The Overwhelming Art of World-Building

Research is, undeniably, one of the most important stages of writing a story. Understanding the time and place your story is set in will enable you to make that story more true to life, and therefore, more compelling. But what if you are writing a fantasy, set in an imaginary world? Make no mistake: research is just as important in fantasy as it is in non-fantasy, perhaps even more so since you are creating a world from scratch. If you’re writing a historical fiction set during the Spanish Civil War, you probably won’t need to research whether or not gravity existed in Spain or what colour the grass was. We can take these things for granted in non-fantasy, but in fantasy you need to become an expert on your entire world… and still make time to actually write the story!

I find that a good place to start is by learning a little about the real world; historical events, religious beliefs, foreign cultures, you name it. Anything that interests you. Sooner or later, you’re going to need to be able to create a bit of everything for your world anyway, so read as widely as you can bear to. If you’re still not sure exactly what you want to write about, my advice would be to read up on anything which grabs your attention and inspires you. For example, the inspiration for the novel I am currently working on came about as a result of me reading about a variety of unrelated real life subjects which I found interesting (specifically, the Beer Hall Putsch, the concept of extra-terrestrial real estate and the mythology of various ancient cultures). Even if you already do have an idea in your head about what you want to write about, it would still pay to try and expand on your idea by researching related real life subjects.

The more you read about the real world, the more you’ll come to realise that a believable world is replete with all kinds of different stuff; different races, religions, creeds and philosophies; different wars, treaties, governments and despots; different guilds, parties and organisations both legitimate and otherwise; different traditions and dissents of science, history, philosophy and art; different forms of vegetable, animal and mineral; different languages, dialects and accents; different laws, crimes and systems of justice; different myths, legends and parables… you get the idea. The natural world is a complex and intricate machine, interacting with the equally complex and often contradictory machines of human society. As if that weren’t complicated enough, what happens in one generation invariably affects the next, so history also matters. If you’re creating a fantasy world, you need to understand how all of this works within your world without falling into the trap of spending so much time world-building that you never actually write the story. Personally,  I feel that there are at least three key parts of any fantasy world that are vital for the author to understand.

The first thing to consider is the basic natural laws of your fantasy world, because this is the skeleton on which everything else in your story will hang. Is it spherical like our world? Terry Pratchett’s world wasn’t: his world was a disc supported on the backs of four elephants standing on top of a giant space-faring turtle. What about plant and animal life? Are there dragons, elves or something else entirely? Do the natural laws of your world include magic? If so, how does this magic work? Do supernatural beings influence your world? You can probably be as imaginative as you like but remember there are two basic rules I like to stick to:

  1. There must be some form of natural law to bring order to your world and to allow it to function in a rational, if strange, way. In short, it must make sense.
  2. Avoid superimposing fanciful things on a world which is otherwise identical to our own. Our society would not have developed as it has done if there were wizards running around the place with the power to magically engineer personal, social or political changes and nor will yours.

The next thing to consider is how society functions. This will undoubtedly be rooted in the rules you established for your natural world. For example, if your characters live among natural predators, you can bet your life that would impact their laws and values regarding the rights of animals. Better yet, what if their natural predators had a highly developed society of their own? For example, Zebrapeople and Lionpeople living on the same world. Would there be war? Would treaties be signed to keep the peace? What would such a treaty mean for the Lionpeople?

If your world is governed by gods, this will probably be reflected in your society’s religion and philosophy. If your world is not governed by gods, religion and philosophy will still exist and within each belief system, there are likely to be numerous denominations and splinter-groups to consider, each with their own individual opinions on how things are and how things should be. For every traditional belief or practice, there will probably be dissenters. You also need to consider if there are many empires, nations and tribal societies, how does each one of these function? What are their own particular customs, fashions, taboos, mannerisms, languages and so forth? As with the natural world, these things must function in a logical fashion but you should also make room for conflict: this will undoubtedly be the cornerstone of your story.

Finally and closely related to both of these is history. How did society get to where it is now? For example, let’s say the King of the Lionpeople has signed an agreement with the King of Zebrapeople saying that they won’t eat the Zebrapeople any more. The common Lionpeople take umbrage and revolt. That the premise for your story. The question we must now ask is why was this agreement signed? Was it to end a long running and costly war? If that is the case, who started the war and why? No society pops out of thin air; society is the way it is because of what happened previously to lead us to this point. To create a believable world, this must also be the case with your fantasy world. Go back into your world’s history, as far back as you feel you need to, in order to understand what brought us to this point, where your story begins.

Finally and most importantly, you must know when it’s time to stop nit-picking and start writing your story. You almost certainly won’t be able to please everybody nor is it a realistic ambition to try and determine every single last thing that ever happened everywhere on the surface of your world. Decide on the scope of what you are trying to accomplish in advance. Ask yourself what is the most relevant to your story and focus on that. J.R.R Tolkien probably had no idea what Gandalf’s great grandfather’s cousin’s pet budgie was called, but that didn’t stop him writing The Lord of the Rings.

Don’t let it stop you either. Write your story.

5 thoughts on “The Overwhelming Art of World-Building

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