If you’re a fantasy writer, even a contemporary fantasy writer, then world-building is part of your stock-in-trade. Whether you’re writing an epic fantasy set in a world of your own creation, or you’re a contemporary fantasy writer writing about modern or dystopic fantasy, then you have to create the world in which your hero/heroine lives. The lands of Middle Earth are as important to The Lord of the Rings as the characters who live there – the disparate peoples of men, Elves, Dwarves, and Hobbits. Harry Potter wouldn’t be the same without Hogwarts and muggles, nor would the world of Harry Dresden be the same without the Never-Never.
So, how do you go about creating a world?
First, what kind of world are you creating? It also depends on what kind of writer you are – plotter or pantser. If you’re a pantser – writing by the seat of your pants – then you’ll create that world based on the accumulated knowledge you’ve gained over years of reading, and your imagination. However, sooner or later, you’ll need a map. Especially to get that pesky go east, north, west or south, right/left thing correct. Believe me, if you don’t, someone will catch it. If you’re a plotter, you’ll start out with a rough map, and fill it out as you go.
Okay, so back to that first question. What kind of world are you creating? Topography is important – plains, mountains, rivers and oceans all effect how people interact, and what their needs are.
Is your world similar in land masses to ours, or different? Is it a mass of island nations like Great Britain? Or a single one like Japan? How does the environment affect that world you’re creating? Physical environment has a huge effect on those who live there. For example, by all accounts, life in Scotland was quite harsh, and the land there – while beautiful – made for strong people and strong warriors. The same can be said for the Vikings, who went raiding because much of the food and goods they needed weren’t to be found in the lands to the north. On the other hand, the folks of Tahiti definitely had a more mellow outlook.
Next, are the customs – religion, practices, etc. – the same for all regions, or different?
For example, take Great Britain. Once there were separate lands – England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland (keeping it simple) – each with their own customs and belief systems that were similar, yet different. England had reason to fear the Picts of ancient Scotland. Then the Roman Empire invaded and imposed its customs and belief systems, or melded theirs with the Celtic. The Roman experience with those of the lands of the north drove them to build walls to try to keep them out.
With the advent of Christianity, another belief system was overlaid on the others.
Leaving Europe behind, consider Japan’s feudal system, with its warlords and warriors.
Or the Native folk of the Americas – whether the First Nation peoples of the North, or the Mayan, Incan, etc. of the south. Each had its own belief systems, and that alone led to clashes.
Consider how the people of the world you’re creating are similar, and how they’re different. Cultural misunderstandings can also cause difficulties. For example, knocking up someone means something entirely different in Great Britain than it does in the U.S. France doesn’t have French fries (and sometimes wishes Americans wouldn’t call them that.). Then you have the silliness that led to them being called Freedom fries.
You also need to consider their mores – which is not to be confused with morality, although the root word is the same. Views on life and death change the way individuals react. The ancient Crusaders believed that their actions would gain them a place in heaven, while some modern day fanatics believe much the same, only with virgins. While in other parts of the world they would first consider the impact on their ancestors. Some ancient peoples didn’t believe in a ‘heaven’, but they did believe in an afterlife – spent side by side with the world in which they’d once lived.
Then there are the creatures of the world you’re creating. Take dragons for instance. How big are they? As big as a dog, or big enough to hop a ride on? Do they breathe flame, or not? Do they guard gold, or not? How do they communicate, if they communicate at all?
And, of course, there’s magic. The first rule of magic? There has to be rules. You must be consistent.
In one of my novels my heroine has just discovered that she has magic – a different kind of magic than that of the other people of her world. She has to learn how to use it, without invoking the Law of Unintended Consequences (my own creation). In other words, she has to think it through. What effect will she have if she does this or that? Since she’s exploring her skills, and they come from different magical systems, she can do some things others can’t – but the laws of physics still can’t be overcome. (Unless in your magical system they can.) Two other characters have magic as well, one more low-key, the other more direct. The character with more direct magic has a more difficult choice – to use it or not. I tend to think of it in terms of a bomb. Just because you have it doesn’t mean you should drop one on everyone. It’s a moral decision.
To use an existing example, for those who have read the Harry Dresden stories, Harry often doesn’t think things through and so he uses his magic in ways that don’t always have a positive outcome, but he does it with the best of intentions. As is frequently noted, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and so Harry often finds himself in a personal kind of hell.
All of which creates conflict, and conflict is the heart of most stories.
We have a world of history already before us to help us create our fantasy worlds. People interact differently depending on their history, customs, and mores, and learning more about other cultures helps us to understand better how to create our own.