The obsession with world building probably really started with Tolkein. With a rich history, individual languages and a carefully mapped out and thought through geography, the Lord of the Rings series was a great success that will spawn fans for generations to come. Writers who wish to create their own fantasy realm often strive for the success which Tolkein enjoys, and by doing so they try too hard, falter and end up in some way reverting back to the world they know. Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, and Hunger Games, to name a few of the popular series of the 21st century, are all linked in some way to our own world – one we can experience: Game of Thrones, medieval Europe; Harry Potter and Hunger Games, our modern world. Few writers anymore seem to take the plunge and design their whole world from scratch. It can be a terrifying prospect after all, especially given that the bar is so high. Or at least it seem’s it.
The world in Lord of the Rings is not good because it is complicated. It is good because it appears natural and believable, at least as much as a fantasy world can be. Writers need to stop seeing world building as a daunting task – it is the best bit. This is the part where you can play God. Do you want red skies and green rivers? You go ahead. Do you want plants to eat humans? You go ahead. Do humans even inhabit your earth?
I’ve been building Sheinara for many years now (Sheinara of course is the kingdom in which Scarlet’s story is set), which is based in a whole new world. As I have got older my ideas for the world have matured and changed which yours will too as you write. Planning your world does not mean you have to rigidly stick to the design, but planning is where I would suggest starting. If anything, it will give your stories a much richer texture and more to talk about. Here are some areas to consider when world-building that many over look:
Firstly, how the hell is your world run? Are there democracies or monarchies or communist states going on? Is it a mix, or do all countries appear to have a similar system in places? I say ‘appear’ because it may always look like a country is ruled by a monarch for instance, but there are varying degrees of power that monarch might be able to exercise etc. When thinking of your style of rule you need to think of the impact on your country that would have – dictatorships are going to be harsher just by nature, there might be revolutions brewing because of that, or perhaps people are enchanted with it because it is new. If there is a sole ruler remember it is IMPOSSIBLE for anyone one man or woman to run a country on their own – there will always be ministers or nobles or general helpers who keep order. Think of the different branches that might be involved in keeping your government stable. Even if your story has nothing to do with it, it will indirectly affect your characters in the background through taxes, or the police etc.
For the love of God do not have everyone believing in the same damn thing. If you are going to have different races in your world, which you should, there are going to be different belief systems. There might be one God, multiple Gods, no Gods – anything. Even if you wish for there to be a pantheon – like which exists in Sheinara – not every village is going to like the same Gods – some towns will value one over the other, some will be feared, some loved, some hardly talked about, depending on where your character goes. They may even be hated for it. Spartans often went to war with Athens simply because the Gods they had chosen were opposites and in mythology fought regularly. Also you may want to think about whether these Gods are ‘real’ – do they walk among your people at times? This is entirely possible in your world. Beings that were seen as ‘gods’ in Sheinara for example did once upon a time visit the world they live in, but they moved on to their own world when they got bored. So they are actually another race entirely and the reader knows that, but to the people of Sheinara they are ‘God’ – for they gave them life. This is okay too!
It is always good to get a rough idea of what your world looks like – it could be spaced out over one land mass (our Earth started off all joined together remember!) – or it could be separated by vast oceans or land bridges. There will be mountains and deserts and forests no doubt in different parts of your world. Think of the temperature. There is a cool feature Google now provides where you can create your own map and add in mountains, rivers, etc and maps will show you what these effects will have on your land and therefore the types of people who live there.
Which of course brings us on to race. DO NOT HAVE JUST ONE RACE. The amount of manuscripts I have read or online series where people have reduced their world to one singular species is actually painful. I am not quite sure where this idea has come from that a vast world will only produce one type of people. By having a varied geography, you are going to have different races. For instance – if your world has any variation in heat there will be different skin tones at least. Different languages because they are separated. It makes absolutely NO SENSE when a guy investigating a new world that has never been discovered can understand the natives and have the native’s look and act the same. Please don’t be one of those guys. You’re writing a fantasy – for all we care your guys could be purple or blue. Just vary it. For each race remember they will probably have their own belief system, language, culture, government, history – unless they are closely linked to the main country you are focusing on somehow. Even then there should be variations!
This seem’s like a really obvious one but there have been countless online stories and series’ where the history has clearly not been thought through. We don’t need the history on every other page like in Tolkein’s work – it was one of the most challenging aspects of reading his books for me – but it should be alluded to. Robin Hobb’s books are a great way to see the subtle ways history can be woven into a story so it is not shoved down the readers through but at the same time after finishing the novel they realise they have a surprisingly good understanding on how the characters ended up in the situations they did. In Sheinara, most of the history is told in visions or dropped into conversations so the history is built up into a reader’s mind over time. It is also a good way to keep a reader wanting more. Come on, who else is dying to really know more of the history in Game of Thrones? What exactly HAPPENED between Lyanna and Rhaegar?!
I’ve mentioned races but animals are one that can often be disappointing in a story too. Don’t be afraid to make up your own little creatures for your new world – and think of their relationship to other races of being. Are they Gods? Can they communicate in a way that is understood by other races? Are they just beasts and mindless? Magical, normal? I am so bored of fantasy worlds with just horses in it – where are the damn unicorns?! Animals are such a fun thing and I have so many favourites in Sheinara I hope will be loved too. I think one of the best inspirations for coming up with new species is J. K’s Fantastical Beasts and Where to Find Them. Draw on mythology and legends – checking our medieval beasteries are a good shout too. So many weird and wonderful animals we’ve all forgotten about.
Technology and Magic:
The two are not mutually exclusive. I had a really fun seminar where we were discussing the boundaries between technology and magic – for example would you say broomsticks in Harry Potter were a piece of technology or simple a bit of magic? I opted for the idea that magic was in a sense our science and thus as a product of such, the broomstick would be a piece of technology made with science/magic. You can choose just to have one of the other – a lot of fantasy worlds will appear more medieval because they have magic and therefore may not need fancy trains or rockets and such – especially if the races can fly. I would think carefully about how you are going to justify either system and how exactly they are going to fit into your world. Good books do not just release all types of magic into their world and offer no explanation or restrictions – that gets boring. Perhaps certain races can only do magic and others rely on technology like my world? It will not only shape your characters and plot, but also the geography of the land so it is a good thing to bear in mind.
There are plenty of other things I could talk about but these are the major areas I would start with to begin your world building. At a later date I will post a refined world building post about the more nitty-gritty ideas that make a world what it is. For now, I hope I have wet your appetite for world building and that you are ready to begin playing God.
Happy writing, ink-slingers!