But it’s not that easy. We all have disappointing memories of picking up a fantasy novel, only to find the world was a clumsy cut-and-paste of 1100s England. Fortunately, fantasy is a well-explored genre, and we now have numerous tricks for making our worlds more immersive. Here are six of the most useful.
1. Non-Human Body Language
Human communication is very complex, and a lot of it is nonverbal. Clever writers can say a lot about a character by describing their body language. But this method has limits, both because humans have a limited degree of motion and because human body language is so sensitive to context. Crossed arms could mean anger, defensiveness, or that it’s cold outside. On the other hand, non-human body language can be as specific as you need it to be.
Consider Katherine Addison’s novel The Goblin Emperor, where most of the characters are elves. At first glance, they are nearly indistinguishable from humans, but there’s one notable difference: their long, pointed ears. This physical feature is common among fantasy settings, but Addison takes it a step further. Her elves feature mobile ears, and their position indicates what an elf is feeling.
These mobile elf ears bring two major advantages to the story. First, they give Addison another avenue for communicating a character’s emotional state while staying within the story’s close viewpoint. The protagonist can tell another elf is angry because he sees their ears flatten against their head. Second, the ears prevent these elves from feeling like dressed-up humans. They add an extra dimension to elven social interaction and make the world feel much more real.
When employing this tactic in your story, it’s best to stick with body language that’s easy for your audience to remember. You’ll still need to explain what each signal means, but if the body language is intuitive, you won’t have to repeat yourselves. Addison’s elves have ear positions very similar to those of dogs, so the audience never needs a refresher course. If you have a fantasy creature that flashes colors to indicate emotion, red and yellow are easy to remember for anger, while blue is an easy way to represent calm.
In order for this tool to work properly, the body language must be something you can physically describe to the audience. Saying a character “moved their hands in the pattern that indicated anger” doesn’t help, it’s not much better than stating the character was angry. Instead, you’ll want something like…
Shayla jabbed their third and fourth arms in front of them with fists clenched so hard veins pulsed visibly beneath the skin. The Explorer gulped. Shayla was angry now.
Once you teach your audience to associate a specific action with a specific emotion, you can skip further explanation and simply describe the action.
2. Fully Explored Magic
Magic separates fantasy worlds from our own. It’s a critical factor in showing how a fantasy setting is different from the Earth we live on. And yet, many fantasy stories treat magic as something that can be pasted over a historical setting without any changes. This is so common it’s become a joke: settings that are identical to Medieval Europe except that some people can shoot fire from their hands.
But there’s a better way, as demonstrated in Laurie J. Marks’s novel Fire Logic. In this story, magic isn’t exceptionally powerful, but its uses are heavily explored within the context of a long war. In this conflict, leaders are often chosen because they can predict where the enemy will march before the next battle. Scouting is handled by those who can see through the eyes of animals, and interrogation is given over to individuals with the gift to see through lies. With much greater access to information, warfare is made up of complex maneuvers and precise strikes, not the lumbering battles of history.
By diving deep into the application of her magic, Marks builds a world that feels concrete and solid. This is a place where people have had hundreds of years to consider how magic works and how best to apply it. Marks uses war as her backdrop, but that’s just one option. A setting where magic comes from bonded familiars could feature a highly developed pet industry, while fashion would be the focus of a setting where magic is derived from the clothes one wears.
Fully exploring magic is much easier in settings where magic’s capabilities are limited. Versatile magic, like that found in Wheel of Time or Gentleman Bastards, has so many potential uses that chasing them all down would be nearly impossible. Even if you’re successful, you might end up with a setting so alien it wouldn’t have much appeal to audiences.
Still, all is not lost for high magic settings. You can get some of this method’s benefits by focusing on a few elements of your magic system. If you successfully incorporate some magical abilities into the world, your audience is less likely to ask questions of other abilities. This is how the Eberron D&D setting works. The world features magically powered trains and everburning streetlights to distract you from the undead workers that should have replaced living labor centuries ago.
3. Fantastic Ecosystems
In addition to magic, fantastic creatures are an iconic marker of the genre. The dragon is practically synonymous with fantasy, along with such venerable creatures as the unicorn and the manticore. Despite fantasy’s fondness for magical monsters, these beasts rarely feel like they’re part of the setting in which they live. How can something the size of a dragon possibly survive on deer and rabbits? For that matter, how could humans even settle in monster-infested territory? These creatures exist in many settings, but too often they feel like they were dropped without warning into an already formed world.
A setting with a fully integrated fantasy ecosystem is automatically memorable, as shown by the Mulefa from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. You might remember them as the weird aliens who used circular seed pods as wheels. Even though these creatures have almost nothing to do with the plot and are mostly there to give an extraneous character something to do, they are by far the most interesting part of the third book. They feel completely integrated with their setting, because Pullman did more than just drop them into a Western European forest. He created a world where unusual geology produced a network of flat stones the Mulefa could use as roads, and he heavily implies that the Mulefa selected for trees with the roundest seed pods. He even thought of what the Mulefa’s predators might be: birdlike creatures that hunt the faster Mulefa from ambush.
The Mulefa’s world is a truly alien one, but you don’t have to go that far when creating a fantastic ecosystem. The first thing to consider is how your various creatures would affect their local food web. When dealing with large creatures like dragons, there needs to be something around for them to eat, probably something as big as they are. If your creatures have more exotic features, like gaining sustenance by eating metal, that should feature into the world as well. Rust monsters can’t possibly sustain themselves on adventurer’s armor alone, so they would congregate around rich iron deposits. In fact, your world would probably need a higher iron content than Earth’s to support a large number of such creatures.
Even more important is your fantasy creatures’ effect on humans. That determines how your characters will interact with them, that is, unless your story is about a nature expedition.* Consider what creatures the people of your setting might domesticate or what precautions they might take against hazardous beasties.
When creating your fantastic ecosystem, avoid creating fantasy creatures that are actually mundane creatures in disguise. If the creature runs fast, eats oats, carries humans, and develops a deep bond with its rider, then it’s a horse, even if it has scales. In order to make fantastic creatures feel fantastic, they must be fundamentally different from their mundane counterparts. Perhaps the creature is similar to a horse, but is strictly nocturnal. Domesticating them would mean a lot of inconvenient night work, but that could be a viable trade-off if the creature was especially strong or hardy.
4. Big Problems of Regular People
How many royals do you know? What about secret heirs to a magical destiny or epic-level warlords? Most of us are ordinary people doing ordinary things, and yet most fantasy stories are about the problems of monarchs and chosen ones. That’s understandable; powerful people are easier to build high-stakes stories around, but it still creates a disconnect between our stories and the lives we know. Few of us have anything in common with lords and their lordly deeds.
That’s part of what makes Terry Pratchett’s witch stories so appealing. They focus on the problems of a small mountain kingdom, and some of them focus on the problems of a single village within that kingdom. Most of the witches’ powers come from knowledge and clever thinking, with very little overt magic involved. These character’s aren’t (usually) trying to save the world; they’re trying to protect their neighbors from vampires, find a child lost in the woods, or stop a wave of social ostracization before it turns deadly.
The problems of normal people are inherently sympathetic. We might not have any frame of reference for saving the world from an army of golems, but we have no problem empathizing with a farmer about to lose their crop. Most of us have had our livelihoods threatened at some point, even if we’ve never worked on a farm.
No matter how well-written, a story about a hero defeating eternal evil will always be a little distant from the audience. Often, that’s an acceptable trade for all the benefits of an epic-level protagonist, but there’s no question that relatable problems are more immersive. Audiences are better able to envision themselves as part of a world if that world has familiar situations.
This might sound like a plot tool rather than a worldbuilding tool, but in this case the two are one and the same. To craft an immersive plot, you’ll need to build a world where regular people can have compelling and relatively high-stakes problems. That means utopian elven cities are probably out as your primary setting, because the only way to threaten them is with an evil army of orcs. At the same time, your problems can’t be too mundane, since then they’ll cross the line from relatable into boring. A farmer who loses their crops to bad weather and can only wait to try again next year isn’t a good setup. A farmer who loses their crops to bad weather and has to venture into an old ruin in hope of finding something valuable is great.
5. Magic Beyond Human Ken
Chances are good none of us have ever seen real magic,* but many fantasy characters see it all the time. That makes the magic feel mundane and utilitarian. No matter how well the author describes magic spells, they feel like tools brought out to solve a problem and then put away without a thought.
While it makes logical sense for magic to become mundane, it’s still distancing. Characters who accept the fantastic without question will always seem a little out of step to real-world audiences. Fortunately, there’s another option, and that’s to keep your magic mysterious. A Song of Ice and Fire did this to great effect,* with magic largely the province of terrifying Others and mythical Children of the Forest. On the rare occasion that human characters have magic, it’s bizarre and more than a little frightening, with Bran seeing through animal eyes in his dreams and shadow creatures born from bloody rituals.*
This method is the opposite of fully exploring magic. Instead, you’re hiding it in your world’s darkest corners. When your characters finally encounter magic, they’ll be as unsure of it as the audience. Most people would be more than a little freaked out if they encountered something supernatural, and having characters who feel that way is invaluable for immersion.
When employing this method, it’s easier if your magic is dangerous, or even inherently evil. That makes it much easier to explain why magic is unknown to most people, since most people wouldn’t sacrifice their neighbors in exchange for a levitation spell. In A Song of Ice and Fire, even the more benign magic has an edge to it, adding credibility to the idea that such powers are rare and special.
You can also use this method with purely benevolent magic, though it’s much harder. The film Rogue One is a good example. In that movie, the Force is kept mysterious because almost no one can use it after the Jedi were purged by the Empire. Chirrut is the only Force user on team good, and he rarely uses his powers or even talks about them. His connection to the Force is so understated that when he uses it to avoid blaster fire in the climax, the audience is just as awed as the other characters.
Rogue One’s method worked because as a film, it didn’t need to portray Chirrut’s inner thoughts. If it had, his powers would have been de-mystified. A book can manage the same thing by keeping the POV out of Chirrut’s head, but that risks Chirrut overshadowing the actual protagonist, so it’s something to be used with caution.
6. Alternative Word Choice
Many storytellers think that by loading their story with fake words and intricate fantasy names, they’ll make their world more immersive. They are almost always wrong. Fake words are far more likely to be confusing and frustrating, as readers struggle to remember what they mean. The issue is even worse in audio, where listeners can’t learn to identify a fake word’s visual shape or glance back when they miss something. Fake words can also come across as pretentious, making audiences wonder what’s so special about soldiers in this setting that they had to be called “golkurks” or the like.
On the other hand, using real words in unusual ways is a fantastic method to build immersion. Circling back to The Goblin Emperor, Addison employs this trick to great effect. Instead of “majesty” or “highness,” the elven honorific for their emperor is “serenity.” That says a lot about how the elves view their leader as a source of calm and stability, and it needs no explanation. For contrast, The Goblin Emperor also uses a lot of fake words, and most of them are just confusing.
Alternate word choice works because most of your audience will already know what these words mean, and seeing them in unusual context invites thought. “Why are countries in this setting called ‘sovereignties’ instead of ‘kingdoms?’ Is it because this setting doesn’t use gender to determine inheritance?”
Worldbuilding is a constant struggle to impart information on people without boring them, and changing up word choices is one of the subtlest tools at your disposal. It doesn’t demand explanation or take up time. It primes audiences to expect something different. With a few substitutions, audiences can become immersed in your world without even realizing it.
Of course, this method does have limits. Substitutions need to be carefully considered, or you’ll end up with a nearly unreadable text. At the same time, plot-critical elements still need to be explained; you can’t count on your audience to realize the royal family are all polymorphed dragons because the servants say “by your scales.” But so long as it’s not overused, alternate word choice can build deep immersion in your setting without any added overhead.
Immersion is only one facet of storytelling, but it’s an important one. Without it, even the most novel and well-planned settings won’t build attachment with the audience. If you’re ever stuck with test readers or editors saying your world just doesn’t grab them, try one of these tips. They won’t all work for every story, but they’ll give you a good place to start.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?