World building in Fantasy Fiction

Em português 


This paper was written for the Research Methodology module, part of my MA in Creative & Critical Writing at the University of Winchester, UK, in 2007.

The inspiration for this research originates from a creative piece I started to write about twenty years ago. It is a fantastic fiction novel for adults set partially in contemporary Brazil, partially in parallel dimensions connected to our world and interlinked with other dimensions. The structure of these worlds, and their genesis, significantly impact on the protagonists and how they interact. I needed, therefore, to broaden my understanding on how to build those parallel worlds, and how to make better use of their unique features in the narrative. I also wanted to have a glimpse on how other writers had done it and what made their worlds unique. 

According to Tuttle, in Writing fantasy and science fiction, world building is ‘(…) perhaps the major way in which fantasy and science fiction differ from other genres.’ (1) Michael Moorcock, goes further and affirms that, in fact, ‘An intrinsic part of the epic fantasy is exotic landscapes’, which is vital to deliver the ‘substance of such work’, as imagery play a crucial part on the writer’s ability to convey ‘personal metaphors’ and to evoke the intended atmosphere of the novel (2).

This research aims, therefore, to investigate what constitutes ‘world building’ in this genre, its main elements and functions; and also to have a glimpse on some worlds created by authors such as Michael Moorcock, J.R.R. Tolkien and Philip Pullman. I will not examine those worlds in detail, but evaluate some elements that constitute their uniqueness.

What are fantastic fiction worlds made of? 

A world of metaphor

Without venturing too deep into theoretical explanations about the nature of fantastic fiction, it is safe to say that it is a means of expressing our inner worlds, fears and desires. Armitt says that ‘(…) fantasy (or at least phantasy) is central to all fictional work. As psychoanalysts tells us, phantasy is that intangible source of unconscious fears and desires which fuels our dreams, our phobias and therefore our narrative fiction.’ (3) 

Todorov says, in The Fantastic, that the fantastic resides between the ‘marvellous’ (merveilleux) and the ‘uncanny’ (étrange) (4) and describes the uncanny as ‘a reaction to fear’ associated with emotions, not to impossible events; and the marvellous solely as the ‘presence of the supernatural’ (5). Todorov warns, however, that his use of the word (6) is not the same of Freud’s, who defines the ‘uncanny’ as ‘what arouses dread and horror; equally, too, (…) it tends to coincide with what excites fear in general’ (7). The two elements combined offer us the ‘world of metaphor’ (8) with which we can explore our inner worlds, by transposing them into worlds beyond ourselves.

Tolkien refers to these other worlds as ‘Secondary Worlds’, but I will explain later a bit more about his vision them. They can cross the boundaries of infinity by being beyond the horizon: ‘beyond that line of sight but to which we might travel’ (9). Placed beyond senses or lived experience (10) – like legends and myths – we relate them to our own societies (11) and experiences. Recurrent themes related to the constitution of these worlds are the intimate connection between us and our myths and ‘our oneness with nature’ (12). It is not surprising to find many writers evoking the ‘magic and mystery of the wildwood’ (13) and setting their worlds in wild environments.

As writers we are free to set and define the rules in which we base our secondary worlds. However, the plausibility of this world is ‘governed by the interpretation which are inbuilt into (…) our sensory perceptions of the world without and our introspective perceptions of the world within’ (14). I’ll explain more about the notion of plausibility below.

Armitt argues that, in the level of content, plausibility binds us to our narrative structure. ‘Multiple ‘Secondary’ worlds may proliferate, but the boundaries established around those worlds must remain constant in order for the narrative to succeed’ (15). The worlds cannot rely solely on plausibility to be effective. They are, as Tuttle argues, ‘as essential as the plot – (…) an inextricable part of the story, as the two tasks will go hand-in-hand’ (16).


There are other basic notions relevant to the making of secondary worlds. One of them is that a world doesn’t have to be possible to be plausible. It is generally accepted that writers can offer whatever they please as ‘reality’ in their worlds. This is possible due to a simple mechanism known as ‘willing suspension of disbelief.’ (17) Although writers have carte blanche to subvert laws of nature, including laws of physics, the internal coherence, constancy and consistency of the rules established for these worlds must be followed (18).

Parallel universes are creations that exist solely on the writer’s mind and must be transferred to the text, even if they use and refer to elements that exist in our world, environment or society. No doubt that the use of familiar settings and elements makes world building a lot easier for both the writer and the reader. Stableford, in Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, argues that ‘Stories which are supposedly set in the real world – including fantasy and science fiction stories in which the real world is supplemented by some kind of ‘novum’ – have a measure of solidity and internal consistency already built in, ‘borrowed’ from the world that the writer and reader already know.’ (19)

The measure of how much extrapolation the authors seek is entirely their choice. J.R.R. Tolkien, for instance, spent his life devising the genesis, languages, and evolution of inhabitants of his secondary worlds. This is by no means, compulsory. There is not even a real need to provide information on how this world came to be or why. Details can be provided as the story develops, on a ‘need to know’ basis (20). But there are two aspects to be considered:

First, the more we know about the world as a writer, the more consistent and rich they become. Therefore, it is useful to understand how particular features evolved and how relevant they are for the characters, including their ‘survival’ values (21).

Second, Stableford says, in Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, that more important than providing a picture of the ‘whole’ world is how the writer conveys information about it. He says: ‘artistry of designing plausible imaginary worlds is as much a matter of leaving things out as putting things in; as long as you can convince your reader that everything you actually mention is part of a coherent whole’ (22). Details that highlight features of that world which are relevant to the story are more useful to the ‘mind’s eye’ (23) than the amount of information offered in the text.

A very interesting notion related to plausibility was also defined by Stableford, in Opening Minds, Essays on Fantastic Literature, as ‘plausible impossibilities’. Because sight is so important to human beings as a sense that involves not only the act of seeing but also interpreting what is being seen, which give us ‘the third dimension into the image by inference’ (24), we can accept, as we accept optical illusions, not only the ‘(…) plausible impossibilities, there are also implausible possibilities, which are the stock-in-trade of conjurors’ (25).

Stableford relates the ‘plausibility of visual images’ to the one of ‘ideas’ (26). He exemplifies: The human eye can be deceived just as the human mind. The same way we create mental images and talk to ourselves without verbalising our words, we can accept the idea of telepathy as a plausible impossibility (27). Being rational and emotional creatures at the same time, in conflict with our ‘higher and baser’ natures ‘lends plausibility to many kind of images of divided selves: victims of demonic possession, werewolves, split personalities. It lends plausibility to hypothetical forces which can take hold of us as passionate emotions seem to do: to geases, curses, and love potions.’ (28)


Setting and background, if disconnected from the action, instead of attracting the readers into the story, may have the opposite effect: disconnecting them. (29) Tuttle, in Writing fantasy and science fiction, quotes Joanna Russ in relation to that: ‘Joanna Russ: the setting is important only as it impinges upon the protagonist. SF and fantasy writers can learn from this approach (Cather and Hemingway) by always giving descriptions a purpose, connecting them whenever possible to character and plot’ (30). This is also stressed by Stableford, as he advises that it is possible to deliver a sense of place through the viewpoint of the characters, when emphasis on specific details comes from the character’s awareness of their importance. (31)

Embedded in the setting are one or many societies, which will function and develop according to a combination of variables such as: environment, climate, geography amongst others. Such societies will develop unique cultures, uses of language and means of communication. Those are powerful elements to convey a sense of place; the constitution of the society and the use of language are useful tools to create plausible, believable and engaging worlds.

Science Fiction writers rely heavily on history and the patterns of technological development also to deliver a sense of place and time. (32) Fantasy fiction writers rely on them too, and some secondary worlds reflect a time and place in our own history. It is vital, however, to always establish the unique modus operandi of these societies, how they are structured and how individuals behave in their communities (33), regardless of how similar they are to our world. It is not required to create specific languages or dialects; this is not even recommended. Card reminds us that: ‘If you have people from more than one nation, they might well speak different languages; if they’re from different worlds, they certainly will.’ (34) As the use of language is a prominent aspect of any culture, writers should take into account that communities are likely to develop specific ‘codes’ of communication. By including them in the narrative, they are creating a more vivid and convincing world.

Another aspect to be considered is the society’s overall frame of mind. For instance, if this world suffered or is suffering some sort of environmental disruption or is in a state of war, this will hugely impact on its normal functioning. Its inhabitants will be plunged in an altered state of mind and modus operandi. Again, writers can feed from our history – the present being a valuable source – to convey the impact of disruption or the sense of normality in these societies. In the case of Science Fiction, for instance, Jones illustrates as: ‘If I wanted to write about the immediate aftermath of a nuclear war, I would probably find the recorded (and tellingly unrecorded) effects of the Black Death illuminating.’ (35)

Having explored and understood what constitute some of the elements of world building, I would like to examine the peculiarities of parallel worlds and universes created by Michael Moorcock, J.R.R. Tolkien and Philip Pullman. My intention is not to offer an in-depth view of these worlds or the works of those writers, but a glimpse on some of their features.

World building in Moorcock, Tolkien and Pullman 

Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse

An interesting aspect of Moorcock’s world building, in regards to the Eternal Champion character, is not related to the worlds they inhabit, but to the concept Moorcock uses to connect all the worlds inhabited by the characters, contained in this idea of a ‘multiverse’. 

The concept of ‘multiverse’ was not created, is not unique to, and does not belong to Moorcock. As he says, this idea already existed in science fiction and he did create “perhaps a more sophisticated model for ‘the multiverse’” (36). One of the definitions of ‘multiverse’ that more closely apply to the notion I would like to explore comes from the Oxford English Dictionary:

b. orig. Science Fiction. A hypothetical space or realm of being consisting of a number of universes, of which our own universe is only one; (spec. in Physics) the large collection of universes in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, according to which every event at the quantum level gives rise to a number of parallel universes in which each in turn of the different possible outcomes occurs. (37)

In his tales of the Eternal Champion, the same hero reincarnates in different times and worlds. Moorcock explains: ‘I took the logic of the reincarnation story for the idea of a recurring hero, but added my own angles’ in order to keep ‘the same character in different stories’ (38). The hero not only reincarnate, he sometimes can be joined with his ‘selves’ in another instance of this ‘multiverse’ and work together, being more or less aware that they are the same ‘soul’.

I find this notion interesting because Moorcock creates and interlinks multiple dimensions with the notion of a universe ‘in search’ for harmony, alternating between Balance and Chaos. The Eternal Champion character acts as a ‘thread’ connecting the dimensions and as an instrument of one or the other. In my case, my characters are also the ‘thread’ connecting parallel worlds and are crucial to the restoration of order and the beginning of a new era.

Tolkien’s Secondary World

One interesting aspect of world building in Tolkien is his vision of Secondary Worlds: “Anyone can say ‘the green sun’, but ‘To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible… will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft’.” (39)

Tolkien talks about the creation of these worlds not only in relation to ‘consistency of reality’ but as an art construction. For him, the crafting of a Fantasy world is not a lesser art, on the contrary, it is “one the most potent, ‘indeed the most nearly pure form’. Fantasy, which is made by men, aspires to the condition of Enchantment, which is a character of the stories told by the elves(…)” (40)

Another aspect is that he relates his ‘making’ of worlds to a ‘primal urge’: ‘we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker’.” (41) He is trying to achieve, as a means to escape the boredom and anxieties of life, a sense of ‘recovery’, which is a notion I had never associated with his work. By ‘making’ worlds as the ‘Maker’ (God), he may be seeking to inspire and re-live the same ‘enchantment’ provoked by fairy tales:

‘is not to be found in the wilfully awkward, clumsy, or misshapen, not in making all things dark or unremittingly violent; nor in the mixing of colours no through subtlety to drabness, and the fantastical complications of shapes to the point of silliness and on towards delirum. Before we reach such states we need recovery. We should look at green again, and be startled anew (but not blinded) by blue and yellow and red. (….) This recovery fairy-stories help us to make. (42)


Pullman’s Dark Materials

In each novel of ‘His Dark Materials‘ trilogy, we see alternative worlds. As Lenz points out, in Alternative Worlds in Fantasy Fiction, in Northern Lights, we find a ‘universe like ours, but different in many ways’; one of the most striking differences being the existence of daemons, or personifications of the human soul into a separate, but intimately connected animal entity. The Subtle Knife offers the setting of a universe like our own but with an ‘otherworld setting – a strange, deserted tropical city, (…), where again humans lack visible daemons, but are hunted by ‘Spectres’, who feed upon the internal souls of adults’ and from where the protagonists, Lyra and Will, can also enter to the world of the dead. The Amber Glass story will move ‘between the universes’.” (43)

Although Pullman’s idea of universe derives from quantum physics and the notion that ‘every possible outcome of an action or event – no matter how large or small – spawns a universe of its own’ (44), the interesting aspect of this universe construction does not reside in the concept of a multiverse, neither in the specificities of each world themselves. In this ‘timeless’ story, where historical time is indeterminate (45), the power lies in the fact that he “offers ‘not just a story but a world… not just a moral, but a worldview.’ Secondary worlds help to satisfy the hunger of today’s readers for a metaphysics, a cosmology, a mythic pattern to structure human experience, so lacking in many lives.” (46)


Although this is a fairly superficial look into aspects of world building in Fantasy fiction, it provided me some useful knowledge that will contribute to the development my work. Learning that, as expressions of our inner worlds, these ‘worlds beyond’ ourselves are places where our ‘impossible plausibilities’ can be accepted made me look at my creative piece from a different perspective. I realised that I needed to revise my motivations for writing the story, in order to gain clarity and objectiveness when conveying information about the parallel dimensions I have created.

Another insight I gained from this research was that I must not only establish more clear rules and boundaries for those impossibilities, but also develop more sharply emblematic cultural expressions of each society. Taking into account that world building is an intrinsic part of narrative and plot, I will need to evaluate how much of the genesis of my worlds and of their unique features will be included in the text. The advantage now is that I will be able to do so in a much more conscious way.

A closer look on how some authors devised their worlds also offered some interesting insight. There are many ways to approach concepts and to build interconnected parallel universes. Moorcock’s use of the ‘multiverse’ concept differs from Pullman’s in form and meaning. They use, basically, the same idea to express different views. Moorcock offers a view on a recurrent character interfering with the balance of the universe; Pullman gives us access to many universes to convey a ‘worldview’ as material for philosophical reflection. Tolkien hopes to stir inside us a view of the world as its creator intended it to be: a recovery of some of the original enchantment of the fairy tales. Each approach, by offering a particular viewpoint, provided me new grounds for exploration and reflection.


1. Reference to Tuttle, in ‘World Building’, in Writing fantasy and science fiction (p. 30)

2. Moorcock, in Wizardry & Wild Romance, explains that:

‘This dream-scenery is fundamental to the success of any romantic work, (…); it is often the substance of such work, and no matter how well drawn their characters or good their language writers will appeal to the dedicated reader of romance according to the skill by which they evoke settings, whether natural or invented. Their work may not be judged by normal criteria but by the ‘power’ of their imagery and by what extent their writing evokes that ‘power’, whether they are trying to convey ‘wildeness’, ‘strangeness’ or ‘charm’; whether, like Melville, Ballard, Juenger, Patrick White or Alejo Carpentier, they transform their images into intense personal metaphors (…).’ (p. 46)

3. Reference to Armitt, in Theorising the Fantastic (pg. 1)

4. Reference to Todorov, in The Fantastic (p. 41)

5. Reference to Todorov, in The Fantastic (p. 47)

6. Reference to Todorov, in The Fantastic (p. 47)

7. Reference to Freud, in The Uncanny (p. 339)

8. Moorcock, in Wizardry & Wild Romance, says that ‘Epic fantasy can offer a world of metaphor in which to explore the rich, hidden territories deep within us.’ (p. 20)

9. Armitt, in Fantasy Fiction, argues that fantasy writing ‘projects us beyond the horizon on the level of content, creating what JRR Tolkien calls the ‘Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible (…).’ (p. 7)

10. Armitt, in Fantasy Fiction, explains how “(…) a fantasy narrative threatens infinity in the manner described by Stewart in On Longing: it conveys ‘a world not necessarily known through the senses, or lived experience.’ One supreme instance of this lies in the potency of legends and myths, the primary instance of which – at least in the Anglo-American tradition – are those relating to the tales of King Arthur.” (p. 8 )

11. Armitt, in Fantasy Fiction, shows that we can relate those tales to ourselves like “(….) Arthurian fantasy changes shape to accommodate its readers and, in addition, the societies they represent (…)” (p. 10)

12. Moorcock, in Wizardry & Wild Romance, explains that this theme is not only recurrent, but that authors often build in their stories an intimate relationship between humans and nature: ‘The inseparability between human beings and their myths is as constant a theme in epic fantasy as is our oneness with nature. Many of the writers emphasize the existence of a deep bond between humans and their world.’ (p. 65)

13. Moorcock, in Wizardry & Wild Romance (p. 66).

14. Stableford, in Opening Minds, Essays on Fantastic Literature, explains the idea of the ‘command of plausibility’:

Secondary worlds command plausibility because they can offer us landscape and politics which render incarnate key features of the Cartesian mind – the mind as it appears to the ‘mind’s eye’.

In summary, what I have tried to argue here is this: that plausibility is governed by the interpretation which are inbuilt into our ways of perceiving – inbuilt, that is into our sensory perceptions of the world without and our introspective perceptions of the world within.

When impossible things become plausible, it is because interpretations which cannot stand up to rigorous rational criticism continue to hold their dominion over the imagination, which they do because we have no resources to draw upon which would allow them to be place. (p. 97)

15. Reference to Armitt, in Fantasy Fiction (p. 7).

16. Reference to Tuttle’s ‘World Building’, in Writing fantasy and science fiction (p. 30).

17. Tuttle, in ‘Imaginary Worlds’, in Writing fantasy and science fiction, explains ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ as: ‘The reader knows it is not real, but agrees to accept the fiction. Not to believe it, but to refrain from disbelieving.’ (p. 33).

18. Tuttle, in ‘Discovering your fantasy world’, in Writing fantasy and science fiction , argues that ‘If it is to be understandable to anyone besides the author, the fantasy world must make some sort of sense. It must have an internal consistency. It must have rules.’ (p. 42).

19. Reference to Stableford, in Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction (p. 6-7).

20. Reference to Stableford, in Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction (p. 10).

21. Card, in How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy explains that when you create an inhabitant for a world, it is important to determine the reason for the existence of certain features, in evolutionary terms. He argues: ‘Not that you have to figure out the exact mechanism of evolution (…), but you have to think about why the alien’s unusual features would have survival value’ (p. 50).

22. Reference to Stableford, in Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction (p. 10).

23. Reference to Stableford, in Opening Minds, Essays on Fantastic Literature (p. 94).

24. Reference to Stableford, in Opening Minds, Essays on Fantastic Literature (p. 91).

25. Reference to Stableford, in Opening Minds, Essays on Fantastic Literature (p. 91).

26. Reference to Stableford, in Opening Minds, Essays on Fantastic Literature (p. 93).

27. Reference to Stableford, in Opening Minds, Essays on Fantastic Literature (p. 95).

28. Reference to Stableford, in Opening Minds, Essays on Fantastic Literature (p. 95-96).

29. Reference to Tuttle’s ‘Describing your World’, in Writing fantasy and science fiction (p. 45).

30. Reference to Tuttles’ ‘Describing your World’, in Writing fantasy and science fiction (p. 45).

31. Reference to Stableford, in Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction (p. 25).

32. Reference to Jones, in Deconstructing the Starships (p. 36).

33. Reference to Card, in How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (p. 52).

34. Reference to Card, in How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (p. 53).

35. Reference to Jones, in Deconstructing the Starships (p. 37).

36. ‘Michael Moorcok’s Multiverse’,

37. ‘Michael Moorcok’s Multiverse’,

38. ‘Michael Moorcok’s Multiverse’,

39. Manlove’s ‘J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) and The Lord of the Rings’, in Modern Fantasy Five Studies (p. 161).

40. Manlove’s ‘J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) and The Lord of the Rings’, in Modern Fantasy Five Studies (p. 161).

41. Manlove’s ‘J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) and The Lord of the Rings’, in Modern Fantasy Five Studies (p. 161).

42. Manlove’s ‘J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) and The Lord of the Rings’, in Modern Fantasy Five Studies (p. 166).

43. Lenz, in ‘Philip Pullman’, in Alternative Worlds in Fantasy Fiction (p. 127).

44. Lenz, in ‘Philip Pullman’, in Alternative Worlds in Fantasy Fiction (p. 129).

45. Lenz, in ‘Philip Pullman’, in Alternative Worlds in Fantasy Fiction (p. 127).

46. Lenz, in ‘Philip Pullman’, in Alternative Worlds in Fantasy Fiction (p. 157).


Armitt, L., Theorising the fantastic. Interrogating texts. (London, 1996).

Armitt, L., Fantasy fiction : an introduction. Genre series. (New York and London, 2005).

Card, O.C., How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy (Ohio, 2001).

Freud, S., “The ‘uncanny’”, in Art & Literature (Penguin, 1990) pp. 339-376

Hunt, P.; Milicent, L., ‘Philip Pullman’, in Alternative worlds in fantasy fiction. (London and New York, 2001).

Jones, G., ‘3: Dreamer: An Exercise in Extrapolation 1989-2019’, in Deconstructing the starships: science, fiction and reality. (Liverpool, 1999).

Le Guin, U., The language of the night : essays on fantasy and science fiction, edited and with introductions by Susan Wood. (New York, 1979).

Manlove, C., Modern fantasy: five studies. (Cambridge, 1975).

‘Michael Moorcok’s Multiverse’,

Stableford, B., ‘The Plausability of the Impossible’, in Opening minds: essays on fantastic literature (California, c1995).

Stableford, B., Writing fantasy & science fiction: and getting published. (London, 1997).

Todorov, T. The fantastic: a structural approach to a literary genre.(New York, 1975, c1973).

Tuttle, L., Writing fantasy and science fiction. Writing handbooks. (London, 2001).


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