top of page

Fantasy Worldbuilding Survey Results (pt 2)

This is a continuation of my last post on worldbuilding survey results. As I said last time, the respondents mostly came from /r/worldbulding, /r/fantasy, Facebook, Twitter, and some Slack and Discord channels. There were ~400 respondents, and here are their results.

What Other Genres Depend on Worldbuilding?

This one threw a wrench into one of my theories as well since I made a point to only discuss fantasy, science fiction, horror, and historical fiction when divvying up speculative fiction. I didn’t really consider alternate history, which made me have to do some last minute changes to the and redo a Venn-diagram (dystopian/ utopian are folded into science fiction in my telling).

Not really much surprise here that the speculative fictions take the top spots, with only magical realism (which I consider literary fiction) garnering anything close to 50%. I would have expected Western to do better, considering it’s named after a region, but there you go.

Top Ways to Break Immersion

This another one I wish I had added one more option to about face validity, but alas and alack. As you can see, Internal Inconsistency (76%) takes the top spot by a wide margin. An Unexplained Concept That Affects the Plot (58%) versus A Concept that DOESN’T Affect the Plot (12%) bodes well for Wolf’s belief that people dislike inconsistencies and unexplained ideas the more they affect the plot. Aggregate Inconsistencies (53%) are those that accrue over the course of a long series and is a fancy way of saying when details in one book don’t match up with details in a subsequent book.

Incorrect Terminology in a Subject You're an Expert On (48%) harkens back to the concept of reality incursions, which are when one’s knowledge of the outside world disrupts the experience of the fantasy world. This usually occurs in subjects the audience considers themselves experts on, and is a difficult hurdle for the author to overcome. So it’s telling that it fits right next to Technobabble (36%), which is when an author tries to bluff their way through proving their knowledge of something.

Anachronisms make up the next several spots, and I was shocked to see how lowly they rated. They’re certainly not insignificant, but it does run counter to a lot of authors’ driving themselves crazy trying to get a 100% authentic representation of the analogue culture and time period. Apparently audiences don’t really mind that much when we break from reality (although remember that they most often use their knowledge of history to assess fantasy worldbuilding).

Qualities of an Elf

I’m particularly proud of this one and the next two. When working on the book I was having a hard time how to define tropes. I mean, we all think we know what an elf/ vampire/ dragon is when we see them, but there’s a lot of variance in how they’re portrayed. You know, because they’re not real. So how do you come to an agreement on how you define what doesn’t exist?

After much brainstorming based on a half-remembered concept of what makes a bird that I think came from Plato but still can’t verify, I decided to start chopping parts off of the trope to see if people could still identify it. I hemmed and hawed about this decision for a long time until I spoke to a friend of mine to find out what this chopping away process was called. She said it was abstraction and exactly what I should use. I then went home and looked up abstraction and learned that it’s what they use in philosophy to define tropes. Which makes me proud that I stumbled upon this correctly answer blindly. And probably backwards.

At any rate, I asked folks what they could remove and still consider something an elf. The majority of people (93%) agreed that things like Hatred of Dwarves could be stricken, whereas most folks (19%) said they wouldn’t identify something as an elf if it did not have Pointed Ears. These qualities with the smallest numbers were the parts of the trope people couldn’t bear to lose, which made them the most important. But because low numbers being the defining qualities is a little confusing, I opted to make them positives by subtracting their results from 100, e.g. 19% people couldn’t identify an elf without pointy ears becomes 81% believe an elf requires pointy ears.

Hope that makes sense.

The two main qualities of an elf seem to be those Pointed Ears (81%) and their Long Life Spans (76%), with Dexterous (62%), Connection to Nature (60%) and Affinity With Magic (60%) all pretty much tied for second place.

Nothing else broke 50%, even though they’re some heavily trafficked tropes like Archery (28%), Haughty Attitude (27%), and Hatred of Dwarves (7%). This fills me with optimism that audiences aren’t nearly as tied to tropes as authors think they are, and we have a lot more leeway to play with these conventions than we think.

I’m not going to lie: This one shocked me. I always thought the defining characteristic of dragons was their ability to breathe fire, but it didn’t even crack 50%. Which should go to show that your personal conceptions of tropes may bear no resemblance to the general populous’.

People really agree with the Reptilian (89%) depiction, with that coming in first, followed by Scales (86%), Lays Eggs (62%) and Has Legs (58%). Has Wings (69%) is the only non-reptilian quality that even breaks 50%.

I mean, I can agree with most of the stuff on the bottom of the list, like Can Shapeshift (9%) or Hoards Gold or Magic (24%), but the fact that Breaths Fire is only (47%) will haunt me until my grave. How could I have been so wrong?

Qualities of a Vampire

This one holds a particular place in my heart due to a movie pitch that went wrong many years ago. Needless to say, people believe Drinks Blood (95%) is the number one quality a vampire should possess. However, as I discuss on the evolution of tropes in the book, Dracula, the progenitor of most vampire myths in the west, DOES NOT have fangs in the book, despite Possesses Fangs (81%) being the second quality expected by audiences when encountering vampires. Dracula could also walk around in the daylight despite 58% people thinking vampires are destroyed by that, while he was allergic to garlic, despite only 26% people thinking that to be a core component of a vampire.

Which is the long way of saying you have a lot more play in using vampire mythos in your works than you might have thought you did.

Favorite Ancillary Inclusions

A lot goes into making a world. So much so that authors often suffer from what Wolf calls the encyclopedic impulse, which is basically the desire to include EVERYTHING about the world. We creators love our world so much we’re constantly throwing ancillary material at the audience, which probably dates back to Tolkien (as most things do in modern fantasy) with his maps, myths, and completed languages. But it turns out audiences aren’t as amenable to all these inclusions as we are about foisting them upon them.

I figured Maps (77%) would be the number one choice, and for a long while they were, but in the last week Myths (78%) pulled head to take the top spot. They're separated by less than 1% when you account for rounding, so they're pretty much tied. And both give the sense that the world is complete in that it extends outward from the story in terms of space (maps) or temporally (myths). Both give the sense that the world exists before and after the present story takes place, which tie into one of the four Cs of worldbuilding I explore in my book (which is based on the observations of Mark J. P. Wolf).

That Flavor Texts/ Quotes (59%) is the only other ancillary that cracks 50% should be telling. And, as one person pointed out on /r/worldbuilding, it’s a low effort inclusion on the creator’s part, making it a pretty good investment. Much better than, say a whole collection of short stories set within the world. Or time-intensive Lexicons (23%), which not many people care for.

Which is to say, I wish I knew a lot of this before I put in so much effort into some of these inclusions. Although I will say I was speaking to a very successful author who stated he includes short stories about the characters at the end of all his novels, and his audience eats them up. So never let it be said that there’s exactly one way to do something.

Anyways, I hope you enjoyed. If you have any questions about my methodology (or lack thereof), let me know and I’ll be happy to answer.


Author Image.jpg

MD Presley is a screenwriter, blogger and occasional novelist… which basically means he’s a layabout.  He has written two books on fantasy worldbuilding, and teaches worldbuilding techniques, tricks, and tips at Forging Fantasy Realms once a week on YouTube. 

bottom of page