Here be the dragons, here be the elves, here be the humans, here be the trolls. I get the basic, but I am torn apart:

How realistic does the fairy tale world have to be for average 12 year old reader?

Recently I did read a really great book "Dark Lord: The Teenage Years/ The Early Years" from Jamie Thomson and even when I am 34 years old, I totally enjoyed it.

But, the fairy tale world seemed to me totally unrealistic. The economy of such world seemed to me as not working ... and therefore lets rephrase the question:

What should I take in account when creating a world for a fairy tale story where intended reader is 12 year old (boy)?

And, what can I skip, knowing that only 30-something old people will nit-pick me about it?

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Skip or gloss over anything that seems like it could best be answered with the hard-science tag. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Sep 3, 2015 at 14:37
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Fairy tales focus on story, not realism. What needs to be realistic are people's reaction to situations, not the fact that dragons exist. Look at game of thrones. There is plenty to define it as a fairy tale, and yet the story works (though I'd leave out some parts considering your audience ;). $\endgroup$
    – Neil
    Sep 3, 2015 at 14:50
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Related, of course. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Sep 3, 2015 at 16:24
  • $\begingroup$ Give vague references in your story then ask StackExchange - how does the economy in Dark Lord work? $\endgroup$ Sep 3, 2015 at 18:28
  • $\begingroup$ @HannoverFist I dont care about economy in someone else's work. My question basically is: Should I care how economy works, when the story is intended for 12yo? $\endgroup$ Sep 3, 2015 at 18:30

7 Answers 7


When I was 12, I ignored the following (and I loved to read about the details of a world!):

  • The overall geography, beyond the parts that characters roamed.
  • Anything not on the planet, if the story take place on a planet (I wasn't too astronomically-minded then!).
  • Most of the science of the world - I didn't quite care about whether or not the biomes were in the right places, nor about the reproductive cycles of specific animals.
  • The languages spoken, beyond the language that the books was written in and the characters spoke (English, for me). A love of Tolkien came later.

I cared about:

  • The history of the various groups involved.
  • The trading of goods, although not the economy.
  • The culture of all the groups involved.
  • What the characters looked like, and their characteristics (e.g. What do the elves look like and behave?).
  • Maps of the places where the characters went.

Basically, I looked for the cultural things and the interactions between various people and groups, while I didn't pay attention to the science of the world. The progression of the story was more important to me than the justification for things working the way they did.


I think you're asking the wrong question

While I like @HDE226868's answer, I think you aren't approaching the problem from the right angle.

This problem isn't specific as you think it is, it's a much general problem: which parts of your story and of your world should be well-crafted, and which ones can you skip?

This problem happens in any work, for any target.

The richer, the better… but!

The richer is your setting, the better it will be perceived by everyone. This doesn't mean you must write about everything, this means YOU must know how everything works and why.

If you can, hint at everything, so that every reader of every age will realise you are not just throwing random numbers and stuff, and this will broaden your audience, and gather respect of anyone who notices (and they will be your most vocal supporters!).

What you have to decide, then, isn't if your world has to make sense in every aspect: it does have to. What you have to decide is which areas you should write about most.

A general outline

In case it wasn't clear, I didn't mean you must know everything in detail.

I mean that you must have a general outline about everything. You'll then add details were needed, of course.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The problem with a "the richer, the better" approach to worldbuilding is that you end up spending so much time building the world that you never (or very much belatedly) get around to actually telling a story. Which is usually the overarching goal for building the world in which to tell a story! Obviously, we prefer it here when people spend lots of time building the world, because it generates lots of traffic to and questions on our site, but like in software development, the most important feature is shipping. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Sep 5, 2015 at 14:01
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling I don't think the analogy with software fits. So… building a world is time consuming? Well, yes. Will people be able to tell the difference? Definitely yes! It's up to the author to decide if he wants to ship a quality product or not. This, however, doesn't mean he must know everything in detail, just that he must need to have a general outline of everything. $\endgroup$
    – o0'.
    Sep 5, 2015 at 14:06
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    $\begingroup$ Note that that comment was in response to your "the richer, the better". There exists a point of diminishing returns. Exactly where on a scale that point lies obviously depends on your focus, but if you just keep enriching the world you might never get to the point of telling the story. And telling a story, I think, is what we all aim to do. That story needs a world to take place in, hence worldbuilding, but if your worldbuilding efforts limit your ability to actually tell the story, then you are effectively working against yourself. In this case, "shipping" and "telling a story" are similar. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Sep 6, 2015 at 11:55

Fairy-tale worlds don't need very detailed as long as you address the kinds of things a 12 year old can comprehend. Priming yourself with research about development at age 12 will go a long way towards determining what to include or exclude from your story. That said, Making Money by Terry Pratchett is a completely whimsical book that taught me more about how money actually works than any economics book I've ever read.

Things 12 year olds understand

Children around age 12 can comprehend abstraction and formal systems. They are just on the cusp of becoming more independent. Friendships and social situations are really important to them. They won't understand complex systems

You can get away with a low fidelity world (because a 12 year old is unlikely to know enough to know better) but you may engage your readers more if you provide them with a high-fidelity (but low resolution) world. Emphasizing the aspects they understand while including aspects they may not get yet increases readability and may expand your readership to older readers who will understand more complex systems.

  • $\begingroup$ I think you're completely right about the part with the complexity. By doing this he might also interest 14 or 16 year old people and maybe the book isn't so boring for the parents who read them as bedtime story $\endgroup$
    – BlueWizard
    Sep 3, 2015 at 20:59

What I find important for creating lands like this is making it easy to understand the parts of the world that matter, and letting that slowly expand to a larger world.

As an adult, we know that things are tremendously interconnected in delicate balances. If we read a fairy tale book at an adult age, we can suspend our sense of disbelief if those balances "feel right." At 12, we already understand that delicate balances exist, but a larger portion of the world appears unbalanced because we simply do not have the experience to see where the balance is being made.

Accordingly, a good book for a 12 year old will get the kind of balances that 12 year olds deal with right. If there is sibling rivalry in the book, that has to be done "right." They don't mind so much if the international politics aren't quite right. A good fairy tale for a 12 year old should not depend upon the subtle details of such politics (unless that's your target demographic of reader, in which case, full steam ahead!)

A great book, for 12 or 34, is one which can portray its essential meaning to a 12 year old's mind, but hide just enough details in the wording that a 34 year old can reach out and piece together the world surrounding it. If done right, the 12 year old can learn from the book, while a 34 year old that read the book many times when they were 12 can still learn something about how society functions and how people function, even if the "core" message was learned years ago.

One visual metaphor I find successful: if I were to think of my story as a picture, the main points should be big color blocks. I don't want them to be missed. However, I want to make sure that, at all times, there are subtle nuances to the colors to suggest that, if one looks a little bit further, there's another layer to be explored, done with smaller and more subtle blocks. If, at any layer, I always feel like I have a complete message and simultaneously feel like there's more to be had if I were to dig at it, I find the book to be very successful.


Well considering that most 12 yo don't understand economics more than you need green to get what you want and "my parents can/won't let me get it!"

Generally if you have money you can buy what you want. Often it doesn't even need to make sense as to why one person has something for sale. Often for anything in a good YA story you only add the details you need to make the core story work. Often people don't even need to worry much about money, things just work, or someone has enough etc. It depends and what is important to the story for who much detail you need to put into it.

It's kind of like using the toilet, unless it's an important scene, there is a lot that is just assumed, with no details needed.

  • $\begingroup$ The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim is Fantasy even tho the traders are absolutely stupid. They buy your dragon bones, even tho they're not useful for anything but still very expensive. Also a fantasy economy might not need to work like ours. Shipping large amounts of oxygen thru the galaxy might sounds weird but can make lots of sense in a fantasy world you imagine $\endgroup$
    – BlueWizard
    Sep 3, 2015 at 20:56
  • $\begingroup$ @JonasDralle exactly, I was king of thinking about game economics too $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Sep 3, 2015 at 21:21
  • $\begingroup$ Also you can always count on people who are not rational. For example a golden throne isn't a very economic thing even tho everyone in your country / homeplanet knows that this golden throne means something. Or a skin of a rare animal, or anything else that could make a person inportant. Also there are collectors who want every kind of stone in their collection. These non-rational people fiddle with the system and make a non-perfect system justifiable $\endgroup$
    – BlueWizard
    Sep 3, 2015 at 21:25

I think readers are very forgiving as long as what you do include is justifiable and makes sense in your story. So if you are just at the planning stage then get your story together and let that help you decide what needs to be in or not.

Sorry if I sound bit simplistic but it seems to me that you're over-thinking this. Artemis Fowl/ Eoin Colfer deals with fairies in a very tech savvy way and while it isn't what I would chose to do it all makes sense in his world.

Don't underestimate your readers either. Likely they play on PS and PC and have wide-ranging interests. I know kids reading Terry Pratchett, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Narnia, Harry Potter. These are all successful because they don't talk down or dumb it down. Good luck!


I think this can be answered with reference to the canonical, best selling young adult fantasy novel series, Harry Potter, loved by 12 year old boys all over the world. In fact my son who is 9, has read the whole series twice, I had to put them away so he would read something else.

There is almost no aspect of the Harry Potter setting related in the books that is not immediately engaging to the young mind, both female and male and is instead superfluous. While some details included may not be entirely essential to the plot, I think this series demonstrates that a lovingly crafted, detailed world that is well aimed at its audience will, all else equal, beat a less detailed equivalent. This is not to say you cannot write a good fantasy story a 12 year old boy will appreciate in low-fi, but it probably won't be as good.

I believe that a key part of Harry Potters appeal to the young reader is the carefully developed relationship between the world of Muggles and Wizards. Every young body reading it is accordingly transported out of that actual muggle world he inhabits and the Wizarding world. The fact that Harry starts his journey in the Muggle world and regularly returns to it serves to anchor what is a highly fantastical setting to more mundane events which the 12 year old reader instinctively understands.

Another key element designed to draw in the young male reader is Harry's sporting activities in the highly dangerous sport of Quidditch.

Finally and most importantly the books carefully develop a series of antagonists which at the beginning of the series are basically schoolyard enemies/bullies and unpopular teachers, immediately recognisable figures of menace to any pre-pubescent child. The way these initially slightly menacing individuals grow into much more real threats throughout the series is very well accomplished.

So with reference to your setting, is there any reason a Fairy cannot use a mobile phone (at least when he or she is present in the mortal plane)? How has interaction with modern man changed the fairy world and economy. I suggest that if you develop a background for the fairy world as it was in the 15th century and then work out how it has co-evolved with the modern world, you can derive an interesting setting.

This is not to say your fairies need to employ technology, but they may have evolved to display certain similarities of culture or economic organisation to that which is familiar in the normal world today (could fairies develop a non technological version of social meida?).

However you do need to find some method of grounding your world on concepts and characters which have traits which are very familiar symbols to your target audience. The schoolyard enemies and friends, the mobile device/tablet and social media, parents and siblings, video games, school/lessons, holidays, figures of authority etc.

These symbols will become more effective where they are integrated carefully into the world building of your setting such that the more potent and recognisable or crucial to the plot the symbol/archetype employed is, the more you invest in the world building behind that aspect.


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