Worldbuilding

Six Tips to Make Your Fantasy Setting More Immersive

He's one with the Force, the Force is with him.

Fantasy can transport us to beautiful worlds where ancient gods walk the land and magic flows through the air. Or it can transport us to grim and gritty worlds where basic survival is a struggle and everything is covered in mud. Either way, a fantasy world should sweep the audience away, making them feel like they’re walking the streets of a strange and wondrous place.

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

Cover art from the Goblin Emepror

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

Cover Art from Fire Logic

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

Cover art from the Amber Spyglass

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

Cover art from the Shepard's Crown, last book of Discworld

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

The Knight King from Game of Thrones.

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

Art from the cover of The Goblin Emperor

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.

(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    Very nice article.

    #1: I just love the idea of elf ears showing the moods, because it gives a good reason why they’re so long and pointy – they’re mood indicators, even among elves. Body language is an interesting topic by itself, because it’s usually involuntary – most people (human or not) don’t have complete control over their language, so describing signs of lying on a character the group talks to, for instance, subtly will have the audience understand that character is trying something with the group, but without making it too obvious.

    #2: I think one question about fully explored magic is what people normally use it for, because that determines which kinds of magic are fully explored and often used. Was it developed during a long war? Chances are most spells either do or repair damage. Was it developed in a world with a lot of agriculture? They’re probably having a lot of spells to help the crop growth or to help with animal tending. Do they use it in secular settings, for work and at home, or just in more religious settings, during rituals at special places? Is it considered proper to use a spell for a small problem or is this frowned upon? All of that will shape the society and, in turn, society will shape the use of magic.

    #3: I think that’s something which is often overlooked. I can put in unicorns instead of something like deer (or in addition to them), but if I have something huge, like a dragon, there has to be a completely different eco system, because the dragon will totally dominate it. Even a dragon incapable of breathing fire would still be the biggest, strongest, and most intelligent predator around. Not to mention it would need far more prey than your regular predator (even if they were reptilian enough not to eat too often). But of course humans would settle in monster-infested areas. See Australia

    #5: If you don’t want to spend a lot of time developing your magic system (perhaps there’s no magic user among your main characters, so they will always only have it used on them), it’s a good idea to make magic something more mysterious, so the average citizen and even the average hero has no idea how it works. Like this, magic users can be everything from ally to enemy. And neither the audience nor the characters will know whether a new magic user turning up is friend of foe.

    #6: I love the idea of repurposing words. It’s much easier for a writer to figure out such changes (especially with words, I think, which won’t come up in the story, anyway, because they refer to things that world doesn’t have) and much easier for the audience to understand them than making up a complete language and helping the audience to understand it later. Swear words would be something I guess would be different in another world. People would use other things to curse about. I mean, just comparing languages on earth, you can see a completely different focus depending on language. And swear words usually are pretty self-explanatory, so there’s no need to carefully introduce them.

  2. SunlessNick

    1. I agree about the elf ears.

    2/5. Something Juliet McKenna did to good effect was one of each. The main setting was being invaded by an unknown nation (both human) who used a form of magic with completely different capabilities to known mages.

    3. The alternative for a creature on the scale of a dragon would to be to embrace the more spiritual takes and give it sustenance that’s not directly about eating – say it feeds on devastation, or its hoard is somehow what sustains it.

    4. This might even make for good stories even for monarchs, if they are (as is often the case in fantasy) good ones who care about their people. A quest to find a magical item that could alleviate a drought is no less serious than one that could stall an orcish horde.

    6. Thankyou, that’s handy. (Well it’s all handy, but I don’t have anything else to say to that one).

    • Cay Reet

      About 3 … that would at least explain why they act like magpies. I mean, if the hoard would sustain them.

  3. Sam Victors

    My fantasy story is based off of Narnia, only with more cultures and gods. There’s main country of the fantasy world (Western European), an Asian-esque country (mainly Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan and Korean), a Middle-Eastern-esque country (mixed with Africa, Israel, and India), a Northern country (Slavic and Scandinavian), a Moorland country (based on the Celts, Gaels and Picts), a Latin archipelago (Italian, Greek and Spanish), an Indigenous island (Native American, Pacific Islander, Polynesian, and Australian Aboriginal), and a southern country that borrows from Egyptian, Philistine and Phoenician cultures, but is purely Americana with its two feuding political parties, religious zealotry, ultra-patriotism, sensationalism, propaganda, slavery, xenophobia, prejudice, silver mining, and anti-intellectualism (they are often the aggressive enemy in this fantasy world due to their love of war, violence and profit).

    There is also a wandering tribe based off the Romani and Irish Travelers.

  4. Adam

    Great ideas! I really want to explore this “undead workers that should have replaced living labor centuries ago” more now.

  5. Kathy Ferguson

    This is a fascinating article. I am struggling to figure out how to apply these insights to non-fiction writing. I am writing about a colorful group of people and machines but I can’t quite find the equivalent of elven ears.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah a lot of this only works for fantasy settings, but for historical fiction, details like smells, sounds, and tastes that show how different the past is are a big help.

  6. IW Ferguson

    Great food for thought as always, thanks. One counter-example to tip 1 that readers might find interesting is the Adem language in Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. It’s been a while, but I think they spoke words, but also used a system of hand signals to simultaneously convey emotional tone.

    Perhaps it’s one of those exceptions that prove the posited rule, “saying that they ‘moved their hands in the pattern that indicated anger’ doesn’t help,” It does help if you’re one of the rare elite, and you can make a story compelling enough to carry the exposition required. Once establish, he’d just put the hand signals in italics before or after the spoken words, even using them like an action beat at times, and it just blended right in.

    • Mike

      Rothfuss’ description of the Adem culture was fascinating. The hand-gestures really blend into the characters’ interactions, without the need to specifically describe what they’re doing.

      I also loved how Tempi, an Adem mercenary, saw no harm in walking around completely nude, but was horrified when Kvothe asked him a seemingly innocent question about his people’s music.

  7. GeniusLemur

    One aspect of #6 you didn’t explicitly address is if the word choices imply the historical background. For instance, if aristocrats address each other with titles like “Senator” and “Representative” before they address the women wearing the crown as “President,” you can imply their society used to be democratic. Or if the evil rulers who in trite fantasy would be “the dark overlords” are “The Elders of Tophet” (never explaining who or what “Tophet” is), you know there’s a story behind it, even if you never get it.
    Or, to pick a real-life example, if the ruler’s title is someone’s name, you might suspect that someone called “Kaiser” was the example of a historically important, powerful ruler they want to emulate.
    (“Kaiser” is, of course, German. The English rendering of the same name is “Caesar.”)

    • Cay Reet

      Even though Kaiser comes from the Roman Caesar, the right translation would be Emperor.

  8. Cay Reet

    For the big problems of little people, one interesting take I found recently was a guy who was perfectly ordinary, not at all heroic or strong or impressive who was suddenly settled with being the top monster-hunter of the world. The guy who would be asked by people on the other side of the world to come and help them fight a local monster. But the new one wasn’t a warrior, he wasn’t brave, he fainted during his first tour throught he bestiary. And still, he stuck with the job (no choice) and he did his best and he grew stronger and I was shocked by how much he had, gradually, grown six books later. Much better than your usual ‘chosen one training montage.’ He was still a regular guy deep down, but the work he did was slowly shifting his views and his understanding of the world.

    In a foreword to the first novel, the author mentioned that he wanted to write a story about how a regular person like you or me would react to that kind of situation – and I dare say he did very well.

    • Bunny

      Agreed – we need more books like that, which tell stories about people who don’t have to be chosen by destiny or fate or whatever to do great things. People who find themselves in a strange situation, react to it naturally, and deal with it in their own way. People who work hard to learn and train, who are not naturally gifted but strive to better themselves. Above all, we need people who earn their titles. Perhaps the worst part of the ‘chosen one’ trope is that being ‘chosen’ takes away character agency and grants that character an unearned title right off the bat. In the worst cases of ‘chosen one’ syndrome, the story either lacks any tension because we find out what the character is going to do right away and then they do it, OR we find out after they do the amazing thing that they were destined to do it and feel cheated (they were destined to do it all along, whoopdee flipping doo, they didn’t actually earn anything).

      I’m curious about this series you mentioned. What’s it called?

      • Cay Reet

        Well, technically, Brian has been chosen by fate, but clearly not for being the courageous warrior. And he never really becomes a courageous, fearless warrior. He just gets more used to doing a job he’s afraid of, because his sense of duty gets the better of him (his annual One-Million-Pounds stipend and indestructible muscle car might be a reason, too).

        The series is called “Brian Helsing: The World’s Unlikeliest Vampire Hunter.” ‘Helsing’ in this series is actually sort of a job title, Brian is not a Helsing by birth, he just becomes Helsing XIII, after having been handed a magical ring by his dying predecessor. He does meet a Helsing by birth, presumably the last one, in one of the latter novels (Hans is very happy with his husband Otto, but it’s unlikely they’ll have kids).

        I also like how the series turns conventions on their head, such as making the Master of Combat who trains Brian for his fights (which usually means Brian needs a health-restoring magical shower afterwards) a petite woman with rainbow-coloured pigtails who has, as Brian puts it, forgotten more about karate than he could ever hope to learn. Or making the Master of Magic and inofficial head of the Order behind Brian a well-dressed and well-spoken black guy (with a steampunk lower right arm prosthetic, although I have no idea how they grafted his real hand onto it).

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