Monday, August 10, 2009

Mentor Monday - Worldbuilding 101

Middle Earth, Narnia and Hogwarts are three of the most well-known worlds in the realm of fantasy today. People can tell you not only the exact locations of specific places, but they can also give you a history of those places. They stand out among other fantasy worlds because Tolkien, Lewis and Rowling took the time to create a real world, rather than plopping their characters into a generic world with weird place names.

To create a fantasy world as rich and alive as theirs, you should consider four things - geography, history, technology and culture.

Geography is what your world looks like. Is it made up of continents or subterranean cities? Are there mountain ranges, oceans, forests, deserts, or dark caverns and undersea grottos? What are its largest countries, kingdoms, city-states, metropolises? What are its smallest? What plants and animals exist there?

You should also consider climate, which can be used to create mood. Does your world experience spring, summer, fall and winter? Is there a hot season and a cold one? A rainy season and a dry? How do tides affect an underwater city? How do earth tremors affect a subterranean one? How do night and day operate in your world?

If you read fantasy, you’ve probably noticed most novels come with a world map. Use these as examples to help create your own. Even if the map doesn’t appear in your book, it will give you a better understanding of the world you’re creating.

After creating your larger world, zoom in on your main character’s. What is the layout of the city or town your story takes place in? Place taverns, shops, temples, homes, castles. Are the streets wide or narrow? Are there sidewalks? Is the town isolated or close to others? Is there a seaport or airstrip? If the story takes place on a ship, what is the ship’s layout? If your characters are nomads, what trails do they take? And again, consider climate.

Inventing a history for your world and its people comes in handy for those ever important legends that lie behind every good quest. Who came before, and what did they do? What major events changed your world from what it was to what it is? Think about wars and natural disasters, as well as religion and inventions.

Magic should also be considered. What effect has it had upon your world? Consider the physical effects (changes to landscape, instigation of wars) as well as the psychological aspects (how magicians are seen and treated now because of what their predecessors did.) Then consider your character’s past. Who are her people? Where did she come from and how did she get to where she is now?

Technology is what the people in your world have. Are they hunter/gatherers with stone tools? Are they on a par with medieval people? Do they use swords, guns or lasers? How do they travel? What do they write with and on? What foods do they eat and how do they prepare them? How do they make a living? Do they barter or use money?

Magic is also technology. If there is magic in your world, what are the rules of your magic? What can magic do? What can it not do? Is it a learned ability or are people born with it? Does it come from the gods, or are special items needed in order for a wizard to perform? How powerful is your magic? Can it raise the dead, or is it limited to healing wounds? Are potions or incantations used? Are your magicians’ powers unlimited or must they rest or replenish themselves between spells?

Culture is how your society lives. Does your world consist of kingdoms or city states? What religions are practiced? What are the beliefs of those religions? What kind of governments exist? Is the world a level playing field, or are their ‘backward’ countries? What are the rungs of society? Who are the outcasts and who are at the top? Why? What are the roles of men, women and children? What holidays are celebrated and why? What are the rituals for birth, death, and marriage? What are considered crimes? How are people punished?

And again, look at your character’s smaller world. Who lives in her immediate world? Farmers, merchants, warriors? Are they a diverse group or are they all from the same tribe, religion, caste? How is the town/city run? Who’s in charge? Is it a happy, open city? Or are the people under the thumbs of a despotic leader or fanatical priest? And what about your character, herself? What religions does she practice? What is her place in society? What does she believe? What are her morals and ethics?

Even after you’ve figured all this out, it’s not unusual to find yourself adding to, or subtracting from it. Your world will probably change here and there as your story progresses. But having this information before you write, generally makes the writing easier since you have a good understanding of how your world works. And taking the time to build your world from the ground up could very well produce a world as real as Middle Earth or Hogwarts. It will definitely produce a much richer story.

For more tips on world building, check out Stephanie Cottrell Bryant’s Magical World Builder site. She also has a free 30 day, 15 minute a day, world building tutorial to get you started.

Spiral Galaxy M51, Hubble Heritage, Flickr
World Map, Library of Congress
Medieval Weapons, clip art
Pu Yi, Last Emperor of China, 1908


Diane said...

When I wrote my Zip and Sarah beginning reader series about a 7 1/2 year-old girl and her dog, I drew a map of their home and neighborhood. These books were only 550-650 words long, but, the mapping made it so much easier to keep actions/movement realistic. I can't imagine how much is involved in mapping out a fantasy of several hundreds of pages. I guess you have to be anal!

Mur said...

This entry was fabulous, Barb! It is extremely useful for historical fiction writers, too. When writing about the past, your world is imagined, just as it is in a fantasy novel. The difference is you have to learn your world instead of creating it. Each world, however, has rules that must be consistent.

I'm Jet . . . said...

Fabulous! A good primer for beginners, and a good reminder for the experienced!


Sally said...

I often find myself trying to figure out stuff like "just how long did it take to walk from Nazereth to Jerusalem?" Or whatever. I think spatially, I guess. And I'm generally impressed with the travel exploits of people from earlier times - whether it's traveling by oxcart into the NH wilderness or hauling stone across the British Isles or leaving Ur of the Chaldeas for the Promised Land (did you know that Abram and Sarai were able to take advantage of something approximating "Avis Rent-a-Camel?" Seriously.)

Anyway, I'm far afield. Great, really useful post, Barb!

Barb said...

Now wait a minute, Sally. You can't just say something like that (the rent a camel) and not explain.

So explain.

Andy said...

Excellent advice, Barb! You've made me want to pull Tolkien off the shelf.