World building: it’s not just about forests and mountains


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World-building is hard work, and unfortunately, this is one of the things that is most lacking in most fantasy and science-fiction works, though the problem is much more pronounced in fantasy universes. Too often, I see “worlds” that are nothing more than a map of a corner of a continent drawn on an 8,5×11 sheet of paper with a chain of mountain in a perfect corner where the land would continue, often with randomly distributed landscapes and territories. Somehow, in that little corner of a continent, are represented all the different cultures and races that the writer can come up with, which manage to all share a language.

Having a good grasp of your entire world is what allows you to make it rich, detailed, and, most of all, believable. Why is it important that you know all this stuff? Can’t “base” your world on some already-existing world, or make up some stuff as you go? If your aim is to write fanfiction, parody, pastiche, or one of the thousands of knock-offs of Lord of the Rings, Dune or a combination of them or any of the other great works, go ahead. However, if you want to create something unique and believable, yes, you do have to think and build all the elements that make up your world from scratch: geography, religion, magic, economy, political system, international relationships…

But do I really need to think about ALL that stuff?

Yes, you do. The truth is, if you want to write something cohesive, you must have a big-picture idea; nothing in any world exists in a vacuum, and every little detail of what makes a world believable is inextricably linked to all of the others. Even if the reader doesn’t see every last detail of your research and world building, they will sense effort you have put into creating your world, and they will get the sense of a cohesive, complete world that they will dream about out of a desire to explore it further. This is something that might take you a long time the first time you do it, but it should become easier and easier each time.


The inner logic: science and magic

The most important thing to establish for a cohesive world is its inner logic. Usually, this stems from a concept or idea that is central to your plot, and will be a decisive factor in everything you will determine about your world. Most of the time, for science-fiction, that concept will be based on science, and for fantasy, it will be based on magic. The difference between these two things is simple: science finds its meaning in asking questions, while magic, or fantasy, finds its meaning in providing answers.

When I say that science find its meaning in asking questions, I mean that science is based on the scientific method, which basically consists in the process of making an observation, draw a hypothesis, then test it by conducting an experiment, and make observations from that experiment. From there on, you correct your hypothesis, and do further research. It’s a never ending process that strives for perfection, but that always has a level of doubt about its answers, and never takes anything for granted. This is important to realize because the great principles of science-fiction are based on questions. The hypothesis drawn from these questions then becomes the premise of the book, and the events of the storyline, the experiment. Most of the time, science fiction uses science to challenge and question established paradigms, and in fact, a lot of the great works of science-fiction leave us full of questions when we finish them, if not about the story, then about the world and its institutions, and as we close the book we have a tendency to reflect on all these questions for a while. What all this means, of course, is that when you build the science-fiction world, you must build your logic based on the established theories of science, and the logical extrapolations that can be drawn from there. I have said it before, but it warrants being said again: when writing science-fiction, you must be well-versed in science.

Fantasy, on the other hand, goes for a completely different kind of logic, and, as such, is both much easier and much harder to build than science-fiction. It is easier because it does not need to rely on an extensive knowledge of science. Instead, fantasy and magic are based on the principle of magical thinking, which is the belief that a phenomenon and its cause must be chronologically and mystically linked. A very widely known example of this is the sportsman who does not change his underwear for the entire season because the first time he did that his team won the championship. It is the basis of superstition, among other things. Instead of observing facts rationally and testing a hypothesis, magical thinking makes a causal link between a random act and a random phenomenon (e.g. if I go to the bathroom, the phone will ring; if I scratch the symbols on the ticket in a certain order or with a certain object, I will win; etc.)

What does this mean for the fantasy story? Basically, that you can justify almost anything that happens in your story by almost anything else, so long as there is a cause.  And this is where it gets hard, this is where a lot of authors fail. When you decide on a cause, you have set a rule; and you cannot undo it. Also, all the rest of the rules you create for your world must be similar and consistent to that one. This is absolutely crucial. The inner logic you create with fantasy doesn’t rely on any sort of external factor; it is entirely based on what you decide, and, as such, it is unbelievably fragile, and a single step out of line might cost you all your credibility. Try to also think about the inconsistencies you might be creating when establishing those rules. For example, if you decide that your character can enter the world of Faerie by walking East at sunset, why doesn’t everyone that walks East at sunset get into Faerie?

Now that the most important part has been said, here is, true to habit, a point-by-point list of the things you should think about when creating your world. Before I give it out, though, I have one last piece of advice: do your research. There is so much diversity of customs, rituals, traditions, religions, beliefs, climates, biology, etc. right here on this planet, that before you start inventing (which you will do eventually either way) you should try to find out about them. Take the time to reflect on why things are this way in our world, and you will be able to find logical, consistent reasons as to why things are the way they are in your world.


Here it is:

Physical geography: Unless you’re dealing with a story that is set within the bounds of a single city, you’re going to need to think of an entire planet. I’m a little crazy, so I tend to create entire solar systems, even for my fantasy worlds, because the number and proximity of the stars combined with the tilt of the axis of the planet will determine its climate and seasons, while the rotation of the planet on itself, its orbit around its star, and the orbit of its moons around it will determine the way its people measure the passage of time. You’ll also want to work out the basics such as the proportion of drinkable water, which will determine the entire ecosystem of the planet; if there are no plants, there are no large herbivores, and probably no large predators, because everything you put on your planet needs to eat something. And before you resort to technology to explain it away, ask yourself how they evolved to being able to build technology if they never had anything to eat!

After that, you need to think about your world’s resources. I like to map out the tectonic plates systems, which usually determines volcanic areas and water currents, which in turn determines where the land is fertile, where the fish like to be, where which types of minerals can be found, etc. This needs to be known because the economy of each part of the world will be based on these resources, which leads me to my next point:

Human geography: Different parts of the world have different types of resources. These resources will determine a LOT of different things, such as: What is the most important resource in the world’s economy? Which territories have it most, making them highly enviable, and as such, the ones that have the most war? What is the most likely livelihood of the people in different parts of the world? Who trades what with who? Which countries are dependent on which other countries for resources, making them more likely to forge alliances? Which areas are the most densely populated? Which areas have the most of every resource, making them the most opulent, and likely to start an empire? Who has conquered and/or warred with whom in the past, and why? Have some former colonies become independent? How does the climate in which region affect the culture and clothing of that region?

What are the different political systems of your world, and how did they get started? If there are different races, what are the relations between them? Did they spring from the same place and war, or did they evolve in different parts and eventually meet each other? If so, how did that meeting go, and how does it affect their current relationship? Don’t forget about the climate and seasons of your planet, too. This will have a HUGE effect on the culture of your world! Think of how the lack of water on Arakis affects the Fremen, or how the constant winter affects the inhabitants of Winter (Gethen) in The Left Hand of Darkness.

Technology: Who has access to what level of technology? Usually, the development of technology depends on many factors: a readily available resource as a power source, the secondary resources and manpower to massively produce the inventions, and the education to produce them. As technology is developed, it grows upon itself, as inventions get perfected through use and research, depending on how available the resources are. With that in mind, do some people have different technology levels than others? How does it affect international relations, travel, communications, and warfare? What is the resource that this technology is based on (yes, it can be magic!)?

The passage of time: Apart from the astrophysical factors mentioned in the Physical Geography part of this post, which can affect the number of hours in a day, the number of days in a month, the number of months in a year, the number, length and severity of the seasons, there are a number of facts to consider when determining the passage of time. For example, does your entire world have the same calendar, or are there different calendars? What event represents the year “zero” which begins your calendars? If there are many moons, do they all go by the same moons? What is the proportion of the population which adheres to one or the other, and why? (e.g. do the farmers have a different calendar than the magicians?)

There is a lot more to be known about world-building, but these are the basics. Next week’s post will deal with magic, religion, folklore, culture, different species, and the use of conventions.  

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