Top 4 Challenges of Fantasy World-Building and How to Overcome Them

Today’s guest post is by Kahina Necaise.

Worldbuilding is often one of fantasy authors’ favorite parts of the writing process. It can even be the reason they choose to write fantasy in the first place, knowing the freedom they’ll have in a genre where anything is possible. After the honeymoon burst of inspiration, though, most also find that world-building is harder than it looks.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common challenges in bringing new worlds to life in a story. We’ll also go over exercises that you can try out with your own world-in-progress right now.

Let’s get to it.

  1. Writing Specific and Concrete Details

A common criticism on book-review sites like Goodreads goes something like this: “Parts of the world sounded interesting, but I just couldn’t really picture it all.”

The problem in these cases is usually a lack of specific sensory detail. However clear the world might be in the writer’s mind, they haven’t put enough of it on the page using words that activate the imagination.

And no wonder. Most of us grew up with a writing education that prioritized academic abstraction over concrete imagination, leaving us with a relatively limited vocabulary for artfully conveying the sensory details that translate world-building into actual story.

This is something that all fiction writers have to overcome, but for writers of fantasy it’s doubly important because our words are the only information readers will ever have about our worlds. We can’t rely as much on the images they bring with them into the reading experience from their own lives.


To strengthen your imaginative-writing muscle, try sketching the most important place, person, or object in a scene you’re writing—sketching with words, such that a reader can truly see (or otherwise sense) it. Avoid generic words like “flower” and “clothes.” Replace these with more specific and evocative terms like “rose” and “belted tunic.”

Write about each for at least ten minutes without stopping, consulting all five senses. I guarantee this prewriting will give you concrete sensory detail you can use to help bring your world to life.

  1. Drip-Feeding Exposition

“Drip-feeding” means distributing bits of exposition over the course of the story as they become pertinent to the plot. Its opposite is the infamous info dump: paragraphs or pages of backstory about your world and its characters that stop the actual story in its tracks and tell the reader about aspects of your world before the reader has a chance to get curious about them.

It’s easy to assume that info dumps are an overflow of unneeded backstory that should be cut. But, in my experience, that’s not necessarily true. The info in the info dump might well be pertinent to the story. It just needs to be distributed more evenly—and dramatized (shown) instead of explained (told).

That’s right. “Show, don’t tell” is actually a secret to drip-feeding exposition. When you limit your exposition to information directly related to (a) what’s happening in the scene and (b) your point-of-view character’s immediate reactions to it, drip-feeding will happen almost by default.


Go through the earliest chapters of your work-in-progress (which are usually the most exposition-heavy) and look for any place you mention a world-building element for the first time and it does not appear in the scene physically or in dialogue.

Chunky paragraphs are good place to look for detours with too many degrees of separation from the narrative here-and-now. So is anything that makes you justify its presence with “It seems out of nowhere now, but readers need to know this for later!”

If you find any information slipped into the narrative that doesn’t directly relate to the scene at hand, highlight it. In revision, you can think about where else you can put that information so that it can be pertinent to the scene.

  1. Weaving the Illusion of a Complete World

Let’s say we have a protagonist. They live in a culturally monolithic city seemingly untouched by the outside world. They worship gods, but other than the temples they pass on the streets, religion has no obvious bearing on their life. The city must be ruled by a council of fourteen queens; no one seems to know why. Magic exists but has created no differences between this world and our own. There’s an extensive hierarchy of social classes, and we never see them interact.

Imagine that each element of this world (and yours) is a thread. As in the example above, the parts of a writer’s story world sometimes seem to exist in a vacuum. Such fragmented world pieces are like coils of beautiful thread kept side by side in a box—interesting to look at on their own, but still waiting to be woven together to become something more.


Get out a sheet of paper, spatter it with the names of all the places, peoples, and tropes that make up your world, and start making connections by drawing lines between them and writing, along each line, one crucial, ideally conflict-generating connection between them. Stick with this, and you’ll discover at least one new fascinating, useful thing you didn’t know about your world that makes it more believable and complex.

Portraying a fully fleshed-out world is impossible. Creating intriguing interconnections among your world’s people, places, and things is a magic trick for creating the illusion of one.

  1. Answering “So What?”

This is probably the toughest of the challenges, even for experienced writers.

It’s very possible to write a good story whose world simply treats readers to tropes they know they like. After all, where else but a fantasy story can we hang out with dragons or sail on a flying ship?

But in great stories, the world-building usually goes a step further: the writer’s world reveals a viewpoint about our own that readers never considered before. That viewpoint might affirm their beliefs, or it might challenge them. Either way, it makes them think and feel something beyond the delight of being entertained.


This one’s a journaling prompt: What aspect(s) of your world reflects a worldview you hold about how our world works?

Good places to mine this kind of meaning are social structures (be they on the household level or the civilization level), magic systems, religious and spiritual beliefs, and world origin stories. The choices a writer makes about these are often influenced by their own ideas about life.

Then, think about what you want your world—including how it, or your main character’s place in it, changes over the course of the story—to communicate about that viewpoint. Perhaps it’s a negative (to you) worldview that you’d like to see overthrown. Perhaps it’s a positive (to you) one that you want to see protected.

Whatever the case, think about what you want to do with it and how you can make this connection between your world and our world clear to readers.

In the End …

You might have noticed something that all of these challenges have in common: They’re less about building a world and more about portraying it. There are a couple of reasons for this.

The first reason is that world-building ultimately happens in the narrative. Whatever our worlds look like in our notes and maps, the parts that actually make it into the story are what matter.

The second is that you, like most fantasy writers, probably already have a rich imagination that gives you plenty of material and ideas for organizing it into a complex world. The greatest struggle will likely lie in getting that world from your head to the page. But, once you get the hang of it, that can also be the greatest reward.

Kahina Necaise is the executive editor of Fabled Planet, which provides editing and guidance tailored to writers of fantasy and science fiction. When not editing, she can usually be found writing her own fantasy stories, reading about ancient civilizations of our world or others, or going on walks while daydreaming about one of these things. She’s created a number of resources for world-building, including a guide to getting started (with an accompanying template) and a list of over 50 resources for fantasy world-builders.

Featured Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

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