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!
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.
- Liberating Over-Burdened Stories
- Designing Your Fantasy Empire
- Understanding Appropriative Worldbuilding
Hope that answers your questions!
Do you have a question you’d like answered by Oren or Chris? Submit it here. Q&As are only made public if you give your permission and we decide to feature it. If you’d like more than an answer to a general question, you can hire us to look over your story.