Q&A

How Can I Work Complex Worldbuilding Into My Story?

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In a story I am helping write, the nations of the world are based off real empires from the middle ages, like Austria-Hungary, Buryatia, and Byzantium.

Despite having a general knowledge of these realms, I have encountered a few problems with how to portray them to the audience because of the protagonists referencing them.

1. Wouldn’t it be problematic (and a major nerdfest) to write hundreds of paragraphs about at least 50 realms in a fantasy novel?
2. How can the audience get immersed in a setting with so many fantasy countries that require encyclopedic knowledge to comprehend?
3. How could different empires with different cultures be respectfully named with styles that seem similar to present day countries?

Those are some of the pitfalls, and I haven’t seen many articles that could help me with this.

Thank you for your time!

-Emanuel

Hey Emmanuel, thanks for writing!

First, it’s super cool to hear that you’re using the Byzantine Empire as inspiration for your worldbuilding. I’m working on a Constantinople-inspired story myself, and there’s so much amazing history to mine for ideas. Personally, I think people spend too much time being interested in classical Rome and miss all the fascinating stuff that happens later.

Now, to your questions. You’re right that too much worldbuilding exposition will be really bad for the story. Readers will get confused, bored, or confused and bored. The key is to tell a story that doesn’t need all that worldbuilding, even if the world is extremely complex.

For example, consider Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. The Disc has dozens, probably hundreds, of different countries, and each of those countries has its own thing going on. However, there’s no Discworld book that requires readers to understand all of the Disc at once. Instead, Pratchett focuses his worldbuilding on the areas that are relevant to each plot. In Thud!, we learn about the dwarves and the trolls, since the conflict between them is what’s driving the story. In Jingo, we learn about the Klatchian Empire, since the plot focuses on a brewing war between Klatch and Ankh-Morpork.

In most cases, you’ll want to avoid writing something like The Belgariad, which shows our heroes go to nearly every country in the world and collect one party member from each of them. In order to keep that story from being impossibly confusing, David Eddings had to make the world so simplistic as to be comical. Each country has exactly one trait because that’s all the reader has time to remember. There’s Knight Country, Archer Country, Thief Country, Farmer Country, and the like.

Once you have the scope of the story nailed down, you’ll have a much easier time working the necessary worldbuilding into regular narration, rather than needing to stop for an info dump every few pages. Readers will be much more interested in worldbuilding if it matters to the story, so you have to make it matter. If you want a lot of details about how your fantasy empire’s waste-management system works, then make the plot where an evil Senator is trying to bankrupt the Imperial Sewers Office in order to make a killing in private cesspits. Otherwise, it’s okay for you to simply know these details but not make a big deal about them on the page.

If you’re looking to tell a truly epic story that incorporates countries and empires from all over your world, the best option is to focus on a longer series. That way you can build the reader’s knowledge of your world slowly over several books. You might start with the civil war of one country, then write a sequel about the neighbor invading, then a third book about how the two original countries need to unite against an even more powerful aggressor.

As for naming your countries, that I’m less knowledgeable on. For myself, I usually pick between two methods.

  • I use similar naming conventions to the real world, but change the details.
    • For example. the Constantinople equivalent in my setting is called “Heratia” because it was founded by Hera the Great.
    • Also, “Heratian” is way easier to say than “Constantinopolitan.”
  • I assemble random syllables in my head until I come up with something I think sounds cool. There’s no rhyme or reason here, I just go until I find something I like.
    • For example, the Byzantine Empire analogue in my setting is called “Meyatha.” That’s not based off of anything; I just like the sound it makes.

If the countries you’re paralleling are mostly associated with white people, you could take the 7th Sea route and call them by alternate names plucked from the real world. England becomes Avalon, Spain becomes Castille, etc. Sometimes this can seem a little hokey, but it’s serviceable. I don’t recommend doing this with non-European countries though, since those names can sometimes get into problematic territory.

Finally, we have a few posts that might be helpful to you.

Hope that answers your questions!

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Comments

  1. Brigitta M.

    Thanks so much for this! I’m creating a fantasy world that is ever-expanding. I plan on creating series within an anthology universe. Each novel in a series may be a standalone as well, but better understood when read in sequence (kind of like detective novels where the life of a detective progresses, but each mystery is self-contained).

    Talking about other parts of the world in the first series just didn’t make sense so thanks for confirming my intuition.

    –Bri

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, if you’re not planning to introduce a part of the world in a book of your series, there’s no need to talk about it at all. That’s a much more natural way for the series to unfold and much more agreeable for many readers.

  2. Dave L

    Once you got a few books out you could always publish “guide book”

  3. Dvärghundspossen

    I’m doing worldbuilding in WorldAnvil now. I think these kind of sites can be helpful… Allows you to get everything out of your system, so to speak, as well as keeping everything in order so as not to contradict yourself in your novels. When you’ve got everything neatly written down SOMEWHERE, it might feel easier to pick and choose what the readers need to know for the plot, and only put those parts into the actual novel.

  4. Leon

    Hello Future Me is a very good you tube channel with a very good video on naming places.

  5. Jenn H

    If you’re writing a book based in Brazil, you don’t need to spend time telling your readers all about Latvia. The reader doesn’t need to know everything about the world to understand one part of it. In the same way, your audience doesn’t need to know much about far away countries until they become plot relevant. You can throw in a few details here and there about other places to add flavour to the story, and to build anticipation for when the protagonists get there. But the focus should be on where the characters are now.

  6. Ceres

    As for the names, you can take more of a linguistic approach if that is your thing. Countries are not named without rhyme or reason. Usually they are named after one tribe that the more “civilised” people came to contact with (the Bois of Bohemia), from the dominant tribe (the Franks of France), or from geographical position, like Austria. It comes from medieval latin austriaca which means eastern borderland, which in turn comes from Old High Germand Ostrareich, eastern kingdom, (compare today’s Österreich), because it was east relative to Rome and the Frankish Empire. Search for exaples to get an idea of how random and convoluted it sometimes gets. Italy is from latin Italia, which is from Ancient Greek Ῑ̓ταλίᾱ which is from the Oscan Víteliú meaning “calf”, of all things. Some names are on the other hand are comparatively relaticely simple: Poland is named after Polans, whose name derives from the proto-slavic pole meaning field. Some countries have different names in different languages; Germany (germania) comes from latin germanus meaning “of the same parents” (all the “barbarian” tribes they warred with), the slavic variants of Němcy means “mute” because the slavs did not understand them, whereas the German Deutsch in Deutschland comes from diutisc, which simply means “belonging to the People”.

    In other words, you can take a root of some proto-language word (at least a bit relevant to your empire) and then play with it a bit. Because of linguistic branching and drifts, you get some natural leeway which becomes even bigger when you take into account things like latinisations and such, after some reaserch you can get names that are different, but feel “owned” by the empire of the nation it is inspired from.

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