Ah, yes, the ultimate challenge of the fantasy author. The Moby Dick to our Captain Ahab: Worldbuilding.
I will preface this post by saying that I am no professional, and can by no means solve all of your creative woes. I do, however, consider myself exceptional at Worldbuilding above all else in my writing. At the end of this post, I will reveal my biggest Worldbuilding secret, and even share it with you!
In this post, if I can help your Worldbuilding strategies by even a minuscule margin, I will consider that a success. I am going to be focusing mainly on creating imaginary worlds, or worlds completely separate from our own. This is different from altering our current reality, a technique most popular with science fiction.
So, let's break it down:
What is Worldbuilding?
Worldbuilding is exactly as it sounds: creating a world. This world is where your story will take place. It is where your characters live. Not only that, but it is where your character's parents lived, and their parents, and their parents.
This world is all your characters know. It may have different animals, different gods, and even completely different physics from our world. It has its own history, its own trade routes, its own crops, its own laws. It exists as a completely separate entity from your story, and this concept is often forgotten by authors.
Worldbuilding is absolutely essential to writing fantasy, and should be carefully thought out and crafted before publication. Personally, I prefer to do most of my Worldbuilding before I even start writing. I focus intently on the setting that my characters start from, and work from there, with increasing depth depending on where they spend most of their time.
This list you are about to read does not include all of the necessary components of good Worldbuilding, but it does contain the most important and oft forgotten:
1. What does it look like? That is, what are the physical components of your world. What does it feel like? Is it hot? Is it cold? This should depend on the physics of your reality, and the location the characters find themselves in. What does it smell like? Even these smallest details can become the most memorable to the reader.
Are there trees? Are there deserts? Mountains? Rivers? Where do these things start and end? How do the general public react to these landmarks? How do these natural features affect their clothing? Their mood? Their food?
2. The people. What do they look like? What do they wear? What do they eat? What god(s) do they believe in, if at all? The people outside of the main characters are often forgotten in fantasy. Some writers fail to realize that those characters lead just as rich and full of lives as the main characters do. They have feelings, families, and favorites.
Is there racism? Sexism? What are hot topics/argument points? What are people passionate about? What gets them fired up? Are there unspeakable things, where the mere mention of them might get you thrown out of a bar? Are there cute animals that everyone loves and keeps as pets? Are there well-known pests that cause problems for local businesses? Are there terrible monsters that cause even bigger problems for the entire town?
Each person you create should have, at the very least, a small backstory, a family (and each member of their family should have a job/role in town), and a unique personality, perhaps influenced by their backstory. Their personality should be taken into consideration whenever they speak or react to anything. Make sure they have a name. Make sure their family has a name. Doing this opens doors for you to integrate that realism even more, especially if your fantasy story primarily takes place in the same city or town. You want these people to feel as real as possible.
3. The government. This is probably the most omitted Worldbuilding concept that I've seen in fantasy, and it makes the difference between a good fantasy story, and a great one. Who makes the laws? Who decided that they make the laws? Who enforces the laws? What are the laws? Why do these laws exist? How do people feel about the laws?
Also, remember that if you have multiple races/factions of people in your story, they may have their own entirely separate systems of government. In the Far Land, the Echoes of Ashes universe, there are several different governments that exist, as well as a council of representatives from different races that keep the peace between them. Humans also have their own, separate monarchy, which has its own laws and rulers and enforcers. However, they still have a voice in the council, to keep peace between their kingdom and the other races.
4. The history. This world didn't just spawn overnight, with your characters at their current ages, doing their thing. No, your world has (potentially) existed for millennia. What important events happened 10 years ago? 50 years ago? 200 years ago? 1000 years ago? These events should shape the way society interacts in the present.
Were there wars? Treaties? Horrific natural disasters? Are there legendary heroes? Ancient gods? Unmentionable evil? Was there a plague? How did these events shape the laws, territories, even interactions in your world?
5. The religion. This is so often overlooked. I see fantasy stories all the time where everyone believes the same thing. Everyone agrees about creation and the afterlife and there's no dispute. And, while there may be a few stories in which that mentality is necessary or works out, often it is unrealistic, and shows a clear lack of Worldbuilding.
If you have different races, remember that they likely have different gods, representing different important traits in their society. What types of gods are there? What do they represent? How do they interact? Where did they come from?
How do people feel about the gods? Are they generally respected, or disliked? Is everyone a believer? What kinds of arguments could people have about the different gods? Are there churches? Priests? Cults?
So you've done all that stuff up there. Great! But, have you committed any of the cardinal sins of Worldbuilding? Let's take a look...
1. Forgetting context. Many people can have a perfect world created but still forget about the current events. Why are certain events taking place in your world now? Why are your characters reacting the way they are? What is the new and happening gossip that everyone knows about? And finally, how does this effect the plot, even if it's minor? Your characters, living in this world, would be generally aware of these things, and it would at the very least effect their dialogue.
2. Forgetting societies basics. For every king or guard or merchant, there's a janitor, laborer, farmer, and homeless dude who often goes without mentioning. Society needs all kinds of people to function, and these mere peasants can often provide more substance to your story than even the king.
Also, remember infrastructure. How do people use the bathroom in medieval times? How are they getting water and food to their houses? How do the trade routes function, and who monitors them?
What are people doing for fun? What is the most common job in your society? Second most common job? Third? These things are all important, and even if they don't come up in your book, they still give you a basis off which to work.
3. How magic/technology effects the world. If you create a magic system in your book, you cannot ignore it when Worldbuilding. Depending on how it is used, how would it effect every day life? Do regular people use magic? How is magic used in entertainment? How is magic used in warfare?
How is magic used at work? Would a blacksmith use magic to keep his fire hotter than it normally could burn? Would a tailor use magic to bind cloth together instead of thread? These considerations are so often left out of books with magic or advanced technology.
Some Map Building Tips:
1. Large mountains rarely occur on their own, and are most commonly found in ranges. Mountain ranges are where two fault lines met once-upon-a-time. Keep this in mind if deciding where an earthquake might strike next.
2. Rivers flow from areas of high elevation to areas of low elevation. Mountains are often the source of rivers, the water forming from melted snow and ice. Rivers can also come from underground water sources. They flow into other rivers, or large bodies of water, including lakes.
3. Forests can occur almost anywhere that there is significant water and sunlight. Remember that the types of trees should correspond with the environment they grow in.
4. Rivers get wider as they reach their end, be it at an ocean or lake.
5. Springs and Oases can be found almost anywhere, and are important resources in a desert. Societies often form around these natural sources of water.
6. Volcanoes often occur in mountain ranges, or areas with large amounts of seismic activity. These are normally found on coasts or islands.
7. Cities need a source of water, and larger cities often are founded on trade routes. This could be a commonly traveled path, or a lengthy river connecting major cities to each other.
8. The oldest ruins are often found near the center of continents, as those are usually the oldest geological areas.
9. Canyons are carved out by rivers and streams. Rivers and streams are also often found in valleys, as they seek out lower elevation areas.
10. Weather patterns vary based on geographical locations. Hurricanes and tsunamis may ravage a coast, while tornadoes would frequent a flat grassland.
My "Big Secret"
Okay, so now I get to the part of the post where you ask: "So what is it? How did you create the Far Land?" And the answer is pretty random:
Dungeons and Dragons.
That's right, my readers, I am what they call a "super nerd." I got together a group of my friends almost a year ago, sat them down, and said "Look, I'm writing this book, I really need help fleshing out the world." So, I wrote a races/classes spreadsheet for my campaign, spent a few weeks designing the game, and it just completely took off.
There has been no better resource for me when Worldbuilding since then. I have created detailed gods and interactions between each of my societies. The rich history of the Far Land, in detail, dates back over 2,000 years. My friends, nerds as they are, took my endeavor to heart, really getting into the role playing and asking me how a person of their race/class might react in a certain situation. They carefully went over the map I had designed, helping me name cities, and give each one their own history and spice. They helped me develop a system of government and laws. They helped me explore my own world.
I will say the only thing this didn't help with as much was the system of magic I had created, and that's because we stuck with a lot of the traditional Dungeons and Dragons spells and rules for combat, for simplicity's sake. But, I am so glad that I did this. My friends now know just as much about the world of Echoes of Ashes that I do, and they have been invaluable for me to bounce ideas off of since then.
If you want to do something similar for your book, click here, and you can download my original races spreadsheet (warning: spelling errors incoming.) I encourage you all to model a DnD campaign based on your story, run it for a few months, get feedback from your friends, and revise accordingly. There is no better substitute for Worldbuilding, in my eyes.
Thanks so much for reading everyone, I know this was a lengthy post. Please share this with anyone you think might benefit from the information in this article!