantasy. AND YES to the Tales of Goldstone Wood! One of the stories I'm writing the people worship dragons and I keep wanting to use Stengl's "Dragon's teeth!""Dragons eat you!" But I am finding other ways for the characters to express themselves with dragons being so important to their culture.

    It's still too early for me to think about what makes or breaks a fantasy world, perhaps one that is too confusing for me to keep up with. I know. That's kind of vague. Also, when I have to work too hard to understand what is happening. Ha! Sometimes that is connected with so much showing that I'm not sure what the author is actually trying to show me, or that I come to the wrong conclusion.

    1. Thanks! And yeah, I've had the same problem sometimes (whether or not dragons are important to the culture). It's a thing. xD

      I definitely get what you mean by that. Overwhelming the reader seems to be a pretty big issue with this kind of thing.

  4. Yes, on all of this. *applauds*

    When it comes to fantasy clothing, I tend to search things like "etymology of [whatever era/civilization] clothing" and use the specific terms so I don't have to describe it too much. Probably should change that in later drafts... ('^.^)

    I think consistency is my main "make or break" when it comes to worldbuilding.
    Break example: the elves from Dragon Prince (pretty much the only things I can recommend about that show is the animation and voice acting). They're supposed to be scary-as-heck, emotionless, assassins, etc. Guess where they live? In a forest filled with purring fuzzballs for insects, and flora that "farts" and/or plays 20s swing music. I love contrast and crazy, but when the culture doesn't reflect the environment at all, or visa-versa, I would have no problem if a dragon barged in and razed everything...

    1. Wow, you get down to the etymology? I'm impressed.

      You have a good point; consistency is key. (Also, that's the first bad review of the Dragon Prince I've heard aside from one ones who are like "Yeeeaaaah, they bring in gay characters later". What about it, other than the world, didn't you enjoy?)

    2. The way I figure it is that old clothes have lots of parts with specific names, and I would rather not spend a half hour obsessing about describing them correctly. XD

      I have a rant review in the works. I've been putting it off because I loathed it so much I don't want to give it publicity. -_-
      Overview of my ire:
      -Characters were plot puppets (and thus, were idiotic/out of character a majority of the time)
      -Nothing is ever explained (except in this one episode more than halfway through the season, and even then it was contradictory to much of what had been seen so far)
      -No effort in worldbuilding (essentially all the faults/attitudes/slang of the modern world are dumped onto people living in a pseudo-medieval world)

      I would have been a-ok if everyone had died in the first two episodes. After three, I was ready to kill them myself. My littlest sister--she's 12, and loves anything with action, dragons, and dark magic--is pretty much the only one who enjoyed it. The rest of us endured because we were having fun making background commentary and talking improvements. :P

    3. Ok, yeah, that makes sense.

      Oooof. Thanks for the warning; that sounds like it would drive me crazy. I think I shall avoid it now. :P

    4. Yuuup.
      Oh, I thought of one tiny plus: Deaf representation, via General Amaya, who was the only competent character in the entire show. But, it wasn't enough to negate/make up for all the other downsides...


I'd love to hear your thoughts! But remember: it pays to be polite to dragons.