World Building Made Easy(er)
© 2004 Deborah Hale
I had thought of calling this article ďA Slackerís Guide to World BuildingĒ but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that fantasy world building really isnít for slackers. However, I did come up with a few suggestions that may help you construct the richest, most believable fantasy world for your investment of time and effort.
Ground your fantasy in reality
When I studied for my degree in education, I was taught that learning takes place when we assimilate new information into the framework of our previous knowledge. The closer a piece of new information is to something we already know, the easier it is to learn. Likewise, I believe the closer fantastic elements of your world are to what readers already know, the easier it will be for them to believe.
That doesnít mean your fantasy world has to be only a step or two removed from 21st century Cleveland. Perhaps you draw on a fairy tale landscape with which most readers are very familiar. Or history can be your friend. If you have a society of sea-raiders, read up on the Norsemen and consider adapting some elements of their culture. If your world revolves around a sophisticated Ďcourtí with lots of intrigue, a little research on the Medici or the Byzantine Empire might provide you with a strong foundation to build upon.
Go deep where it counts
If some element of your world is especially important to your story, spend time developing it to its fullest. If your heroine is a bard, you may need to dream up an instrument for her to play and write some songs for her to sing. If your story involves a seafaring culture, you may need to know a lot about types of ships, rigging, navigation, and so on. You may not be able to give that same depth of attention to other elements of your world that are less important to the story. But because you have developed these most vital areas, chances are readers will focus on them and not notice other places where you had to use broader brush strokes.
A matter of scale
A flat, circular world suspended on the back of a turtle is a stretch for even the most willing reader to believe. But Terry Pratchett has concentrated most of his 25+ Discworld stories in the city of Anhk-Morpork, creating a lively, complex, thoroughly believable environment in which his colorful characters can interact. If yours is a road story, taking place in the countryside, donít waste time developing the city structure of your world. Conversely, if all your action takes place in an urban court setting, spend time on architecture, political structures and etiquette, not flora and fauna your reader will never encounter.
A unifying concept
It drives me nuts reading about fictional characters who have been created using inventories of random characteristics. For instance a hero who owns a German Shepherd, drives a convertible and likes country music, all selected arbitrarily by the author. A fictional character feels more real to me if those attributes have a unifying concept Ė say the hero being a repressed romantic. What kind of car would a guy like that drive? What type of pet would he own, if any?
Similarly, if you want to get the most out of your world building, donít dream up interesting currency, religious beliefs, and social customs each in a vacuum. Characterize the society youíre writing about, then consider how your unifying concept would impact everything in that culture. Frank Herbertís desert world in his Dune series is a perfect example of a strong unifying concept. The Fremen donít wear those suits just because they look cool. Itís a matter of survival in the desert environment. That goes for what they eat, how their society is structured, their religious beliefs, the works. All those pieces fit together like a magnificent symphony without a single jarring note.
What is the unifying concept of your world? Perhaps, like Herbertís, it is the physical environment. It might be a spiritual belief or a particular animal they rely on for survival. Think about how it will affect the type of government, the economy, family structure, food, architecture, and everything else. Often this saves time because it narrows down the possibilities, and it results in a more credible fantasy world.
Make world building serve your story
I met my husband at a campus bookstore on the morning Tolkienís Silmarillion was released. To this day two copies of that book sit in our fantasy collection having never been read all the way to the end, despite several valiant attempts. The book is a phenomenal tour de force of world building, but since it serves no story, it is as gripping to read as a textbook on medieval history. When that same material infused a compelling narrative like The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, two fantasy classics were born.
Donít sacrifice story for the sake of world building. Resist lavishing so much effort on world building that youíre tempted to show off by writing at length about some obscure detail that interrupts the flow of your narrative and loses your reader. Instead, turn your characters loose in your roughly sketched world. Watch where they go, what they do and who they interact with. They may get involved in some activity that requires you to stop and do more thinking to flesh out that aspect of their world. Or you may need to come up with a creative reason to explain some story event.
Thatís one way otherworld fantasy is easier to write than other types of fiction Ė you donít have to make your story conform to known historical or scientific facts. You get to make those up as you go along!