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Worldbuilding for Fantasy Writers

I Love You MarmiteWorldbuilding: that old mainstay of fantasy that is as much like Marmite as…well, Marmite. Some writers live for worldbuilding, for the meticulous crafting of worlds and settings which they subsequently populate with flora, fauna and the miscellaneous things besides. Some writers design these worlds with reckless abandon, caring little for realistic geographic or cultural landscapes, instead just creating. Others find it the height of tedium and would just as easily forget the whole notion and get on with more “important” things.

Worldbuilding is the ultimate power of creation for fantasy writers. Science fiction writers don’t get it quite so good: sure, they get to say what Mars or whatever far-flung planets and colonies they conceive look like—just look at J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 to see how sci-fi writers can worldbuild—but unless they remake our fair Earth, they never quite get to entirely re-imagine the homeworld of humans. Sure, there are post-apocalyptic landscapes and settings, but both are descendants of our single and only Earth, and as such, based on what came before.

Fantasy Writers: We Get It Good

Let’s first deal with the camp rallying under the banner claiming that worldbuilding is pointless, and that character trumps any setting or world in helping create a lasting, entertaining, and enjoyable story. They’re right, of course; you can’t tell a story without characters. If the main goal of a story is conveying the world and the setting, with scatterings of cardboard characters built around ideas rather than personality and psychology, then you’re probably on your way to writing a myth-like piece with some deeper meaning. In fantasy, that sort of thing—let’s face it—is never good.

You need strong characters for the world to stand, therefore, really, characters are what matter. However, those characters need somewhere to live. They need air to breathe. They need earth and stone and water upon which to tread. They need a world to populate, lest they spend their eternity kicking about your imagination, floating bereft in the ether, detached and adrift. Not an ideal existence for well-thought, beautifully crafted characters, is it? In fact, it sort of feels like a waste.

So, Give Them A World!

Save The Planet by vladstudioWhether you put pen to paper and craft a dinky little map on a napkin at a café, the geography of which you’re uncertain is actually kosher, or you scribble your borderlines, mountains and rivers in your “mind map” only, a world is something any fantasy writer is going to need eventually. Some writers go all out on their representative maps; others do what they can—most fall somewhere between these two extremes. Mapping out a world is an inevitable part of worldbuilding; however, some writers are extremely opposed to ever really and truly putting down set-in-stone pencil lines to express their imagined creations. For others, the map comes first when building the world, and working within these framed confines is less a restriction, than a comfortable framework within which they can create and build further.

Have a flick through the fantasy novels on your shelves, or at the very least, check out individual writer’s websites; you’ll be sure to find maps in at least half, and, depending on which authors you read, many more besides. Maps of worlds, relevant continents and countries are most common, but you will happen across city maps when the need arises. Sometimes maps are vague, showing only the placement of particular landmarks and cities, whilst others are detailed things of beauty that express the entire world clearly on a page.

Worldbuilding Isn’t All About Maps

Rolled Map by recarnerAt the heart of worldbuilding is a single seed of imagination and from that seed an entire world of possibility grows. There is little logic or order to forging a new world, and the process will entirely reflect the author.

The old rede of “write what you know” (or in the very least, what you like) is as true for worldbuilding as it is for the actual crafting of a story. Writers who harbour a broader interest in several different cultures will craft worlds of greater diversity than those who hold deep but focussed obsessions with a single, or select few: the influence will feed through into the bricks and mortar used to create the world and the origins of these influences will invariably show through. That’s not to say that a writer entirely enamoured with exploring what medieval mainland Europe has to offer will craft a world without diversity, because that’s where the characters and philosophies of a world come in. (We’ll come back to this, shortly.) However, undeniably, someone who infuses a world with influences from, say, the Orient and Persia, and Celtic and Slavic countries, will offer something much more colourful—even if only because many readers will see exciting difference in the well-presented “new” and possibly unfamiliar cultures, than with treading the familiar paths of their homelands, but in a re-imagined pseudo-medieval sense.

Tom Gate, Christ Church, Oxford, UK Watercolor by Park SungaThe flavour(s) of a world are paramount to its creation. It just depends which flavour you start with that determines which will be the prominent flavour in your world. It’s not necessary to begin with the grass roots themselves, and build up. It’s not necessary to forge literary Genesis when you can mould soil, trees and rocks later. Some writers begin with a sociological approach, by first casting their world’s philosophies, politics, and psychosocial bricks. Usually, writers who form their worlds in this way are less concerned with classic “epic fantasy” and are reacting or responding to something in our world—not necessarily something literary; in fact, more often than not, the responses are in answer to the world itself, rather than its literature—that they wish to speculate about.

There’s that word again: speculative. We happen across it all the more frequently the deeper we delve into the niggly, quirky topics of the SFF genre, and it is achingly relevant to this take on worldbuilding. A world needs structure in an abstract, societal sense as much as it needs good, solid earth, and writers who start with this approach usually have a message, a thought, or a concept tucked up their sleeve, waiting to be slipped down their wrist and fed into the keyboard and translated onto the pages of their stories. They do this to make us think, and to give subtle—and sometimes not so subtle—hints as to what our world might be doing wrong, and what it could do to start righting these wrongs.

God of Deception by anndrThe structure of social society shouldn’t necessarily be confused or lumped in with religious or ruling hierarchy structures, mainly because, depending on the writer and the world, they simply aren’t in the same category. Say a fantasy world is governed entirely by its religious leaders and let’s say that the worshipped deity or deities actually do exist in flesh and blood form, or, in the very least, as souls who bestow parts of themselves into avatars: whether we can imagine it, our world as it is, or not, there is no other way that the world in question could be formed without slaying the rulings gods—which would likely be unthinkable, if you were to get into the minds and hearts of your soon-to-be characters—and changing its entire structure. Sure, depending on the setting and the circumstances, this could be an epic fantasy plot, however, for purposes of simply worldbuilding, religion has to be counted, when the deities are not invisible or only perceived, never witness, as something outside the bounds of societal framework.

Whether we’ve begun with the world, or society and religion, we’re still missing the main ingredient: the fauna. If we’ve created the earth itself, then one should hope we didn’t forget the flora, so, not to split hairs, but anything we can class as “animal”, is for purposes here, our fauna. We’ll sidestep the creation of animals here, as, unless particularly relevant or otherwise notable (dragons, monsters, or other creatures such as lycanthropes or pseudo-bestial bipeds) we’re mainly concerned with (usually) humanoid bipedal races such as (surprise, surprise) humans, and then any other races such as elves and dwarves, or fae and demons.

Forest elf by MiguelCoimbraFauna might not at first seem to really feature in the process of worldbuilding, and might mistakenly be shunted entirely to the “character” section—but that would be wrong. Creating a human and creating, say, Rogue Hero Number Three are two very different things. In fact, they’re nothing alike. Conceiving a race and giving an individual of that race a personality and a psychology are so far removed that it’s a wonder they might ever be considered remotely similar.

Initiating the worldbuilding process by determining the races that populate the world can be an excellent starting point in forging a world that is diverse culturally, and geographically. Sometimes imagining a race can help place them in the world, and their placement directly affects their surroundings as the writer imagines just what these creatures will be like.

At some point, every fantasy writer will at least entertain the thought of these individual methods of worldbuilding, whether they actively sit down with their ideas and a blank canvas, intent on creating their set-in-stone world, or absently think of the topics here during the actual process of their writing and spend very little time really formulating, opting instead to go for “what feels right” when “gardening” their way through the story dancing about in their head. There’s no right or wrong way, but every writer will think about these things—even if only and entirely subconsciously. You cannot conceive a world that doesn’t exist without thinking of it first.

Harry Dresden by thegryphEven writers who write within our time, a time past, or yet to come think about these aspects: they’re still building their world as presented in their work, even if that world is still our own. There is much less involvement in crafting, say, an urban fantasy world, but even then, think about Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files and consider the worldbuilding involved there: the White Council, how magic works, the Faerie Courts, the demons, the vampires—so much that still needs making up and building.

Worldbuilding is inescapable for fantasy writers; it’s also immeasurable fun, whether you treat it methodically or casually, and is utterly essential. And besides, worldbuilding makes you tantamount to a god, and who doesn’t enjoy the odd god complex once in a while?

Title image by vladstudio.

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6 Comments

  1. Jezrien says:

    Its quite easy to get caught up in the old God complex when world building. It use to drive me crazy and still does. Funny that I don’t beleive in any higher power in our own universe yet in my own, I need an explanation of everything from why does magic work this way to how did the universe come about in the first place. That my friends is where you begin the long mind numbing journy into a writers insanity-block.

    All in all an interesting write up. I actually took a break from some world building just to read this, now i’m sitting here trying to find holes in my work just because it got me thinking about so many things.

  2. Linda Adams says:

    One of the reasons I stayed away from fantasy for many years — even though I read it — was that world building horrified me. The thought of having to do that level of planning just made me want to go away and not come back again (possibly owing to the fact I’m a non-outliner). I’m revisiting it now with a contemporary fantasy, but honestly, it was like proofreading to me — a tool necessary to make the story better but not something that compelled me to stay on it any longer than I did.

  3. Richard Ford says:

    I’ve come a bit late to this party, but I have guest blogged on this very subject here: http://keithbrooke.wordpress.com/2012/01/20/guest-post-worldbuilding-whats-not-to-like-by-richard-ford/

    • Overlord says:

      Wow – Great post Richard. Certainly agree that world building is your background and I think when your background becomes your foreground you’ve got problems… I could name a few authors who have that ‘problem’, certainly 😀

      Interesting to read about all the behind the scenes stuff too 😀

    • Overlord says:

      P.S. Love this quote: “king’s great, great grandfather was or what his capital city was called a thousand years ago.”

  4. Wow! That was such an awesome article! I’ve been working on the world building for my sequel at the moment. I just did a lot of introductory stuff for book one (especially with the character development), but my challenge to myself for the sequel was to get a deeper understanding of the world. This, mixed with posts on religion, magic, etc…are going to help me so much!

    Thanks for posting!

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