Process for Fantasy World Building

From dyiMFA:

Let us begin with the very basic question: “What is world building?” If you are going to write fiction, every story needs a place to call home, where the action happens, where your characters live. This can be extraordinarily complex (as in the case of fantasy world building), or as simple as “the story takes place in the real world.” 

Whatever method you choose, the most important thing to remember is to stay consistent. If the story takes place in the real world, you do not have to deal with many of the complexities which arise in a fantasy story. 

It is when you are setting your story in another world that you need to be creative. This article deals with fantasy world building, although it can be used for almost any world building.

Where to Begin with World Building

I know building a new world is quite daunting for many people. Where to begin? Do I need to make maps? Do I need to create history, religions, political and economic systems? So many questions that need answers—Whew! Right? 

I have an acronym I use to start my personal process for building a new world: WHEW.

  • Who?
  • How?
  • Effects?
  • Why?

Each of these questions, when answered, makes up the basis of your world.

WHEW! Process for Fantasy World Building Explained

Who lives in your world?

The first question, the big question, I ask myself when I am building a new world, whether for a game campaign or for a story, is: Who lives there? 

Now you probably already have a good idea who the characters in your book will be, so that is your starting point. If you are writing a traditional epic fantasy, you may already have your book’s races in mind: Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Haflings, etc. 

Your geography will probably be defined by where your races traditionally live. Elves live in the woods, Dwarves live underground, etc. This is not saying every elf is found in the forest and you will only find dwarves underground, but it is a starting point. 

If you wish to create a totally unique setting, then deciding who lives in your world will be a vital first step. If you want a story set on a water-world, then you need races which can cope with being wet. Aquatic elves, Mer-folk, etc. If you want your story to take place in a desert, then you definitely want people who can cope with the lack of water. 

Thus, deciding who lives in your story will set the basic parameters of your world.

How does your world work (magic, technology, etc.)?

How your world works is another point which needs to be decided early on, especially in fantasy world building. 

Is your world rich in magic? Or is it scarce and only available to a very few? How is it acquired? Are only some people born with the ability, or can anyone learn to cast spells? Is magic a force of mind or personality or is it a gift bestowed by the deities? Is there more than one kind of magic in your world? And what about magical objects? Does everyone and their brother carry a magic sword, or are they rare and only used by an occasional hero or villain? At what stage is technology in your world? Stone age or are there printing presses and mechanical clocks? Is some technology enhanced by magic? Or conversely, is some magic enhanced by technology?

How your world works gives you a basis to set up the systems your world needs to be a place where your story can happen. For example, if your world has an economy, then you need some kind of exchange system for goods and services. Is there money? Or is everything bartered? Does your world have civilization or is it pure barbaric savagery?

What effects make your world special and unique?

The hows spelled out above give cause for whatever effects you may wish to have. 

Is there a gold standard? If so, where does the gold come from? Only from Dwarven mines?

Link to the rest at dyiMFA

12 thoughts on “Process for Fantasy World Building”

    • That would work.
      If you have internalized the logic of the cultures and magic systems.
      And if you have the discipline to stay consistent throughout.
      I expect Piers Anthony could do that in his sleep after his 20th XANTH volume.

      • As for “internalizing” the writing craft, we (all of us) have been absorbing story since before we were aware there was an alphabet. Where most writers fall short is failing to trust that.

        Of course, hucksters selling nonfiction how-to books on writing (many of whom haven’t written much fiction, if any at all) don’t want us to believe in ourselves or trust what we’ve internalized. They want us to believe we are incapable so they can sell us more how-to books on writing.

        Several years ago I chose to let go of all that nonsense, trust myself and my creative subconscious, and Just Write. I would no more correct with my conscious, critical mind what happens as I and my characters race through a story that is unfolding all around us than I would correct you as you’re telling me about something that happened to you one time. It isn’t my place.

        “Logic” has no more place in fiction than it has in how real life unfolds. My expertise comes from having written and published over 80 novels and novellas and over 200 short stories across several genres.

        As for plotting, I wrote my first novel in 29 writing days. The longest (at around 106,000 words) took 32 days. That’s what can happen when you trust the process and when you trust the characters to tell the story that they, not you, are living.

        But sure, if you’re insecure enough in your own abilities that you have to wrench the story away from your characters and construct it block by block and step by step instead of just letting the creative process flow, by all means do so. When others succumb to unreasoning fears that has absolutely no impact on my bottom line.

        • I was thinking of writer insecurity but of market expectations.
          And fantasy is notorious for reader preconceptions, especially in the top selling subgenres. There is a lot more to keep on mind writing a 200k high fantasy story with a dozen significant characters (SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, AMBER CHRONICLES, or POTTER) than in a though guy action thriller like REACHER.

          A neophyte (the target of most these articles) pantsing the latter is more likely than the former. I’ve seen some serious trainwrecks where the fantasy writer did indeed go freeform and then end of the work in no way resembled the opening.

          The one that always jumps to mind is THE SPACE PRODIGAL. Great cover, intriguing concept; bad, bad book.

          The Amazon review is kind:

          “Maybe I shouldn’t be reviewing a book I didn’t finish, but I did read about half of it: Perhaps the first third, and the last several chapters.

          There’s an interesting integration of fantasy and sf, a lot of the dialog and incident is fun, the characters are interesting, but it just doesn’t work as a whole. I’ve concluded that the problem is a nearly unbroken string of characters making bad decisions in unpleasant circumstances and learning nothing from the results.

          Spoiler alert (two, three, four, stop reading already if you want to . . .): I didn’t even find the scene fairly near the beginning where a character lays down his life for his friends to be stirring–and ordinarily a writer still in middle-school can be guaranteed that I’ll weep over his or her treatment of THAT theme!”

          Me best take: The writer knew how to write fiction but he didn’t look like he knew how to write fantasy. He might have been better suited for another genre. John Jakes (MENTION MY NAME ON ATLANTIS, BLACK IN TIME) being the flag bearer for that breed: his historical bestseller fiction–a genre of its own–dazzled but his SF&F books ranged from mundane to uninspiring. Good enough to finish–no doubt he knew how to write–but his SF&F just fell flat. He did brilliantly when switching, though.

        • “Logic” has no more place in fiction than it has in how real life unfolds.

          Logic has a great deal to do with the unfolding of real life. Hence, it has a firm place in fiction. Some may not employ it in writing. I wish them the best.

          Authors who are secure and confident in their abilities choose what they will do, when they will do it, and under what circumstances they will do it.

          Is there some reason a creative process cannot be expressed in blocks? Does it demand paragraphs, scenes and chapters rather than blocks?

          • Logic as applied by the characters in their story is perfectly applicable. Logic as applied (exerted, levied, forced) from outside the story (say by the author) is never applicable.

            Sentences, paragraphs, scenes and chapters can be “constructed” instead of “created.” Happens every day as writers “figure out” what will happen next in the sentence, paragraph, scene or chapter. Focusing on words instead of Story. Always by writers who cannot escape the unreasoning fear that they might fail if they don’t write the way someone else says they have to.

            I do not advocate writing in a particular way. I advocate letting go of all that and allowing your creative mind to create. And I stand to gain nothing whether you do or don’t. Unlike those with nonfiction books for sale that, like all the books next to them on the shelves, advocate outlining, revising, rewriting, etc. ad nauseam.

            But you choose your own poison. Doesn’t matter to me. I did my part by telling you and now by attempting to explain how very freeing it can be to let go and trust the characters who are actually living the story.

            On the other matter, if your life unfolds according to logic—if nothing unexpected happens in your life—hey, more power to you. Personally, I wouldn’t care for the boredom, but certainly in your particular case among all the humans on Earth, I’m wrong. You have my apology.

  1. Authors who are secure and confident in their own abilities know that everything in a story comes from the author, regardless of the method he employs. In world-building, the logic behind the construction of the world comes from outside the fictional world.

  2. Give a thought to the scale of the magic (or psi powers), too. I read one where the author did not, and I kept wondering why the evil wizard was not concerned about someone just shooting him. In this universe (they had space ships) guns were an option. By implication so were predator drones, hellfire missiles, phasers, etc. So … why not just those against the evil wizard? It’s not as if you’d have to be in the same room to effect the kill, so the wizard can’t threaten the heroes in that scenario.

    Unfortunately, the author never did address why common sense solutions were not on the table for dealing with the evil space wizard. The story just expected readers to believe he was somehow invincible, and everyone must give way to this villainous Marty Stu.

    Consider, Darth Vader is a terror in the universe of Star Wars. He is not impressive at all in the universe of Marvel: Storm, Thor, and Iron Man can make short work of his life support suit (it’s vulnerable to electricity). Jean Grey, Professor Xavier, Wanda Maximoff and Dr. Strange will not be concerned about his mind powers. In the Dune universe I don’t think Jessica Atreides would be impressed with Vader’s psi powers, either, since she can control him once she hears his voice. And her son’s name is a killing word…

    So yes, think about the magic. How it works. How it scales. And whether or not your readers will ask for a refund if you don’t think about these things.

    • Worse, your rep.

      The scaling of power levels is critical. And not just in fantasy.
      In the Honorverse the action all revolves around relative speed, combat power, and “visibility”. Even after decades of escalating tech (going from six-ten missile salvos to millions flying around in a battle) he maintains a balance betwen combatants. Except when the imbalance is the point.

      Balancing the capabilities of the protagonist and antagonist is imprtant to maintaining tension and credibility. In stories as well as in gaming. The risk of failure must be comparale to the chance of success. Not necessarily identical but close enough to be plausible.

      Nothing kills story interest than invincibility. Unless, again, invincibility is the point.
      That is the failure mode of the Mary Lu characters.
      Nothing is a challenge so the character just goes through the motions, safely protected by Plaht Armor, as Peter David put it. 😉

      • I always liked the armor/shields in Dune. They protect against fast stuff, but are open to the slow.

        • In a lot of SF, ships have shields, missiles, fast engines, and beams but can’t use them all at top power because their powerplant can’t put out that much.
          So they have to pick their poison: fast, tough, or deadly but not all at once.
          Add in proper orbital mechanics and things get interesting.

          Going back to the Honorverse, the ships all have impenetrable top and bottom “shields”, tough sides, and wide open front and rear to be able to move. They have deadly energy weapons but short ranged. Missiles are long anged but big, bulky and, relatively slow. And they fight at millions of miles. The reason? Tactics, stealth, and deception.

          Not so something most writers can conjure on the fly. Weber must’ve spent months balancing it all out to “best known” orbital mechanics. He’s very proud of it. And he never tires of showing it in infodumps. 😀

          (It does make it easier on latecomers to the series who might’ve missed earlier volumes. Plus the tech evolves through the series, so it’s not a pure cut-n-paste.)

          The books are good enough to ignore his habits. 🙂

          The series is an example of how complex a Science Fiction can get without confusing or losing readers along the way.

      • Nothing kills story interest than invincibility. Unless, again, invincibility is the point.

        Exactly, comics learned this early with Superman. He was invincible, and boring. Then someone came up with kryptonite and things got interesting. It gave him depth. Would-be horror writers are always advised to study that famous scene in “Dracula” where Van Helsing explains Dracula’s powers: preternatural strength, the ability to control the “meaner” animals (bats, wolves, and rats), and he can shapeshift into mist. Crucially, Van Helsing also lists Dracula’s weaknesses: he has to be invited into dwellings, must carry his native soil, can’t cross running water, and is weaker in daylight.

        You up the stakes and build suspense, and leave room for readers to anticipate and theorize how these “ability stats” may be exploited. That stuff matters. And it’s fun to think about when writing the story, because you have to use your imagination more. Imagination must be exercised as much as any other muscle.

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