World-building is one of the cornerstones of successful fantasy writing. It sets the groundwork for your characters, your setting; your story as a whole. It enables the reader to fully engage with the story. In this, world-building isn’t purely about creating a planet or setting, but determining the politics and beliefs of the people, and learning how they experience their everyday life.
Being such a fundamental element of story-telling, its little wonder that there are so many layers of intricacy and necessity in each individual world. For some stories, world-building is an immensely complex process in which every facet is planned down to the finest, seemingly insignificant detail, while other times such elements are drawn from reality, and the world-building is limited to characteristics unique to the story.
Below I’ll go into detail about the different elements of world-building and the factors the builder may need to consider to create a believable world.
Creating a world is, for some, a momentous task, and for others, as simple as breathing. Worlds take many shapes and follow many rules. Some may be based on our own, a world wherein we have an entire planet, an advanced civilisation, many complex cultures all living their lives aware of one another, or they may be small, isolated worlds, where the people all take one shape, one form, and know only of the world within their borders. Worlds may then take shapes as vastly alien and unknown to ours as the species so many of us often write about. A world may float high in the air, exist on a man-made ship, be buried deep below the ocean or far underground, a world may take the shape of the likes of ‘eyeball planets’, tidally locked so that one side is dry and radioactive and the other frozen with only a thin, habitable strip in the middle. Or perhaps, for your people, the dry and radioactive or frozen environment is where they thrive. Worlds take all manner of shapes, any you can dream of, and as such there are many different factors to be taken into account.
Perhaps the first and most obvious element is land and water masses. In a world, determining where and how the land is formed is fundamental in determining the shape and nature of the people and civilisation. If a world is landlocked and knows nothing beyond their borders, then it stands to reason that understanding the restrictions of such a world is necessary to determining how they might survive. For example, a people from a landlocked world may not know what a fish is, if they haven’t any in their bodies of water. Or perhaps there are no bodies of water at all and they gather their water from underground wells and springs. All such things must be considered.
This leads me onto the next point. Climate. A world that is different to our own will likely have a different climate, their seasons may not behave as ours and their sources of sustenance may vary greatly. If the world is one that is always dark, then their climate will be cold and bitter, likely frozen, if their climate is one that is always light, they’re likely to have high levels of radiation and extreme heat. These factors, of course, affect many other things, especially flora and fauna.
The plant life of our world exists as it does to survive within our climate. The green of our leaves is a result of green chlorophyll which our plants use to absorb light and nutrients from our sun. So on another planet, perhaps one with a sun that glows a different shade, it stands to reason that the plants too would be a different colour, or in a world with little to no light, wouldn’t it stand to reason that the plants might be white or black so that they might absorb enough light to survive? And beyond plants, the fauna and people would differ too. I’ve seen it theorised that if the Earth were to enter another ice age humans would evolve drastically to survive, specifically, we’d grow extremely pale in hair, eyes and skin, begin growing body hair thickly over our entirety and grow to be massively tall and heavily built in order to survive the extreme cold and fend off predators. So consider, perhaps, how such changes in your own world may affect the native fauna and flora, and what strengths and limitations it will cause them.
Beyond all of that, you must consider if your world will run on the same schedule or calendar as ours, given our own calendars are derived from the ancient people of our world, perhaps so are theirs, and so, you must also consider how this impacts the lunar cycles and suns orbital patterns, for an Earth year is a single rotation around the sun, so perhaps your world takes longer to rotate. A year by our standard, may be a mere week by theirs. Or perhaps you work across many worlds. How do they keep track of such things when there are so many worlds working on their own systems?
Of course, the physical conditions and limitations of a world aren’t the only elements of world building.
The people in a fantasy story can take on a huge variety of shapes, sizes, species and tendencies. A story may take on the whimsical nature of a fable and host a cast of animals, or humanoid-animal hybrids as their occupants, or it may be home to the monsters and beasts of myth and legend, where a hydra devouring the residents of an entire town is not worth reporting on. You may encounter vampires and werewolves, or demons and angels, humans and elves and wizards. Dwarves, hobbits, goblins, faeries, and of course, dragons. This is one of the wonders of fantasy.
Now I’m sure you may have raised an eyebrow at some of those, thinking they fall more heavily into the category of fauna than people, but, on this I have two points, firstly, people are fauna, and secondly, in fantasy, a dragon can as easily constitute a person as a human. In some instances, more so, and as such character development and planning is crucial in creating a fantasy world that still retains a degree of believability.
Firstly, I’d like to say that fantasy worlds often have long and complex histories, and as discussed above, it’s important to consider the kind of evolutions the people of your world may have made in order to survive. A people that reside in a desert world, for example, may survive without requiring water to do so, or perhaps absorb all of their moisture through their skin. So long as it is explained reasonably, all such oddities can be believable and quite delightful in a work of fantasy. Another consideration is that a world may have a single form of occupant, or many. How do these occupants live together? Is it a harmonious life? Is there conflict? Perhaps one of the races is new, seeking refuge and unaccustomed to the living conditions and natures of the other peoples. Often different groups of people, different species or races, will have vastly different belief systems and much like in our world, this can cause a divide and tension between them.
If you are working in a world with multiple species, or even a single-species world, there will be hierarchies to consider, and complex political organisations, rules and ethics. In a situation where multiple species cohabitate, there may be multiple political and hierarchical structures working around one another and rulers vying for preference. Perhaps one structure will be of a patriarchal structure, much as ours is, or a matriarchal structure, and perhaps they’ll butt heads, the two structures functioning in different ways. Of course, politics isn’t the only consideration here. There are also physical limitations to be considered.
Different species will age differently and have different expectations of those of certain ages within those species. For example, a dragon born (one who can shift between human and dragon form), might have a life expectancy in the thousands and still be considered a child at a hundred, so it would stand to reason that when writing a story with such a character, their age would be higher, their education still ongoing, even if the story is targeted at teenagers. Speaking of slow ageing species, this brings me to limitations. You see, one of the difficulties a slow ageing species may encounter is that their young are often killed because they don’t age quickly enough to defend themselves. In much this way, we must consider the practicalities of placing such limitations on our people. That being said, limitations are important, because people, human or otherwise, will always have weaknesses, as they will always have strengths. A sorcerer may be limited by their ability to draw in power, a faerie may be limited by the size of their body, a shape shifter may be limited by the ability to only take the form of those they’ve touched. There are any number of limitations that can be placed on fantasy creatures, and they, much like strengths, are only limited by your imagination.
Something often overlooked in story telling is the difficulty in language variation. Imagine, a human character dropped into another world with no understanding of where they are. The thing is, the people of another world won’t speak our languages, and while this is usually dealt with via magic or some other miracle solution (like a travelling bard who has been to Earth and speaks all the languages in all the worlds), it can also be dealt with the old fashioned way: with your character slowly, painfully, struggling to communicate and gradually learning the language. Perhaps, once they learn the language they will even be able to undertake one of the new and bizarre careers and hobbies of the local people.
And this is something else to consider. In a different world, they’ll not have our careers, or our hobbies. Painting may be considered an affront to their gods, golf may make you appear as a simpleton, football may be considered the game of the royals and see you executed for playing. The type of jobs and careers available in your world will be dependent on the structure and infrastructure of the world and its advancement and should be considered carefully.
I’ll try to keep this one brief, as theology and religion are complex issues. However, they are fundamental in determining the shape of your world. Theology is the belief system and structure of your world. It is the religion. A world may have many different religions and how they interact with one another should be considered, as should the morals and ethics they teach. Perhaps there are a prescribed number of Gods, Goddesses and Deities, that are each worshipped in a different way and represent different morals and ethics. Each of these deities may have their own beliefs about afterlives and punishments for breaches of morals and ethics. Maybe their power is drawn from their disciples, and thus the loss of followers will lead to their destruction, so they remain active in the world, or fade away knowing the people will never lose faith. Because of this, there may be questions as to whether the gods are real or fake. Do you know whether they’re real or fake? Do your characters believe or not? And does their belief, or lack thereof, determine how they behave and what morals and ethics they administer to?
The way you design your theology can vary greatly too. For example, you can create an entire belief system entirely from imagination, creating rules, morals and ethics dependent on the requirements of your world or story. Alternately, you can draw on real belief systems, historic and current, common and foreign. You can manipulate those belief systems to create a structure that works within the prescribed parameters of your world. Or, if your story is based on Earth, you can use existing belief systems and interlace your fantasy belief through it, determining how such a thing might exist in the current world, and what those who follow it might believe.
See, I told you I’d keep it brief. The truth is, I’m getting near to the end of this very long blog and am growing somewhat tired from all the typing. I do apologise, but I thank you for sticking it out this long. Onto the fourth and final topic, magic systems.
Magic systems take two distinct shapes. Hard and soft. Like tacos. A hard magic system is a system with clearly defined rules and boundaries that are easily understood by not only those that practice the magic system, but those who don’t, and perhaps most importantly, the reader. Soft magic systems are those without clear guidance. You know magic exists, you know it is used, but it has few boundaries, few rules, and frankly, the explanation you get for why it worked is usually, ‘it’s magic’. So, because of this we’re going to focus on hard magic systems.
The first thing you need to understand about a hard magic system is that there are limitations. There should always be limitations. These limitations can be on a person to person basis, they can be clearly prescribed by the magic system in that magic can’t bring back the dead, or every act of magic comes with a price, or it can be limitations in the types of magic, because a single magic system can consist of different types of magic, or different specialisations. Perhaps a user can only specialise in one form of magic and no others, and perhaps their ability is once more limited by their own personal power, or ability to draw from the power source (if you run on a system with a magical power source).
Speaking of sources, there are a number of different styles of power source used commonly in fantasy. Some are treated as an atmospheric thing, where magic is in the air, or in the atmosphere and can be drawn upon by certain people. Sometimes the source is from within oneself, the power they’re born with. Sometimes, often with sorcery type magic, magic is a learned skill, something anyone can do with the right ingredients and training. So consider carefully your source, and who can harness it, because if it is an ability that anyone can use, that can lead to lots of trouble, if it’s something only a select few can use, then all you need is one bad egg to discover they have magic and suddenly, no one else can stop them because no one else is capable of wielding magic. So you really want to hope you’ve designed a failsafe into your magic system.
Why do I speak about a failsafe? Well, sometimes your hero may not have magic, and they may be dealing with a scary powerful sorcerer, and the only answer to the problem is to destroy magic, or the source of their power. Think of Frodo Baggins and the Ring. Destroy the Ring, destroy evil. Simple. Or not so simple, I mean, he did go insane and lose a finger in the process, but that’s just details. Remember what I said about limitations, magic should always have them, and those limitations, those weaknesses, can be used against it, so always consider, on the off chance that you discover that the only way to defeat your great evil is to throw the Ring into the fires of Mount Doom, that you’ve prepared for that inevitability.
On a more pleasant note, you need to have a clearly defined idea of what magic can actually do in your world. Again, this comes back to limitations, but also strengths. Magic may be able to heal any ill, or it may be able to create an almighty shield capable of protecting an entire town. It may be able to turn a sword to gold (with the help of a little alchemy), or change the weather to ensure the people are fed. A little physics for you: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The same should be said for magic, for every strength, there should be an equal weakness, for every weakness, there should be an equal strength.
Now, there’s more to magic systems than simply how they function, there are also societal issues involved. For example, you should ask yourself whether magic is known about commonly or only by those who wield it. Are there laws regarding the use of magic, are there ethical and moral implications? How does your character feel about it? How do the rest of the people in the world feel about it? Is it cheered or frowned upon? Are there multiple types or a single type of magic, and how does it affect your character? In the end, it always comes back to the impact it has on your character, because it’s all well and good to have a well-planned, well-explained magic system, but if your character never interacts with it, there really isn’t any point.
So in closing, I’d just like to briefly talk about stories set in real world settings. Obviously I’ve been explaining world building from the perspective of creating an entirely new world, but world building is still necessary for urban and alternate world fantasy. Much of what I’ve spoken about can be applied to your urban setting as is, but as a bit of a helping hand, I will say that the key considerations you’ll have are regarding whether the magic system is known or not, as a known magic system will vastly change the shape of an urban setting where an unknown will only change the pockets of society within which it dwells. Also consider carefully the impacts of magic use on an urban setting and the potential for additional theological issues to arise from introducing one to a society with so many different belief systems already.
I hope you’ve gotten something useful out of this and that it has helped you begin putting together your world, perhaps given you the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of your world through topics you may not yet have considered. I know there is so much more left to say, and no possible way to detail every facet of world building, as with the possibilities in world building, the finer elements are limitless, but these fundamental considerations will offer a starting point. In any case, thank you for reading through to the end and bearing with me.
Talk again soon,