Fantasy stories are often characterized by a wealth of detail about the worlds in which they take place. Worlds that develop the imagination of readers.

The fantasy re-enchants our world with the marvelous or, and this is what we most often remember, it offers another, a secondary world in the construction of which great care is taken. This worldbuilding concerns books and their appendices as well as films which must give a feeling of coherence and verisimilitude in their representation, and of course games, physical or digital, whose player characters react to the data of the world they browse.

Creators of worlds and myths

A fictional world is by definition incomplete because only the parts that are described are accessible to us, the rest remaining undetermined: we do not know the number of children of Lady Macbeth or the color of Madame Bovary's eyes. On the contrary, the genres of the imaginary and in particular fantasy will push the illusion of a complete world very far. It will seem so real to us, despite the wonders it contains, that we can imagine ourselves " walking " there: it is CS Lewis who gives this eulogy, about the Middle-earth of his friend JRR Tolkien.


This work of “cosmogony” can go as far as the invention of creation myths – in Tolkien ( The Silmarillion ) and Lewis ( The Magician's Nephew ). This makes authors Creators, or rather " sub-Creators ", according to Tolkien, eliciting " secondary belief " by proposing worlds " into which the mind can enter " ("From the fairy tale", Faërie). Such an ambition, a distant echo of a childhood practice (CS Lewis had thus conceived with his brother the little world of Boxen), irrigates in-depth the productions of fantasy and permeates the imagination of its readers, often invited to think of themselves as co-creators. They do not hesitate today to bring their stone to the building by distributing fan fiction or fan arts.

Worlds to map

From JRR Tolkien to George Martin, maps, chronologies, imaginary languages, and quotations from stories or myths internal to the fictional world has become obligatory stages in the construction of the imaginary world. Ed Eddison, one of the pioneers of the return of fantasy in the interwar period with his novels devoted to the universe of Zimiamvia, had not proposed a map in his Serpent Ouroboros (1922). But he had described the journey of his characters and the conflicts between Daemony and Sorcery in such detail that one reader, Gerald Hayes, was able to establish one, before being recruited as an official cartographer.

Gerald Ravenscourt Hayes Ballantine Books/Penguin Random House

More often than not, the process goes the other way, and the "form" of the world precedes its content. RE Howard, for example, first created his Hyborian Age, writing its history, maps, etc. He planned at the start to make it the place of reception of various adventures rather than only Conan, explains the specialist Patrice Louinet to us. For Tolkien, the starting point would have been the imaginary languages ​​that he had developed and for which he wanted to develop a framework where they could be put into a situation. Fantasy plots thus invite us to explore a world, which we often discover straight away in the form of one or more maps, true markers of the genre even if certain authors, such as the Frenchman Jean-Philippe Jaworski,

London, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1925

The characters undertake a journey, a quest, or an apprenticeship, which will take them to the depths of sprawling cities or to the four corners of the world, to discover diverse landscapes, to meet peoples and varied ways of life - such as elves, dwarves and other trolls popularized by median fantasy (“medieval fantasy” inspired by Tolkien and role-playing games).


People for magical worlds


In urban fantasy or steampunk, which favors urban and industrial settings, the plot takes the form of one or more investigations. But these still allow us access to the secondary world that we need to get to know better, for example via explanatory footnotes in Hervé Jubert's series devoted to Georges Beauregard's investigations (since 2012) or in episodes each time discovering a new creature, a " monster of the week ", in the first seasons of the television series Grimm (2011-2017). The investigation can also focus on the Origin of the world itself, on a memory to be rediscovered and transmitted, as in the cycle of La Passe-Miroirby Christelle Dabos (2013).

Gallimard Editions

<i>The Betrothed of Winter</i>, <i>La Passe-miroir</i> Volume 1, by Christelle Dabos, illustrated by Laurent Gapaillard (2013)

The Betrothed of Winter , La Passe-miroir Volume 1, by Christelle Dabos, illustrated by Laurent Gapaillard (2013)

Editions Gallimard Youth, 2013

The temptation to no longer just tell a story but to transcribe the data of the world in an encyclopedic form is a strong trend.

Worlds to document

Role-playing games, on tables and on computers, have systematized the principle of a course by offering us to embody a character who moves on a map (map) and will gradually "unblock" access to new spaces and new assignments. Such a structure becomes so associated with the fantasy that Terry Pratchett can amuse himself by presenting the Discworld through the eyes of a tourist ( The Eighth Color, the first volume of the cycle, 1983), while Diana Wynne Jones writes a guide "common places" of the genre modeled on existing tourist guides, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel(1996, rev. 2006). Thus, the temptation to not only tell a story but to transcribe the data of the world in an encyclopedic form is a strong trend in fantasy.

Agathe Editions

<i>The Tough Guide to Fantasyland</i>, by Diana Wynne Jones (2006)

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, by Diana Wynne Jones (2006)

Firebird 2006 & Penguin Random House

Umberto Eco theorized in Lector in Fabula (1979) that access to fiction had recourse to the reader's "encyclopedia" (the body of knowledge that he could request to fill in the blanks of the text). But in the genres of the imaginary, this encyclopedia of another world is partly to be built, and the authors do not hesitate to present this aspect of their work to us. To provide access to a long history, family trees, and alphabets, Tolkien had written hundreds of pages of appendices to The Lord of the Rings, and worked all his life to write, in multiple forms, the myths of the world of 'Arda. These were published in The Silmarillion, posthumously (1977), then in a more complete way and showing the genetic stratification, in the volumes of History of Middle-earth edited by Christopher Tolkien (1983-1996).

Infinitely expandable worlds

Similarly, many fantasy works include glossaries or lists of characters, and the most developed universes devote so-called "companion" works to them. Thus JK Rowling imagined the "Hogwarts Library" collection by offering its public access to the very books in question during Harry's schooling: Quidditch through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts (2001) then The Tales of Beedle the Bard (2007). That hasn't stopped fans from creating larger encyclopedic databases, like Steve VanderArk's famous Harry Potter Lexicon, whose print publication Rowling attacked to protect his own creation.


George Martin, he co-signs with the creators of the site the illustrated book devoted to the history of his Game of Thrones universe, the origins of the saga (2014), and in turn, launches into the chronicles stories from the distant past with Fire and Blood (2018). 


Finally, the publication of "beautiful books" makes it possible to highlight the work of worldbuilding by giving pride of place to illustrators and game creators - this is the case with art books with evocative titles such as The Art of World of Warcraft ( from 2005) or How to Art Dofus & Wakfu (Ankama, 2008).


Books, films, games ... multi-media worlds


The "Ouroboros" collection from Mnémos editions offers a wide range of possibilities for the book universe: collective ( Un a Dans les airs, 2013, Jadis, 2015) or singular ( L'étrange cabaret des féées désenchantées by Hélène Larbaigt, 2014); between exploring a genre with a powerful imagination, steampunk ( Memoirs of France steampunk, 2015, directed by Étienne Barillier and Arthur Morgan), guides to pre-existing worlds, in the form of games and/or books ( Abyme, the guide to the city of shadows after Mathieu Gaborit, 2009, Tschaï after Jack Vance, 2017,...), and unpublished universes mixing texts and images(Le Nordique, found chronicles of the last convoy of Olivier Enselme-Trichard, 2017,...).