World-building is an important part of any writer’s preparation, and the fantasy genre offers some wildly fun opportunities. There are no boundaries, the imagination is unleashed. The setting of the story can be as “fantastic” as the writer desires.
Just like developing characters, creating deep and complex worlds will only add to the realism and intensity of your story. Characters act and think not only within a physical world, but within the context of history and culture. Just as with character, not every detail of the world you create will end up in print, but it will all impact the characters, their choices and the action.
Your world may be a sewer system, medieval village or glass city. It may be a spaceship or an entire planet. No setting is too small for some pondering. I particularly enjoy worlds where there are multiple cultures. They offer an opportunity to create histories from varying perspectives, different customs and values, governments, religions, economies, geography and weather.
Then, I throw my characters in there and see what happens!
Well, that isn’t exactly true. My story outline should be in control. But it is amazing how your setting will impact the shape of your story and the lives of your characters. In the process of developing your world, scenes will pop into your head and the outline will morph and pick up details. Some of your characters will change or deepen. Conversations may start pinging between your ears. Go back and tweak your characters’ biographies. Let the creative juices flow.
These are the topics I explore for each island in my sea, realm in my kingdom, planet in my universe.
The Natural World
When creating the natural world, consider the geography and climate. Is the region arid or swampy, mountainous or nestled by the sea, grassland or forest. Is the soil arable? Is there fresh water? Are the mountains volcanic? Is the bog poisonous? Make decisions about climate including weather, seasons and temperature.
You may have days longer than 24 hours, worlds without seasons, worlds that lie in the depths of the oceans, under rocks, or in trees. Your world may exist only in dreams, suffer or thrive under the influence of magic.
The natural world also includes plants and animals. Consider whether you want to use Earth plants and animals by name, create your own, or use a combination. If you decide to whip up your own, or rename Earth’s species, make a spread sheet to keep track!
Robert Jordan goes back about 3000 years. I rarely venture that far into history, but going back 300 to 1000 years isn’t uncommon, particularly if there’s been ongoing tension between peoples or a common past that has splintered. If you look at our current “real” world, ancient history still has a huge impact on identity and choices.
In the distant past, your history simply outlines major events. As the timeline moves closer to the present story, the level of details increases and the gaps between events decrease. Consequential events may happen daily in the last months or weeks before your book actually begins.
Even a gang has a government. Someone is in charge and calling the shots. There are established rules or laws that arise out of their history. Governments reward and punish and aren’t always fair about it. A leader’s personality plays a large role in how a government functions and is perceived. The options are here are endless. Consider that the larger your world grows, the more governments you will encounter and greater levels of leadership will be required.
In developing characters, livelihood is one consideration. But communities, from villages to nations, have unique economies. Sometimes they are self-contained, but often there is trading or raiding caused by an imbalance of resources. As you think about the different parts of your world or the groups that inhabit them, consider their resources, strengths and skills. Perhaps one area is rich in natural resources–timber or minerals or arable land. Perhaps another is a center of arts and learning; perhaps a third is the military or governmental hub of a nation.
Very few Earth economies work for everyone. There are the powerful and the powerless and all the classes in between. Economic imbalances often feed or arise out of social imbalances embedded in history. The people of your world may also have different views about economic success. To some, food and shelter may be extent of their economic efforts since other values take precedence. To others, the amassing of wealth may be their only objective.
Technology is a fun place to play because so much of what we Earthlings do with technology is taken for granted. We flip the switch, open the refrigerator, turn on the stove or faucet, flush the toilet, put our trash out at the corner. If you are creating a world with less technology, you may need to consider such things as lighting, cooking, food preservation and fresh water sources. It can get a bit complicated and require a little research from those survivalist websites!
More technology? Sci-fi writers often amaze me with their imaginations, knowledge, and detail. They can make unfamiliar technology so real that I wonder whether I’m simply out of the loop. I am not a science-fiction writer so I won’t pretend to guide you in this direction, other than to reinforce the advice of the experts–research!
If you include magic (or powers) in your story, clearly define the rules. If your magic system works for any and every problem your characters encounter, it’s going to be a very short story. So think about the rules–what your magic system can and can’t do. A great magic system can’t do everything and sometimes it can work against the protagonist’s interests.
Consider that a narrow magic ability will give the character some assistance, but won’t handle every obstacle. A broad, powerful ability should likely have some drawbacks, so there are great benefits, but also great risks associated with its use. Consider that different characters may have different abilities that go well (or not so well) with their personalities.
Then stick to the rules you’ve created.
Religion/spirituality may not be a factor at all or may be an overwhelming influence in fantasy world(s). As on Earth, religion can be a major source of support, unification or conflict. The amount of exploration and planning required in this area is directly related to the role religion will play in your book. Like magic, religion is only limited by your imagination and like magic, religion has rules. Here are just a few things to consider when designing a religion(s):
Monotheistic or polytheistic? If there is more than one god, what are their areas of control and is there a power hierarchy? If the gods are beings versus forces, define them as you would a character.
How much can they actually control events? Can they be foiled or resisted? Do they appear in the physical world, or in visions, or as voices? Can they manifest solid objects (like a sword or crown)? Is the god the source of magic?
Who has access to the gods–anyone, the chosen, or only holy orders? Do people in power invoke god’s will for their own purposes? Is the religion sprinkled with true believers, zealots, doubters, and deniers?
Like government, religion has a history. It may have emerged through an inspired event or grown organically over time. Most religions have a creed, a core set of principles that guide the faithful. I would strongly suggest writing this out. If there are any prophesies, document those as well.
Not only do characters have different values and aspirations, but cultures do. Do the people in your story aspire to conquer the world or live in peace? What is their view of violence? Do they value generosity above wealth? Think about the cultural values related to children, family, community, work, war, education, and, yes, sex.
Is education valued and who has access? Is it limited to trades and skills or is advanced learning available (including training in magic)? Is it expected or a privilege? Are both men and women educated?
Gender roles/family structure
Variations in gender roles and family structure are connected to cultural values. Think about how power is divvied up between the sexes, within and without the family. What responsibilities fall to the men versus the women within the home, community and nation?
Physical characteristics of the people
Nations, regions or races of people sometimes share some common features that are distinguishable from others. A common or overlapping history will reduce the differences, where isolation will increase them. Facial features, hair color, skin color, and height differences may characterize different peoples.
Style is another fun place to play when creating different peoples, realms or planets. Do the men wear their hair long and women shave their heads? Do men and women paint their faces? Do they adorn their bodies? What does their clothing look like, assuming they wear clothing? Does style vary by class, by nation, by climate? The options here are endless.
This step is particularly important when thinking about non-man people (elves for example).
Tied to cultural and physical variations in people there may also be language differences. Some nations or planets may have more than one language that you can demonstrate by having different names for common items, or different clichés or phrases used in conversation. Creating your own language or way of structuring a sentence is fun. A little is all it takes to create richness here.
Buildings and Communities
Think about the typical home, quarters or city. Are homes small or large, low and rambling or tall and teetering, collectives or caves? Think outside the box in the details. Do cities have moats and courtyards, gibbets in their gardens, crumbling towers, painted domes or glass spires? Do they have roads or paths or is transportation all by boat through a maze of canals?
Creating a Map
Create a map, at the very least a scribble for your reference. If I was writing a story on a space ship, I would make a plan of the inside of the ship. It helps me with directions and distances, the sights a character might see when walking or traveling from one place to another. For larger territories, a map is essential for locating population centers, mountains and water sources, borders and distances.
There’s more than the above of course, but you get the idea. The point is to create a rich and unique world as a backdrop to your story. This is part of the fun of writing fantasy.