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Where. R. U? – Creating a Fantasy World

Where. R. U?

A dream? A fantasy? Both?

Alice fell.

Through shadow…and flame.

Wait. That was Gandalf.

But she did fall, and she did face the trials of another world. Of a dream. She immersed herself into a world that was unbelievably real. Why did she think it was real? She started off small, with each layer of Wonderland building on the next, making it believable.

And you yourself know this feeling of entering another’s dream, their reality and believing its possibilities. It is the very thing that happens every time you open that G. R. R. Martin novel. Every time you read Anne Bishops’ Black Jewels Trilogy. You enter the dream of another and are taken to lands that no one has ever been to before. How do they do it? And more importantly, how can you do this yourself?

How can you achieve the believability of a fantasy world? Through strong layers. A good world is not built in two-dimensional thought.

“The kingdom of Teer is ruled by a benevolent king, on the coast of the Big Sea, where it is the central trade of the world.”

No. We want to avoid cliché and redundancy. We want to give life, build a world through strong layers of three-dimensional thought.

“The kingdom of Teer is ruled by a king who never leaves his court, because as the central trade location of the world it harbors the worst of the world, and his subject’s loyalty ends at the palace’s gates.”

That was nice simple layering. Plot you say? Think beyond plot, as I will bring this up a few more times. Think about how the kingdom would function with so much of the world in and out of it? Think about how the locals would think about their king and his rule. Would they hate him for letting the world in and controlling their land?

So, what layers should you build your world upon? True there may be no real order to it, because we can’t help the ideas as they come to us, but once formed, you should begin your world with the basics and build the layers from there. Lest you end up in the nightmare of Alice, rather than her dream.

The First Layer: Cartography – Map of Your World

I had a discussion with another author who stated that maps aren’t that important in worldbuilding. Well firstly, I began my argument with an imaginary smack upside his head. Nice loud clap. It was joyous. It was wonderful. It was….Oh! Sorry.

Secondly, I half agreed. It isn’t necessary for the worldbuilding process or the story to have a map. However, it helps tremendously. It helps to keep things straight, rather than make things general. It makes this place real in your mind; and the more real this place is to you, the more real it will be for your readers. Now you don’t have to make this map for the reader. You can make it just for yourself, to help you keep everything straight in your mind, but I highly recommend that you do make this, even if it is just the simplest of them.

Where do you start in making a map?

There is a wealth of resources online and at the library of course. Take a habit of studying real maps and the maps of other authors. Study the structure of the land and where things are located, manmade or not. There are so many points that exist naturally and synthetically that will keep and restrain people from doing certain things. Trade could be slow due to a mountain road being closed. A sea makes it possible for a people to wage war against their former ally.

Alice had found herself in a hall of doors with a table. A small door lead to a beautiful garden. These elements were familiar, as they were mixed with the strange and the alien. Each instant of this strange place with the familiarity of home only brought her deeper into the world of Wonderland, as she accepted its believability through each layer presented to her. A map does just that. Ah, redundant, I know, but still another point in the matter. Write and create what we know. Make it real for your own Alice, the reader, and they will find themselves immersed in Wonderland.

Creating Layer 1

Start your Wonderland out by drawing blobs of an area, circles, squares, that sort of thing. You don’t need mountains and rivers, or weird abstract places or formations, just yet. Unless your story has a strong sense of them in the story, you can place them there of course. Mark where you would want your opening scene to take place. Where are the bad parts of town or the country in correlation to where your protagonist finds himself after the War? Mark cities, countries. Wherever you want to put it all, mark it on the map.

The more you add to a map, the deeper and more real the world will be. Don’t get too carried away though. The map can get too complicated from the beginning and just become a muddled mess.

After you have established where you want everything, start adding the more real effects, like mountains and rivers. As you add those things, think about how it will affect everything in that world.

Are the mountains riddled with narrow dangerous passes that make it so that goods are really expensive? Are there rivers for a city to become a strong military force? Those kinds of places will begin to add some depth to the world and your story.

Are there rumors about why the passes are so bad? Bandits? Maybe even cursed? Are the people superstitious? Just old wives tales to explain why people are so evil on those passes.

Better yet, what if there was patch of hills that were severely haunted? That would make it so that no one really went into there. It would be that the people living in a city near this place were believed to be evil, because they were willingly living near the hills. There is so much to do with a map and adding locations.

Think beyond the plot of your story and where you want it to go. Add the places to the world that will influence how the rest of the world would respond on a static basis, rather than a plot point.

“The City of Nurienu is a desert valley that no one wants to go to, but it is wealthy and well protected because of the mountains and the desert and the one thing that no one knows about. The mountain’s underground cave rivers. Able to leave without notice and return just the same way.”

Any one of those three places on the map could have been static. Each changing and adding to the depth of the world without really reaching to the plot.

The Second Layer – Culture

So, the tests of your bacterial culture have come back. I’m sorry. But the results have confirmed it.

You’re a writer.

(Textual pat on the back)

It’s okay. Don’t cry. The good news is, the bacteria are well cultured and are having a celebration in your brain. This may appear in the form of societies within your novels. Don’t be afraid. We can help you develop your plot to ensure that a utopia is kept from being created and conflict is maintained within your manuscript. Keeping it alive. Everything will be ok. But first, we must attend to this culture.

If only…

In Wonderland, Alice attended a caucus-race to dry herself and had tea time with a mad hatter and discovered that it was her Unbirthday. And she had a very merry, happy, Unbirthday. What madness or clarity holds in your society?

Creating Layer 2

The people of your stories have been faced with the horrors of your imagination and your written lands of cataclysmic terrors, how would they fair now? How would they be if their land was filled with horror or wealth?

Is their culture filled with devout people? Or are they just, “eh, gods, there are somewhere”? Do they even believe in anything at all? Is there more than one religion in this land? Is their culture based on their faith? Or is it based on the myth of their faith?

“The people of Belathor hold a huge celebration every year on the Wolf Moon for fear that the goddess of night would feed them to moon if they did not acknowledge her power.”

Is their culture based on their resources? The fish that they get from the sea, is it seasonal? Is the arrival of a certain fish the mark of a new season? Would the people celebrate this? Or would they see it as an omen, if they are not plentiful? Is their resource metal ore? Would they be rich? Or would they have the best weapons of the region?

“The coastal city of Iruinest is feared throughout the world, because of their metal ships that are nearly unsinkable, it is because of this that city has become poor, fearing the coastal city. It is because of this fear that leads the captains of Iruinest to piracy, to provide for their people for the lack of trade only feeding more into the world’s fear of them.”

Did a war long ago make it so that your people were bitter and resentful? Are they now isolated and unwilling to deal with the outside world? Does it allow them to remain primitive or does it allow them to advance beyond any neighbor? Are outsiders feared? Or are they hated?

“The nation of Buolpeth has isolated itself from the world because of war prophesized to come to their lands. They have been preparing for it for centuries, making a society of elite warriors and neglecting their advancement, while the world outside progresses.”

Think what would happen to them in battle. Most anything can form a culture. It just depends on where that is taken.

The Third Layer – History

Alice didn’t learn much on the history of her own world, but of our own, which of course is dry compared to the worlds we create. Which is why it was the first attempt to dry herself off, listening to that dry history. Didn’t quite work and was poor for building off of.

You should avoid that, as I am sure you will. Fantasy history I seldom ever find to be droll. Always exciting and always interesting to know how history has affected a world to make it what it is.

However, I find that it is this element of all that is most alien to us. Sure we know the history of our world, but who truthfully knows what happened and how? We question and we argue over it, but a good deal of history is true.

This layer was hard for me to decide to place. Should a history come first? Or should government? Or should culture? Truthfully, I think the answer is in any order. However, I felt that history should come before government, as they could be a result of history and culture.

Creating Layer 3

What has happened in your world? What has transpired and brought the world to where it is now?

“The world of Espirad has had countless wars and the people nearly wiped from Espirad’s face. It is in this that the people become peace lovers and pacifists to keep from having any more conflict.”

Wow, that sounded boring, but if there is something we have learned through our constant reflection back at history, it is that it’s not always accurate.

“Espirad was attacked by the spirits of another plane and wars were constantly occurring, as the people fought for their lives. Decades and centuries pass before the wars finally come to an end, but long before its end, the people forgot what they were fighting for, forgot who they once were; the Spirits of Peace. Now provoked and tested and having failed, the people will never ascend to become who they once were, now having lost their purity.”

History can be true or it can be warped or just downright false. Brandon Sanderson had a great example of this in his novel, Warbreaker. History had stated it was two different men who had fought in the war long ago. Two very different causes fought for. It was actually the same man.
What do the history books of your world have to say? And is it always accurate?

The Fourth Layer – Government

Kingdoms, democracies, communists – communists?! Don’t get your shifts in a bunch. I don’t mean the kind that…well…I don’t know what kind I could possibly be talking about, I am just going by the regular disdain for that type of government…

Anyways, as I was saying before I disrupted myself with your very thoughts. Rude.

Alice found herself in a monarchy, ruled by a tyrannical queen of hearts. She was clearly a queen of hearts because she cared nothing for the minds that she kept having beheaded from the subjects of her country. Shame, but it was how the rules went, according to the queen.
So, how are the nations of your lands ruled and maintained?

Creating Layer 4

Kingdom, a realm ruled by a king or queen, or both. The choice is yours.

Do the people love the king? Are they in need of anything? Why are they remaining in power? Do the lords, ladies, counts, countess’, dukes, and/or duchess’ want the monarch to remain in power, so that someday they could take the throne or their family in general? Do the laws of the kingdom demand only a descendant of a god to rule? Do the laws touch the people of the throne?

“The kingdom of Uloorin must only have an oracle for a king, so that he may speak with their gods and bless the nation with their will. But the last blood relative of the royal family is an atheist who does not believe in Uloorin’s gods.”

Democracies have taken many forms throughout history. Will you make it as the first true ancient democracies were and have the nation elect members of the government from civilians as a public service? Or will they be people of importance or have clawed into power? Will the democracy be an illusion to the truth behind who actually rules it?

“The democracy of Aermrupith elects officials to head their government, but secretly one rules the officials. They give out his decrees to the people of the nation, because it was them who elected him to rule them, and thus the nation in return.”

What government types are you going to use? And how will you create its political structure?

The Missing Layer – Magic

I am not making magic/magical systems a layer. Magic in my honest opinion, is not needed to make a fantasy world. Granted, I use magic in each of my own worlds, but there have been tales and worlds built without them. Though overrated, The Left Hand of God, by Paul Hoffman is a fantasy novel without magic riddled in it. There is also the Songs of Earth and Power by Greg Bear, where little, if any magic can be truly identified.

So go ahead. Make your world without magic, there is nothing that says you will not succeed in it.

Wake Up

Alice awoke to only find that it was a dream, but a dream that she will always remember. Will your world always be remembered by your readers? Or will they just dismiss it as fancy of their imagination – unbelievable.

One of the most important things you are going to do is research. Research history, current events, maps, government laws. For more than just your plot. Build your worlds to be believable and think outside the plot of your story, and create static points within the society that your people will respond to, and form their morals on. For when your readers wake up from that world of yours, hopefully it will be missed and hard for them to let go of a place they have accepted and some have come to call home.



  1. Avatar Overlord says:

    Talk about depth! This article sits quite nicely with the ones Matt has been doing about World Building, both of you guys have really helped me think about my Worlds and I feel quite confident now in talking some bits away from this and writing about them 🙂

    Thank you guys!

  2. Avatar ChrisMB87 says:

    I’m inclined to agree with Marc on this one! After building a few worlds and spending hours using countless pieces of grid paper to draw out maps, I can agree that these are great tips and hearty truths to building any kind of environment for your characters to roam in and for you to enjoy writing. I also like how you continuously weave the story and elements of Alice into your argument.

    • Avatar A.J. Zaethe says:

      Thanks Chris. I had been inspired to put Alice into this article when I began reading the novel recently. Brilliant by the way, keeps a smile on my face the whole time.

  3. Avatar Autumn2May says:

    Infomative and funny! Good job! 🙂 I agree with the needing a map. In real life I’m good with directions, but if I didn’t map out where things were in my story I would indeed be lost. 😉

    • Avatar A.J. Zaethe says:

      Agreed of course. If it weren’t for maps, I would be lost in my stories, but I always noticed how I could take other stories with maps more seriously than those without maps. I just feel more apart of that world if I know where things are.

      • Avatar Autumn2May says:

        Agreed, even if I only look at them once, it’s always easier to visualize what’s happening in a book when there is a map. I just tend to think as a writer more than a reader lately. 🙂

  4. I loved this write-up! It was very informative while also being quite humorous. I want to thank you for giving your thoughts on how to create layers in writing since it is one of those things I am always worried about. I think part of the reason is due to the fact that I know everything that is going on in my head and am worried that I am not making it clear, but also interesting to the person who is reading it. Loved this write-up 😀

    • Avatar A.J. Zaethe says:

      Thanks. But for my own writings, I can’t write comedy worth beans! I just don’t get it. Haha. I always love reading up on another’s thoughts for world building. Its just fresh and new ways of thinking.

  5. Avatar Kiki says:

    A.J.Zaethe won a writing contest when he was FIVE years old … since then he has grown into an amazing writer who couldn’t possibly be anything else other than a writer … The funny thing is when he was in school his teachers and counselors would come to me and say A.J. lives in a fantasy world he’s got very little concept of what the real world is like … and i thought to myself GOOD FOR HIM! …To A.J. creative writing and the real world have no boundaries that would make him closed minded … and to me that would be criminal … so carry on A.J. you are genius in all your creations.

  6. Avatar Khaldun says:

    Great Article, A.J. Despite the fact that I literally have no time now that I’ve started teaching full time, I made time to read this article. Thanks!

  7. I don’t do any of that (at least not consciously). I kind of build as I go along…..show the world in action and that’s how I discover it, and its culture, people, history etc.

    If I didn’t, I’d spend all my time building the world and not writing the story!

    I did draw a map once. It was a squiggle of coastline with blobs for cities and other lines for rivers. Then I spilt tea on it, then I lost it. World worked out just fine.

    YMMV obviously, because there as many ways to write (or indeed worldbuild) as there are writers I suspect.

    I think it depends a lot on what sort of writer you are – if this fits the way you write, there’s some very good points to think on. Even in my more…freeform way of writing, I still need to think about culture, history etc. It’s just I think about it through my characters and what they do and feel, and why.

    Actually, often some days I don’t know what I think about anything until I write it down!

  8. Avatar Alister says:

    Great article.

    I created a map a couple of chapters in, and while it’s very rough and ready, it’s good to have an idea where places are in relevance to each other, so that characters heading west don’t end up in a town that was east of their location a few chapters ago. Sometimes it’s too easy to get bogged down in map-making, and forget there’s a story that should be written, but the idea of a story developing from locations created is very interesting.

    Clurure, history, religion are equally (if not more) important and I like the idea of building it up in layers, creating a recipe for worldbuilding.

  9. Avatar AE Marling says:

    As a rabid geology nerd, I also considered tectonics and wind patterns in my world. The monsoon rains travel toward the tallest mountains, and deserts sprout up in the other side of mountains, the rain shadow. And I would recommend building the map early, or you will commit yourself to impossibilities (the bad kind) all too soon in the narrative. Happy building!

  10. Avatar A.J. Zaethe says:

    Oh the editing horror, I need it bad. But onward.

    @Francis Knight

    Actually, I will be writing more on worldbuilding, and there is something you must realize about worldbuilding. I mean, sure it does depend on the type of writer you are and how you go about writing, but there is one problem with that, which I plan on touching on in my future articles. The issue with building on the go is your character. They will appear odd in that world, which there is nothing wrong with it, but often do those odd balls come off as cliche. Some other worldbuilders I have met actually feel that some fantasy worlds need to be as long as a novel. I don’t agree, but I see the point.

    Now I don’t mean that you must follow a recipe for worldbuilding with this article or future ones, I actually expect pretty decently thought up worlds by the time someone comes across my worldbuilding tips or other worldbuilder’s articles. I mean for my tips to be used when refining your story or your world. Something to rethink when you are stuck somewhere or just feel that something needs to be filled out. I will go into more in my future articles.


    Currently, the novel I am working on was going no where with the small amount of worldbuilding I had done with it. I had a very interesting idea and story rolling along, but it was just falling flat. I have sat down for a couple of weeks now and built some new world elements, now the story is rolling along great. I know where things are, I know who would respond to what and why. It makes the world and characters come to life more. Hint.

    @AE Marling, I am actually taking geography next semester as education in my own worldbuilding knowledge, you have read my mind all too well about how a world forms in accordance to physical features like tectonics and desert formation.

  11. Great post. I have studied Geography and Geology (a year majoring in) in college, plus got my hands on a number of books that show how maps are rendered, including the U S Army Field Manual on map reading. I still remember those great maps in the front of the Conan series from Lancer/Ace, which showed the Hyborean World superimposed over a map of today’s world. It made the world of Conan seem real, though it still didn’t go into as much detail as I prefer.
    I think I go into more depth than most. In my series Refuge I have maps of the entire world (2.5X Earth’s surface) every continent, and then the countries that figure centrally in the tale. Then I go into history before the humans come in mass from 21st Century Earth, including the evolutionary lines of all the other races and where they branched from humans. Anyway, I go into probably more detail than necessary, but I like doing that. On science fiction maps, which are mostly whole worlds, I do not go into as much detail, as passes and mountain ranges aren’t as important in a world where air travel is commonplace. For those I just draw two globes for each hemisphere and fill in continents and small islands.

  12. Avatar Callum West says:

    A superb article that has helped me with my project recently. You might be interested in it: TeriYeri (www.teriyeri.com) is a new free web-app for collaborative world-building and Epublishing, currently under development. It might be interesting for some members here 🙂

  13. Avatar Yannick Van Broeck says:

    A great article!

    I will most certainly use it as a loose guideline when creating my very own universe. It’s a big and daunting step, especially when my head is riddled with ideas and I all want to incorporate them all at once. Best to put them all to paper so I can do it at a gradual pace.

    Again, wonderful article.

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