Fantasy Literature: The Scope of World-building

This is another post on world-building. I wish to explore in a little more detail what I mean by scope when it comes to fantasy literature. Basically, I want to draw the distinction between a fantasy world, a fantasy universe, and a fantasy cosmos.


A fantasy world is the smallest subset of the three. It’s basically a single world where action in a story takes place. Most fantasy novels use primarily one such world be it Krynn, Middle-Earth, or what-have-you. This is where the bulk of the action takes place. Battles are fought, lives are lost, and the course of history is determined within the confines of this single world. In other words, a fantasy world usually provides the setting for a piece of fantasy literature. But setting can only be understood relative to our own real world experiences. It is natural to picture a fantasy world much like Earth, just being one on which magic works (usually). Because of this, the question can be raised on how the world fits into the universe. Is it a planet, like Earth, orbiting a sun in a separate solar system? In fantasy literature this is only a minor consideration, because it is fantasy. I’ve read numerous books where there were suns, and moons, and stars surrounding the fantasy world in question. However, the structure of a fantasy universe need not parallel our own. For example, the world upon which the action takes place need not be spherical. It could be flat. Ships might sail to the ocean’s edge and fall off.  In such a case, perhaps the notion of “universe” loses its meaning. After all, if the world is flat, it just might extend to infinity and be its own self-contained universe. Regardless, it is difficult to understand how travel from one world to another world in such a universe might be possible. It seems to be the case that everything is geared to and focused on this one world, not its existence in a larger universe. Indeed, in this case, the universe as a whole is superfluous. Why, then, have a moon or stars or even a sun?


A similar issue concerns the cosmos. By cosmos I mean the totality of everything (by universe I just mean that which is contiguous in space) which would include planes like Heaven and Hell. So, perhaps the better term is multiverse. Anyway, one must take similar considerations when trying to place your fantasy world in a multiverse. How does it relate? What are the other planes that impact upon your world? Minimally, there is usually a paradise like Heaven, and a place of horror like Hell. The influence of these may be limited to shaping the religions of your world, or there could be more involved interactions. Perhaps demons or angels regularly visit your world and have machinations of dire import. Or perhaps they are not so awe-inspiring and are simply elves from a parallel fairyland. In any event, the choice is up to you, but structuring the relationship between world, universe, and multiverse is a critical step in world-building.

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