Spoiler Alert: I'm using JK Rowling's Harry Potter series as an example of a great work of fantasy. If your haven't read the books, there are major spoilers ahead!
One of my favorite parts of reading fantasy is slowly discovering the world of the book. Sinking into a well-crafted world is the ultimate escape, and it adds tension and mystery to the story, keeping me guessing about what new aspect of the fictional universe I’ll discover next. That’s why I think measured world-building—in any kind of novel—is so important. How the secrets of the setting are revealed is just as important as what they are, and from what I can tell, there are three ways to build a fictional world: just do it, hint at the secrets and then fill in the gaps, or add complexity to previously-revealed details.
The easiest way to build a world is to just throw stuff out there. J.K. Rowling does this with prophecies in The Order of the Phoenix. Before the showdown in the Department of Mysteries, we don’t have much reason to suspect that prophecies exist. Divination class is ridiculed by Harry and his friends, and the death omen Harry sees in The Prisoner of Azkaban turns out to be his godfather checking up on him. All in all, omens and future-telling seem to be bogus, so when the existence of prophecies pops up on page 782, we’re just as surprised as the characters are. The prophecies are a big deal, but I think this method actually works better with small stuff, things that add texture without impacting the plot overmuch.
Of course, there are ways to hint at important information before revealing it, and this sort of “filling in the gaps” method of world-building can be very satisfying from the reader’s perspective. We still get that delicious thrill of finding out something new, but because the author has been hinting at it, making a space for it, the reveal seems natural, almost inevitable. Rowling does this sort of world-building with Horcruxes.
We know from Harry’s conversation with Hagrid in The Sorcerer’s Stone that Voldemort wasn’t killed by his rebounding curse, even though he should have been. Hagrid says, “Dunno if he had enough human left in him to die.”* Throughout the series, this ability of Voldemort to escape death is repeatedly alluded to. Dumbledore says that Voldemort is not truly alive, and therefore cannot be killed.** Voldemort himself refers to the steps he took to “guard [him]self against mortal death.”*** So, when we finally learn what a Horcrux is, it’s both surprising and not surprising at all. We knew all along that something like this must exist, but there’s a lot of satisfaction in finally learning what it is.
A much more difficult but highly satisfying way to build a world is to introduce a detail or aspect early on, and then have that aspect of the world build in complexity and importance as the story progresses. Harry’s ability to speak Parseltongue is a fantastic example of this. It’s the first magical ability we see Harry display, in Chapter 2 of The Sorcerer’s Stone. At the zoo with his loathsome cousin, Harry talks to a python. Rowling could have chosen anther way to introduce Harry’s magical abilities, but that fact that she chose Parseltongue is genius.
Harry’s ability to speak Parseltongue isn’t just a fun, texturizing detail. It’s crucial. He uses it again to uncover the Chamber of Secrets in book two, and at the end of that book, we learn that it is the result of Harry’s connection to Voldemort. This connection takes on even more significance in The Order of the Phoenix, when Harry finds he is able to spy on Voldemort through the link. In the final book, Harry uses Parseltongue to open and destroy the locket Horcrux, and he uses his window into Voldemort’s mind to find the remaining Horcruxes. Something we starting out thinking was a funny magical talent turns out to be the result of a complex and dangerous magical connection, one that has huge implications for Harry’s ability to triumph. A simple detail becomes more and more complicated—and important—as the narrative unfolds.
So, there they are, my three Ways of Worldbuilding: Just Do It, Build in Hints, and Build in Complexity. What are your favorite ways to learn about a new world in a novel?
* Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, p. 57
** Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, p. 298
*** Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, p. 648