I write mainly fantasy, some science fiction, and occasionally more realistic stuff. My science fiction is often near future sort of stuff while my fantasy is more the high fantasy sword and sorcery as opposed to urban fantasy (I love reading urban fantasy though). That being said, I’ve done a lot of world building.
I plan to do a series of posts on the different aspects of world building: geography and maps, religion and culture, technology and cultural evolution, races and species, and alternate Earth scenarios, in some order. But today I want to do an overview on what is required in building a world, sort of a heads up on everything you’ll have to consider at some point, and some things you should consider before you even start.
First – is creating a new planet/world/etc. the right thing for your story? Give yourself an honest answer. For a lot of my science fiction creating alien planets isn’t needed to tell the story, the story fits quite well in a future Earth or alternate Earth setting, limiting the world building, and effort, I need to put into it.
Second – is this fantasy or science fiction? Is this a whole other planet that humans will stumble upon and meet the native alien creatures? Or is the whole story self-contained on this new world, with the humans, or human equivalents, already living there?
Third – how big is this world, and how big a stage does your story need? Does the story take place in a single country? I’ve got one novel like that and I’ve labelled the neighbouring countries on the map but I know little about them, except what I need for them to interact economically and politically with the country in my story. The rest of the planet is a grey-zone, I know nothing about it. I have another novel that features a smaller planet wrapped up in a global war – I know as much as humanly possible about every country, race, and religion on that planet and how they fit together.
Once you’ve answered those questions you’ll basically be ready to start. Here are some things you’ll need to design, organize, plan, plot, and decipher.
1) a map – you need this, even if it’s never published with the book, it’s a good way to track place names, distances, and such things even if it’s not to scale.
2) religion – how many deities? their genders, style of worship, and are they “real” or do the people simply believe them to be real? Take a look at David Eddings’s Belgarad series – the gods actually walk among the people at different times and talk to them, they’re real. In George RR Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice you get the feeling that the seven are just something people believe in and that’s why they’re being pushed out by other equally “fake” religions. I’ll explain this better when I get to the post on religion. Just know that religion can be tricky
3) cultural views – this includes views on gender roles, caste, class, economics, and politics.
4) cultural stage – hunter gatherer? agricultural? Victorian era? Early industrial revolution? This of course will dictate, to some extent, your politics, economics, and level of technology
5) magic – does it exist? in what form? how common? sounds easy but when we get to this post you’ll see it’s hard to create something unique and “realistic” that still fits your plot and imagination
6) races and species – how many sentient races will exist on your planet? what will they look like? how do they communicate? And guess what – you need culture, religion, magic, evolution, and tech for every single one of them. In addition you need non-sentient species: farm animals, wild animals of both predator and prey, birds and bugs, what is there and how frequently will your culture encounter them?
Yeah, I know, a lot to consider. And the bigger and more complex your world the more all of these play off each other. It’s going to be hard for me to separate them for the sake of writing an organized blog on all this, but I’ll do my best. It sounds hard but many writers claim this is the most exhilarating part of writing fantasy and science fiction – and I’m one of them. Give yourself permission, before you start the process, to change anything and everything on a whim, at any time – you can always change it back. Understand that this will take time, a lot of time, and there will be a lot of wrinkles to iron out.
I’ll walk you through the steps I use, the things I consider, and hopefully that will give you a place to start. Mainly I’ll focus on fantasy but I’ll try to note where things may be the same, or different, for science fiction.
I’m really looking forward to writing this series.
Signing off …