World-building for Fantasy Authors

Okay – so you’re going to write a fantasy novel set in a fantasy world. It could be an alternate version of our world [which is fine] but, more often, writers choose to set their story in a new world altogether — a world of their invention. It’s up to you which path you go down.

So, what’s the big deal about world-building? You just make it all up, right?

Well … ‘Yes’ … and ‘No’.

Yes, it’s up to you as the author to create the world for your story. But also, No, it’s not a simple exercise. It can, in fact, be quite complicated. And the level of complexity will depend, at least to some extent, on the type of story you are setting out to write.

One thing is for sure. If you just sit down to start writing without doing the world-building first, you will very quickly find yourself building your world anyway, probably before you get to the end of the first page, if not the first paragraph.

You might start with a character walking down a street, for example. What sort of street is it? Where is this street? Is it a modern, paved road, or cobblestone, or a dirt track? Do cars go by, or carts? How is he/she/it clothed? What colour is the sky?

The answers to all of these questions and more will be determined by the type of world your story is set in.

Let me use my current project as an example of how I go about this. I hasten to add — this is just an example, I am not saying this is how you should do it. I am merely using my own process to illustrate the types of questions you may need to address.

I am currently planning an epic fantasy story set in an entirely new fantasy world. At this stage, I expect it will be a trilogy, so the story will encompass a relatively large canvas.

I’ve thought through what I envisage as the primary plot line, who some of the central characters will be, etc. Now, before I get started, I am putting in some quality time on world-building.

That means building the world my story will be set in from the ground up.

Some writers do this as they go along. They admit that taking that approach often results in a fair bit of rework at various stages, having to go back and make changes so that the world their story takes place in maintains consistency, or coherence. For them, that is a small price to pay. Building it as they go suits the way they write and allows their creative juices to flow unimpeded. That is, of course, completely acceptable.

Whether you pre-plan or build it as you go is totally up to you. Do what works best for you.

There is one rule, however, that you must keep in mind. The setting for your story [in this case, the world in which it is set] plays a huge role in convincing your readers to embrace it, to accept it, to want to go along with your characters on the journey they are taking within it. Coherence is one of the most vital elements in this regard.

For your fantasy world to be believable, it must have coherence.

Sure, there are some stories that are set within worlds that have no coherence whatsoever. They are rarities. As a general rule, it takes exceptional writing skills to pull that sort of thing off. All credit to you if you can do that. If you have that level of skill, then stop reading this blog and get back to writing!

Back to my example, however. In what is probably a break with conventional wisdom, I started with a map. Actually, that’s not totally true, I started out by spending a fair bit of time just thinking about the sorts of elements I wanted in my world, and then I created a map.

Maps are a good way to start and whether they be hand drawn or something you build in Photoshop, it really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t have to be pretty. Prettying it up can come much later. Just be aware, it is going to change. In fact, a word of warning here.

Do not finalise your map until you are pretty sure your story is all but complete — and I don’t just mean after the first draft.

The final editing process may very well lead to changes to your storyline or, at the very least, changes in some of the names you have used for regions, places, towns, countries, or whatever. Leave yourself the flexibility to accommodate those changes. You don’t want to reject a very good suggestion for change simply because you’ve already paid someone to craft a beautiful map and you don’t want to spend yet more money making changes to it.

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So, what did I do when I sat down to draw an initial map? Did I just put down whatever popped into my head? No! I said earlier that before I drew a map I spent some time thinking about the elements I wanted in my story. Those elements informed the map that I drew. What were those elements? Well, here are a few of the things I wanted in my map:

  • at least one large continent, sufficient to hold several countries, at least, two of which were at war with each other,
  • some large islands, or secondary continents, which would allow for sea travel to feature in my story, and would also allow for traders, port cities, perhaps even pirates [of course, even with one large continent, trade and/or travel by sea is still viable, but probably by coastal vessels rather than ones capable of crossing seas or oceans],
  • scope for my story to expand into further parts of the world should I decide at any stage to write further novels set in this same world,
  • scope for there to be other continents which are yet to be discovered.

In other words, I had some sort of structure in my mind before I picked up a pencil and started drawing. And so draw I did. I had a few goes before I settled on a rough version of what felt right for my story. And then a curious thing started to happen.

The map started to inspire further ideas for my story — sub-plots, twist and variations. The physical aspects of the world began to inform the story, just as the story had informed the map.

Some people take exception to this. They say that ‘the world you create should serve the plot’, and not vice versa. While I think that’s generally true, your fantasy world is very much like a character. I would go further and say it is and should be one of the central characters in your story.

If you haven’t found this out already, you will when you start creating characters [more about this in coming blogs]: they have a nasty habit [actually it is a very good habit] of doing things you hadn’t originally intended, or expected, them to do.

Soon as you create a character and give him, her, or it, free will and individual characteristics, they have an alarming tendency to start acting in accordance with those characteristics. Very often that means they start doing things you hadn’t quite expected. The consequence is that your story begins to take some turns that you hadn’t expected. And so it is with the world you create.

Don’t be surprised if the world you create begins to inform your story. In my view it not only will, but it should.

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So, I had a map. Great! What next?

Slowly, I began to flesh out the other elements of my world — and believe me, there are a lot of factors to consider. And herein lies my next important warning [actually two warnings].

  1. Building a rich world can be a very good thing, and can be fun and extremely rewarding. It will help enormously once you start to write your story. But be careful. It is one thing for the world you create to inform your story. It’s another altogether for your story to become a slave to its setting. The story is the thing. Don’t let it become secondary to its setting.
  2. World-building can be intoxicating. While I would and do argue that there are some important elements you need to think through before you delve too far into your story, you can easily go too deep. If you’re still stuck in world-building six months on, you might have a problem. Maybe. Maybe not. If a year has gone by and you’re still stuck in world-building, and haven’t begun your story, then I think you really do have a problem. You have a choice then. Keep going with the world building if that is your thing and you are enjoying it. But if you want to get your story written, then at some point you will need to say to yourself: enough is enough. Let the rest be fleshed out as you go along. Don’t lose sight of the main game — writing your story.
I mentioned the other elements of world-building. What are they? Well, here are just a few:
  • The world itself: is it a planet or is it a flat world where you will fall of the edge if you sail too far from land? Is it a different planet to our own? Does it have moons and, if so, how many? How long is a day? How long is a year? Are there four seasons like we have on earth, or is it, for example, in perpetual winter, or summer?
  • Geography: the shape of the landmasses and their terrain — mountains, rivers, forests, deserts, lakes, swamps, bays, estuaries, etc. How much of the world is covered by sea and how much by land? Are there any islands and, if so, how many and of what shapes and sizes? Are there polar regions? How big is the place? Is there enough scope for any long journeys you may envisage occurring within your story, or have you narrowed the range by making it too small? Conversely, have you made it too big?
  • Climate: is this a tropical world, a temperate world, a desert world, an ice world, or does it have elements of all of these climates, much as our own world does?
  • Races: what sort of races exist in your world — humans, elves, dwarves, goblins, giants, hobbits? The potential list goes on and on. It’s up to you!
  • Animals and other creatures: what sort of animals exist in this world? Do they have fish, birds, horses, cows and the like, animals and creatures that we would be familiar with, or do they have more exotic creatures, or a mixture of both the familiar and the unfamiliar?
  • Time: how is time measured? Do they use seconds, minutes, hours, weeks, months and years as we do on our world? Do they use the same words for these ways of measuring time as we do?
  • Nations or countries: are there a number of countries with established, even if disputed, borders, or are there simply tribes with their own areas of influence, or some other configuration?
  • Governments: what sort of political structures exist in your world? Are there monarchies, dictatorships, theocracies, plutocracies, republics, democracies, anarchies, communist governments, or a mixture of some or all of the above?
  • Laws: who sets the rules and who enforces them? What sorts of sanctions might be imposed on law-breakers: fines, stoning, stocks, hanging, beheading, other?
  • Magic: does it exist and, if so, what sort of magic is it? Who can use magic? Are some people more adept at it than others — major magic users and minor magic users? What is the general attitude to magic? Is it commonplace, accepted, or something most people are wary of? Importantly, what rules or limitations are there to whatever magic is possible? What consequences are there for inappropriate use of magic? Are there guilds of magic users, schools for training, such as Hogwarts, or are magic users basically lone-wolfs?
  • Technology: is this a feudal world, a futuristic world, a post-apocalyptic world [which may have lost some elements of technology but retained others, creating a curious hybrid of the old and the new]? What weapons are available: swords, bows, spears, guns, cannons, catapults, other? What modes of travel are possible? Is riding horses the fastest way of getting around? What sort of architecture exists: walled cities, wooden houses, stone houses, straw houses, skyscrapers, huts?
  • Economy: How does the economy work? Is it feudal, capitalist, something else? Are there guilds, or large corporations? Do the rulers impose taxes? Does the church? What currency is used? Are there banks or do people hide their money under their beds or in holes in the ground?
  • Religion: what gods, if any, do they believe in? What are their creation beliefs? Do the gods, if they exist, play an active part in the world or are they simply entities people believe in? Are there organised religions, such as churches or sects, and, if so, how are they organised and what is the extent of their power or influence? Do they build churches, or temples, or shrines, or all of the above?
  • History and/or back-stories: What are some of the important events of the past? How did certain countries arrive at the state they are currently in?
  • Culture, customs, slang: What are some of the unique features of the various societies that exist? Are they open societies or closed in some way? Are they patriarchal, matriarchal, or egalitarian in nature? Are they mysogynistic?
  • Festivals, celebrations, holidays: are there any specific festivals or celebrations that occur? Do people work all week? Are there holidays?
You can see by the above list that world-building can be a bit daunting. It need not be. Go as deep or stay as shallow as you want to. Cover as many or as few of the above elements as you wish. Depth and comprehensiveness help build believability. But don’t overdo it.
Do your readers want to constantly struggle with a myriad of new terms for hours, minutes, days, months, miles, and so on? Too much complexity can make the story too dense, or can divert focus from the main game — the plot.
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Think a bit about how much we all need to understand how our world here on earth operates. Most of us live in democracies [so-called; I would argue that most of them are actually plutocracies, but that is another story] and capitalist economies. But how much detail of those systems do we really understand, or need to know, to go about our daily lives?
Importantly, you don’t have to spell it all out to your readers. Its primary purpose is to inform you of the type of world your characters are operating in, what constrains them, what governs some of their behaviours, why they don’t openly speak about certain things, why they pray every day to the Great Goddess, or not, and so on. Some of that you will want to spell out explicitly to your readers. Most of it should be left for the readers to derive for themselves, implicitly, from the actions and words of your characters.

NEXT WEEK: Creating and developing characters

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