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Fantasy Worldbuilding: From the Bottom Up – Guest Blog by Cameron Johnston

Falling down wiki-holes of research in the cause of plausible worldbuilding, and why magic shit is such an important resource.

Vintage Map by Andrey KiselevWe’ve all seen those hefty articles on building fantasy worlds, the ones that discuss how to draw maps and invent the geography, trade and economies, the details of rulers, peoples and politics, and of course the designing of terrifying monsters and the dangerous ruins of forgotten civilisations. Gods and religions, and probably dragons, abound. And then there are the magic systems – hoo boy, there are lots of cool things you can do with those!

There are a lot of big issues to consider, and it’s no surprise that some writers spend years perfecting their worlds before they get down to the messy business of letting their characters loose and writing the story. They have a whole RPG setting sourcebook ready for their characters to adventure in, and that’s great – it’s a lot of fun to design a whole world and its history.

Yeah, I don’t work like that. I’d never get around to actually writing the novel.

For me, worlds and societies develop organically from all the little details that accumulate while I write. My brain has a habit of falling down weird rabbit-holes of research and what I discover causes everything to adapt to better serve the characters and the story. Those odd little nuggets of gold can lead to awesome ideas, especially when magic gets involved. I could spend years designing an amazing fantasy kingdom and then it would inevitably be derailed by something as seemingly innocuous and everyday as sewage, but then cultures are made from such everyday details.

The Traitor God (cover art)So let’s ignore those high-level aspects of worldbuilding and talk about the small, the mundane, and the weird little thoughts, and on building from the bottom up.

With The Traitor God, I always had a core idea of the kind of character and story I wanted to explore, and a scaffold of the world and culture I wanted to write in. To add flavour (ew!) to Setharis, a huge and decaying city of close to a million inhabitants, I researched ancient medicine and medieval city dwellers’ less than sanitary habits of tipping sewage out onto the streets (in the slums anyway). A grimdark story needs shit in the streets, right? Of course it does! Which probably means a roaring trade in cheap footwear. *adds a street of cobblers* Oh, and the ammonia in urine was widely used in tanning animal hides, for whitening clothes, and in the cloth dying process. More interesting and fragrant details I could add.

And then I came to a startling realisation. In The Traitor God, a magic user’s power permeates their entire body. So what happens when they go to the toilet? Do they just flush it away? What then? All that magical effluence has to go somewhere and it will certainly do something. Does it flow out into the river and cause magically mutated beasts to spawn? *adds horrible monsters living in the river. Cool!* So what does it do, and what can such a potent resource be used for? Then it hit me – fertiliser. If it’s gathered, treated, diluted, and spread over the farmland for leagues around the city, then bingo, we have enormous crop yields than can help feed a huge city. Excellent! Another great detail, right? And so mundane for the inhabitants.

The Mummy by Blaz PorentaWait…if magic is in the sewage, then what about dead bodies? That led me to research funerary ritual and custom, and then to decide on the cremation of magic user’s bodies to avoid a trade in potions and powders made from their blood and bones. This idea was partially informed by Europeans’ use of mummia as a medicine from the 12th century onwards (remember that previous research into ancient medicine?). Mummia originated in the Persians’ medical usage of bitumen, but over centuries this became conflated by ‘learned men’ into using the desiccated flesh of ancient Egyptian mummies for its supposed health benefits. How lovely, and not creepy as all hell to rub corpse-scrapings into your wounds. But what if it actually worked.

The ripples of influence arising from such a basic bodily function did not end there, and that idea of magical shit aided the development of an entire society. Well, that search for a little bit of flavour went somewhat further than I’d expected. A glorious origin for a culture, as I’m sure you will agree, but then great things can grow from the lowliest and most mundane aspects of worldbuilding; things like: what do they eat, what do they wear and how do they swear?

As another example, a few chapters into writing the rough draft of The Traitor God I decided to look up some flora to add into the city. I come across an article on zombie ant fungus, a parasitic fungus that takes control of an ant’s body and mind and uses it for its own purposes. That led onto research of toxoplasmosis, a single celled organism that mainly infects rats and causes them to be eaten by cats, in whose stomachs toxoplasmosis reproduces.

Zombie Ant FungusThat was a slippery slope to learning more about all sorts of bizarre and unsettling bugs. From that research an idea developed: what if magic was essentially parasitic. What if it interacted with the human mind (much like those of the rats) in deeply unsettling ways? What if it wanted to be used, and encouraged its host to do so? And what if magic adapted its hosts to survive? It was an intriguing concept, one I immediately had to begin exploring. Magic became pleasurable and addictive, and oh-so dangerous to those with the Gift.

In The Traitor God a magic user does not have the limits of growing tired and drained. It’s quite the reverse – magic fills them with energy, and the more they use it the greater the pleasure. Instead of limits they have consequences. If they allow too much magic to roar through them for too long it does not end well for the magic user. If they are very lucky they might get away with only minor alterations in body and mind. If not, well, some things are worse than death.

The Traitor God (cover)For me, the research of seemingly minor detail always proves to be a huge part in the creation process, building up worlds like lofty castles made of small LEGO bricks. It invariably leads to so many other interesting ideas, and throws up numerous other questions that help bring everything to life.

I urge you to consider the mundane in your settings, and to click on that next random link in a Wikipedia page. Follow your curiosity down the rabbit-hole and see where it leads you – after all, it led me to a book deal with Angry Robot.

The Traitor God is out now! If you’d like to learn more about this book and its intricate worldbuilding you can visit Cameron’s website or follow him on Twitter and Facebook!

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One Comment

  1. Greg says:

    I sooo have to read this book!
    I really like this concept of world building. World building is such a main ingredient if fantasy, but I sometimes think the world has become too much of a focal point when the ultimate goal is telling a good story or should be. And when you think about it, how much do we individually know about the real world that we live in. Should we really know all every detail and culture of a fictional world when we don’t know as much about the real one?

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