As fantasy authors, one of the most common questions we get is this: how do we do our world-building? It’s a huge topic and one we could talk about for literal days. To keep this post from becoming a whole book, we’ll stick to a general discussion on how we go about it in our books and then attach a list of questions we ask ourselves. Drop us a line if you’d like to see more detail on a particular section!
(Side note: building magic systems are not included in this post. We do, however, include some ways magic might affect your world.)
We see a lot of people discussing whether the world-building should come first or the plot and characters should come first. While this varies per author (and even per story), we tend to find the answer is somewhere in the middle. Often we have a general idea of the world when we begin, and then we broaden that and add details as we go. This middle ground approach can help make the presentation of your world more natural because, rather than having all of this stuff you are trying to cram in, information comes up only as it is relevant to the plot line.
Here’s a brief example of some building as we go: in The Exiled: Of Shade and Shadow, we see that the castle at Melye has a lot of hidden passages. These are used mostly by servants so that they can carry out their chores discreetly and without disturbing the residing nobility, Employing one of our favorite world-building questions, we asked why—why do these passages exist? That’s a lot of extra and difficult construction simply to keep your servants out of the way. It seemed much more logical that whoever constructed the castle must have been quite paranoid and wanted to have a guaranteed way out if trouble came knocking. Here again, we asked why—why was this king so paranoid? From here, we could extrapolate that Merimeethia has a long history of civil unrest, including uprisings, usurpation, and regicide. All of this information was then applied to the current day Merimeethia and helped deepen our understanding of the culture and government structure this country has.
So whenever you have any sort of unique detail, ask yourself: why? But maybe your difficulty is in coming up with these cool details. In that case, spending some time browsing and looking for cool facts, phenomena, biomes, etc., may provide some inspiration.
If you’re trying to get more of a basic framework than you are these little facets, it’s time for questions: what, and how? The lists below may be helpful.
-What time period are you emulating?
-What level of technology do they have?
-If there is magic, how does it interact with the tech? (E.g., has it made society more advanced by mixing with tech? Or less, because they rely on magic instead?)
-How advanced are their sciences? Do they have scientific study of their magic? Do science and magic conflict or coincide?
-How advanced/widespread are their medicinal arts?
-How long have they been at this level of technology?
Example: Litash is loosely medieval, borrowing aspects from a variety of centuries. The most common form of magic is shape-shifting (represented by the race, Bandilarians) or healing (practiced almost exclusively by Elves). Their technology and sciences have been fairly stunted by their reliance on magic, and they have not advanced much within the last three hundred years.
features? (Magical locations, unexplained weather phenomena, etc.)
-Does your world have poles/tilt/seasons?
-How does your topography influence your weather patterns and climates?
-How do the residents of your world adapt to this, and how does it vary from one country to the next?
Example: Litash is surrounded by the mysterious and dangerous Forest of Riddles. Between this protective barrier and its distance to the world’s equator, Litash’s weather is fairly temperate. But for roughly two-hundred years after its creation, the Forest was too dangerous and too unknown for any to cross it safely and regularly. Thus the residents of Litash became so isolated that some countries considered the country a mere myth.
-If using a particular culture for reference, what are some things that made it unique? What are things about your culture that differ from your reference?
-How has climate/topography/geographical location shaped this culture? How have they adapted their architecture, weaponry, wardrobe, agriculture, traditions, etc., to survive?
-What is this culture’s view on magic? How has that influenced their traditions and technology?
-What defines your societal strata? Nobility rank, income, military rank, lineage, etc. How are these differences delineated?
-How does this culture view other cultures? How do other cultures view it?
Example: Litash is very loosely based on a few different European cultures. But the predominant race is Bandilarians—a shape-shifting race. Their societal strata is largely defined by their power, with the most talented shifters rising to high positions in both civilian and governing affairs. This is also reflected in things such as their fashion—the more complex the appearance, the higher the skill required to maintain the form. Thus intricately patterned skin, vibrant hair, etc., are a means of showing off one’s status.
-What is the government structure like? How old is this current structure, and did there used to be a different one in this country?
-What state is the government in? Is it running the way it was intended? How far has it decayed from the original model?
-What is the legal system?
-What is the government responsible before? (Roads, healthcare, welfare, business, etc.) How do they/how well do they take care of these responsibilities?
-Who carries out these responsibilities? E.g., tax collectors, police force, so on.
-How does your magic system influence this? Does your government rely on it? Or persecute it? How does this vary between different countries?
-If there is corruption, what levels is it most prevalent? How does this influence the way the country runs?
Example: The government of Litash is a type of oligarchy comprised of two main components. These are the Ethian Council (the king and thirteen other highly skilled Bandilarians titled Ethians), and the Court of Nobles. The Court is comprised of the various lords and ladies who preside over Litash’s various cities and counties. Historically, the Ethian Council had handled more of the military, peace-keeping, and magic-related affairs and the Court had been responsible for the practical, day-to-day running of the country. At the opening of The Exiled: Of Shade and Shadow, we see that this balance has shifted.
-Does your country have a standing army?
-What is the ranking system?
-What are the responsibilities of the military?
-What government figures have authority over the military?
-How does the technology of the world/nation contribute to its military strength? How does it affect weapons, armor, and strategy?
-How is magic used/defended against in combat setting? How has weaponry and armor adapted to this?
Example: The concept of a standing army is new for Litash. Having been so previously isolated, there was no need for one. The War, along with pathways being established through the Forest of Riddles, change that. Most of the army is comprised of men who previously served under the now King Entrais when he overthrew Euracia. The majority are Bandilarians who have far more training in guerrilla warfare than they do field combat. Few know how to utilize forms that can easily wear armor.
-What does this country use for currency (if any)?
-Does this country trade with other countries? What are its main exports? What does it rely on other countries for?
-How does the geography and climate shape trade? (Think trade routes, seasonal access, transport methods.)
-What resources are scare (and therefore valuable)? What resources are plentiful?
-Are any resources regulated or banned?
-How does magic influence manufacturing and agriculture?
-Is theft/bribery/counterfeit an issue?
Example: Litash uses a coin system based on weight and precious materials. Their previous isolation has forced them to be quite dependent in trade, which has only just reopened after the war. With so much reorganizing going on, a lot of smaller villages and towns rely more on barter than currency. Gangs of bandits are prevalent near the country’s edges. Not only is this further away from the capitol, but the Forest of Riddles acts as a deterrent to pursuers and a (dangerous) place to hide.
-What has led to your world being in its current state? Are there any particular wars/conflicts/catastrophes that have led to this?
-How much do the characters know about these things? How accurate is this knowledge?
-How is history recorded/passed on?
-How do historical accounts differ between different countries?
Example: At the opening of The Exiled: Of Shade and Shadow, we see a lot about “The War”. This is referring to the alliance between Entrais and several neighboring countries and their successful overthrow of Euracia. But there are many other historical events that led to Euracia’s reign in the first place. These events include other characters/entities we see in the book, including Tyron, the Miadoris, King Omath, the Elves, and so on. Different characters, as well as different countries, have very different views on these matters.
-What are possible methods of transportation? How quickly/effectively/safely can they travel, send a message, etc.
-What sorts of food/supplies do your characters have access to?
-Is clean water readily accessible? If not, what do residents have to do to procure it?
-If you are dealing with multiple languages, is there someone/something who can translate?
-What do the residents of your world use for heat? What do they use for fuel?
Now, this list is by no means comprehensive. But neither is it essential. You may find some of these details helpful in broadening your world while others may simply be unnecessary. Some may be good to know even if they won’t get mentioned anywhere in your book. If nothing else, we hope that this was at least a helpful creative exercise that got you thinking about your world in a new light!
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