One of the great joys of fantasy are the worlds those stories inhabit. In many of our beloved classics, the worlds are as important as the characters themselves. But the task of creating them for our own stories is a daunting prospect that involves much more than just drawing a map. It involves close study of our own world, learning lessons from everything from geology to town planning in order that the world on the page seems every bit as real as the one we live in.
Find out how mountains are created. Understand how metals and rare stones are created, and the process that is needed to extract them from the earth. Note that rivers spring from a source and grow as they make their way to the sea.
Understand that climate means it is unlikely that the Desert of Death would be adjacent to the Jungle of Doom. Have a look at how jet streams impact weather and dictate the types of fruits and crops a land is able to grow, the animals that farmers are able to breed and butcher. Understand why seasons occur and the impact it has on farming,
The origins of many towns lie in being a defendable position, such as on a hill. The most populous are next to a river or major trade route. Note how heavy industry tended to be built upwind of residential areas, especially the more affluent ones. Think about why towns grow and expand, and above all, think how all your residents are able to be fed. Bringing food thousands of miles along trade routes to your great frozen city might initially seem viable but those traders will want paying for the long trek, making the food expensive. What do your towns do for water, and what’s more, how to they manage the waste?
No place has a single event in their history. Ancient places have served different purposes at different events, the venue differing in importance with each occasion. What once was a great seat of power might now have been made a forgotten crumbling relic. What was once the site of a great battle could now either be a national monument or a field. It is said that history is written by the victors. Think how this might impact people’s view of events over the subsequent years.
Think how trade brings cultures in contact with each other. Throughout history cultures have clashed and mixed. They are in a constant state of change. Think about times lands in the real world have been invaded and the impact on the culture – the food, the beliefs, even the language. It can sometimes mean new gods resulting in temples being torn down or ‘converted’ for the new deities. Also note that no matter how unified a group of people are, there will always be voices of descent, acts of supreme kindness, people looking after their own interests, and those looking to take advantage of others.
Nearly all science is dependent on prior discoveries. It is hard to have a civilization with electricity that never had steam. Of course, you might think of a way that it would be possible. Such ideas can be great jumping-off points for stories, but they should always be an exception rather than a de facto standard. Having a reader ask how something is possible can sometimes be a great way to encourage them to read on. Having them question everything though…
Of course, it is impossible to know everything. The above are just examples of things you should be thinking about in your own worldbuilding. Perhaps you can think of more? (If so, be sure to share them in the comments). There will always be those educated in areas where you are a mere amateur, who will be able to point out issues with your world. These people can be a good resource, as can the history and geography of our own planet. There are enough places in the real world that you can steal from in order to populate your imagined worlds. Just be sure that the cultures you create are not just thinly-veiled, trivialised versions of ones from our own planet. More often than not, they only result in insulting and offending people.
And then, once your world is built and you know it as well as you know your own neighbourhood, you must then forget about it. As tempting as it is to show off your creation, the secret is to let your story just marinade in it for a while. As impressive as your history of the nomadic peoples of your world might be, unless it serves a direct purpose within the story, leave it out. By all means mention the fruit a character is eating by name, or the clothes they are wearing, but there is little need to elaborate beyond what your story dictates. As painful as this might seem, given all the hard work, you’ll find little bits of your worldbuilding naturally slipping into your story, giving you a world that whilst always secondary to the plot, feels real and well developed.
In many ways good worldbuilding is not what you put in, but what you leave out.
Title image by vladstudio.