By Zachary Holbrook
You pick up a new fantasy novel. The cover is beautiful, the blurb intriguing. You’re eager to be immersed in an intricately crafted world—but after turning several pages, you lose your bearings. You struggle just to follow the plot, let alone connect with the characters.
The story gave you such a disappointing experience because it lacked one crucial trait: hospitality.
In writing, hospitality means making your story accessible to whoever ventures inside it. And since fantasy plunges readers into a foreign land, they need to be able to clearly imagine the surroundings. If they don’t understand the workings of your world, they have fewer reasons to continue reading.
Perhaps you’ve spent years drawing maps, creating languages, and brainstorming customs and cultures for your story world. Your worldbuilding document is packed with ideas, and you leave it open for reference as you write. However, worldbuilding can transform from a blessing into a curse if readers become so frustrated that they want to escape your world instead of exploring it. I’m going to help you reverse that curse with three tips for developing worlds that are both hospitable and richly detailed.
1. Use Evocative Names
Give fantasy races, objects, professions, and magic systems a familiar spelling or pronunciation. A few completely foreign words can enhance the sense of being in another world, but they’re also harder for readers to remember. In general, words that share roots with the English language will be more effective at easing readers into your world.
Brandon Sanderson aces this technique in his Stormlight Archive. For example, shardblade sounds like what it is: a giant magic sword. Surgebinder conjures images of a character controlling some powerful force. Fabrial resembles fabricated, while the names of the two main castes, darkeyes and lighteyes, indicate the physical differences between them.
Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga also employs evocative names to help readers keep track of its vast array of wild animals. Flabbits play essentially the same role as rabbits, and the most prominent feature of a quill diggle is obvious. These quirky names incorporate humor in addition to conveying the appearance and temperament of each species.
As for the dreaded toothy cows—well, the name says it all.
2. Keep Special Terms to a Minimum
One book I read buried me under an avalanche of universe-specific lingo without including any definitions. Throughout the beginning chapters, the protagonist kept mentioning an akaio, and my mental picture of the creature consisted of an amorphous blob. I wracked my brain, trying to remember if I’d missed an earlier description of it.
I hadn’t. And then the author revealed that an akaio is a dog.
Heaving a sigh, I set the book aside. I could have avoided a headache if the truth hadn’t been needlessly withheld.
No matter how significant a word is to you or your characters, if it’s unrecognizable to readers, it will be meaningless. Whenever possible, refer to a common object or animal by its English name. If you invent your own vernacular instead, provide definitions promptly.
One exception to this rule is when ambiguous phrasing fits the situation or your character’s voice. In the Stormlight Archive, when Shallan Davar first encounters a parrot, she mistakenly calls it a chicken. But Sanderson describes the bird, enabling readers to identify what she’s really seeing.
Another exception is when a fact is supposed to go over a character’s head. If he’s perplexed, readers are less likely to mind feeling the same because it allows them to empathize with him.
3. Link Information Organically
Societies do not form in isolation. When you’re designing the culture of your story world—from food to theology to architecture—don’t throw together a bunch of unrelated characteristics. You’ll bog down the plot and disorient readers. Instead, plant a handful of distinctive elements from which everything else grows.
In the Stormlight Archive, colossal storms ravage the land from east to west at semi-regular intervals. Because of this, towns are built on the western side of mountains or other natural barriers. Flora and fauna alike have shells to protect them from the winds. Fabrials harness a magical fuel source from the storms to generate everything from heat to long-distance communication.
This strategy weaves all the aspects of your world into a web that’s both intuitive and satisfying. Readers won’t have to remember individual animal species, architecture styles, and weather patterns because they’ll think, Of course all the animals have tough exteriors to survive the storms. And that’s why hunters need magical weapons—to cut through the shells.
Authors of contemporary fantasy can quickly establish their worlds by drawing from settings readers already adore. J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is the foundation for Kara Swanson’s Dust. Because most of her readers are acquainted with Peter Pan, the characters and events in Dust seem more plausible. For instance, the revelation that the wealthy and mysterious James Hocken is actually a pirate doesn’t jolt readers out of the story because they expect to encounter Captain Hook at some point.
Swanson also leans on reader expectations to reduce repetition. Peter is stranded in London, and you don’t need his Neverland backstory to know that his inability to fly is unusual. Thus, Swanson compels readers to ask targeted questions: “Why can’t Peter fly?” instead of “Wait, why does a flying boy exist in the first place?” Never does she introduce new worldbuilding that isn’t tied to the original Peter Pan, which lends cohesiveness to her own novel.
When you revolve a story world around a single premise, details that are introduced later, whether methods of coping with storms or side characters from Neverland, will feel integral. Not only does this prevent confusion, it earns readers’ trust, because it shows that you fulfill your promises as an author.
Roll Out the Welcome Mat
Evocative names elude to the nature of a person or item without being explicit. Selective usage of special terms decreases the amount of exposition readers need. And linking information to a core premise unifies a story.
All writers must strike a balance when transporting readers into a story world. If you explain too much, the plot loses all subtext, becoming flat and stale. If you don’t explain enough, readers stumble around, half-blind. With the tools I’ve offered you, you can now achieve equilibrium, crafting inviting worlds that sweep readers away.
Zachary Holbrook reads voraciously and writes implacably. His grandest conception is the Domidium, a vast interconnected universe whose story spans one hundred years and a planned eighteen novels. In June 2020, he finished the second draft of his epic fantasy novel, The Lore of Yore, which centers around a legendary warrior stricken with guilt and a spy on a quest to resurrect her husband. When not writing, Zachary enjoys teaching his younger siblings and designing and playing board games. Read his book reviews and find out more about his projects at AuthorZacharyHolbrook.Weebly.com.