As storytellers, we want readers to feel transported into the story. Captivating readers’ imaginations by the world that we have created is the goal of every author, while at the same time, within any book, we want the environment to be believable. When it comes to building that world in a fantasy setting, authors often struggle to balance crafting original detail while at the same time using aspects of setting that will be familiar enough to readers. We’re going to talk about some themes that tend to creep up into worldbuilding that you may want to handle with care or completely avoid when building an original, engaging fictional universe.
Totally homogenous population
The first point is something you may want to avoid altogether. Have you ever read a book where the main character is traveling to a completely new planet, country, etc., and everyone looks the same? I have. It always seems strange to read about a totally fictional world that has very little diversity. Even within a mostly homogenous nation in the real world, people still have distinctive qualities. Creating original characters with distinctive, interesting features may provide a more realistic experience for the reader. And a more realistic reading experience will be more engaging.
One common language
Have you ever followed a storyline where the characters are traveling from one far-off place to another, but everyone somehow understands each other? If your characters are human and mix with others of different cultures, explore those types of interactions. The communication would likely not be as smooth as two people who are from the same culture and speak the same language. It is one thing for a nobleman or an important official to speak multiple languages, but it would be much less common for working class or non-royal individuals to have highly functional fluency in a language other than their own. Maybe your character needs to make a deal with someone in a new country to meet an end goal, but there is a misunderstanding because of the language barrier. That is a likely scenario that the reader can understand and relate to.
Doesn’t it seem like so many novels take place in an ancient kingdom that is the largest superpower in the land? These stories are seen across speculative categories, from fantasy to science fiction. The dominant, or powerful, nation may be an important feature for the story, but depending on the author’s aim, a unique twist on the cliché would be the small nation coming into power or success.
Resisting a governing power with an oppressive nature is a common setting in dystopian/science fiction worlds. Examples of this include stories from Star Wars and the SW universe to the Divergent series and The Hunger Games. While rebellion makes for exciting action and deep stakes, there are so many amazing stories that could be told before and after the uprising. Like Suzanne Collins’s recent release, The Ballad of Songs and Snakes, origin stories present fantastic opportunities to look at a society or culture at a moment in time that is not something we’ve seen done over and over.
Planets that have the exact same features as Earth
A planet that has plants, water, and air but which isn’t Earth is feasible. However, how many books have you read where the planet is nowhere near a sun, and yet they have plant life? If there are waves in an “ocean,” why is there no moon? These questions may not be explored in the story itself but knowing how the environment of your fictional universe functions is important for authors. The environment affects how the story develops. Whether or not the destination is similar to Earth, think about if you want your world to be completely fantastical or have a more realistic setting. Just make sure all the details when they are put together make sense.
Inaccurate sense of time
Have you ever read 100 pages of a story that seems to take place all in one day? Characters who make their way with a horse and buggy from the heights of mountains down to the shores of a beach should have a travel time of several days to weeks, rather than a day or two. Of course, the geography could be designed in whatever way the author decides, but again, creating a believable fictional universe means all the details should make sense.
Main character from rural area
Before the start of the Great Adventure, many stories begin in a small town where the main character lives somewhat of an ordinary life. The town is typically unremarkable and maybe poor. From this point on in the story, it seems like anywhere else that the character lands seem much more interesting. Perhaps that’s the intention but keeping the fight at home where the character defends what they love presents interesting possibilities for a new take on this trope.
Stereotypically good and evil characters
This is not a cliché that has to be absolutely avoided, but changing this up can give writers a fresh take on their material. We all know the classic character tropes. Witches steal children. Goblins gobble travelers. Fairies are harmless and beautiful. Gods are the protectors. One-dimensional character development leads to obvious villains or boring, predictable heroes. Lately, the trend seems to make all characters more believable and complex. Readers love twists and we love to be surprised. Consider the characters we already know. What exciting possibilities for a good character whose journey is unexpected!
Most ideas are not completely original, just innovated. Some clichés are just unavoidable! With that in mind, I hope you, the writer, takes some time to brainstorm and flesh out the world your characters will live within. Think about what is needed to draw your reader in and allow you to hold their imagination from the first page to the last. Keep that reader in mind as you build your original world.