Three fantasy heroes stride through the center of a busy town square, their latest bounty slung over the back of their horse and smug grins on their faces. Their pay would be good, but the meal they would share tonight would be better. This fantasy town is like every fantasy town. You know the one I’m talking about. A hearty mix of orcs, dwarves, halflings, elves, and humans mill about a Germanic town with a tavern, a blacksmith and, of course, a castle. You can picture it, yes? Good. Because it’s for that exact reason why this fantasy world is terrible.
Why should I build my own world for my fantasy novel?
In order to avoid appropriating cultures, repeating the same things that fantasy authors that have come before you, and writing huge cliches, you need to develop your own fantasy world. This will not only make your book stand out, but you as an author will have a greater understanding of your world’s residents, economy, architecture, and government. Tolkien created what many consider to be the quintessential fantasy world, one with elves, dwarves, and orcs. While Tolkien’s work is great, other media, such as Dungeons and Dragons, pulled heavily from his work and now the classic “High Fantasy” world is dried up and overused. You as an author have the power to build an entire world from scratch, and you should. Not only will it give you more life to your book but you also have the opportunity to create a world that’s never existed before.
What should I include when I build my own fantasy world?
This is the first thing I build when I create my worlds. What kind of world is it? Is it an entire planet for a science fiction novel? Is it a continent whose outer seas are treacherous? Is it a single country? After you know where your story takes place, you can add biomes, landmarks, plants, animals, and other beasties to inhabit your naked, humanless world. If landmarks are recognizable, give them a story. There are plenty of mountains here in the West named after the explorers who discovered them, or after creatures they resemble. Is there a story there, and if so, what is it?
Ah, the fun part. Science Fiction worldbuilding can take forever at this stage, just because you can really go wild with how many aliens you have. You don’t have to have loads of fantasy races to have a killer fantasy world. Game of Thrones has humans, and only two fantasy races otherwise. Think about each race, their culture, language, food, values, religious systems, etc. This will help shape how you build their cities, what they export and import, and where they live. Have as many or as few races of intelligent creatures as you like.
Now your races get to have governments. Based on the values these races adhere to, how do they govern themselves? Are they an oligarchy, democracy, or monarchy? Are they ruled by a god-king? By asking these questions, you can build out entire kingdoms. Make sure you include details like their army size, what kinds of forces they have, what imports or exports they specialize in, and who their leaders are.
Cities, states, and borders:
Make your cities now! There are plenty of great map building websites online for Dungeons and Dragons players, but feel free to use them for your own projects. If your characters aren’t going to be traveling there during the story, don’t worry about fleshing them out too heavily. Focus on places you know you’re taking your readers and make it come to life. Think about the little hole in the wall restaurants, gambling dens, and brothels, as well as the grocery stores and Wal-Marts. Even boring places matter when it comes to major cities that your characters are going to be exploring.
This really deserves its own category and shouldn’t be lumped in with the races exclusively. Religion matters a lot to all sorts of different groups of people, so deeply consider what your races are and how religion shaped them. Science can be a form of religion, so don’t forget that!
What technology do the people of this world have access to and how do they use it? Technology also includes things like stone tools, so don’t just focus on laser guns and futuristic AI when considering this category. How far along are they in their tech? Do they have the basic tools necessary to make glass?
This is a HUGE one for me. Let’s pretend we’re looking over a manuscript from an author that has included yoga, chi, and chakras as their magic system. It’s totally fine to include inspiration from current cultures in your work, but let me explain what was wrong in this particular case.
- The magic system that they created wasn’t inspired by yoga, chakras, and chi, it just was yoga, chakras, and chi. This is a problem for a couple of reasons. Firstly, yoga, chakras, and chi are not just an “exotic” system of beliefs that can be viewed as “mystical” simply because they aren’t western. Those three things aren’t viewed as magic in our world, so why would they be viewed as magic in another world? Another huge problem I found was that the author’s understanding of each practice was completely incorrect. It seemed they based their entire magic system off of what they learned from anime, yoga classes, and word of mouth. No actual research was done, which was offensive and demeaning to such complex, rich, and ancient practices.
- There was no indication that the story was taking place in a world that was similar to our own Earth or even in the future on our own planet. This was a completely new world with different races, cities, and continents. If this is a brand new, naked world, the chances of them coming up with the exact same names and practices as related to yoga, chi, and chakras are incredibly unlikely.
- Because the author did not do enough research, their magic system had no explanation of how it worked or what the practices actually meant.
When making a magic system, you need to make sure you know WHERE the magic comes from. I CANNOT stress this enough. Explaining your magic with a simple “Because Magic” is unoriginal, boring, and lacks forethought. Does your magic come from a supernatural god or an ore in the earth? Is it genetic or do you have to study it in order to learn?
Don’t appropriate other cultures that exist in our real, 2019 world. It’s not cool, it’s not original and if you don’t do research properly it’s offensive. If you want to base your magic system off of Haitian Voodoo, research it. There are plenty of Voodoo practitioners that would LOVE to teach you what their practices are about. Take the time to craft a magic system that makes sense.
If you want to do one better, make up your own magic system. You can take bits and pieces from cultures that we have today, but in the end, your magic system should be as original as possible while making sense.
While a little detail, calendars are the backbone of literally any civilization. If you really think about it, we base everything we do off of time and calendar schedules, and not every country on our lovely Earth follows the same calendar.
This can apply to both fantasy and science fiction worlds. Of course, if you are writing a novel in which your characters have interstellar travel, they, of course, can visit these bodies. If not, the bodies in your sky will help the denizens of your world tell time, the seasons, the weather, and also determine what your beautiful fantasy skies look like.
These are only a handful of things that you can include in your work. There are loads of good guides out there and, who knows, maybe I’ll go through and really break down each of these sections into their own individual guides eventually. Hopefully, this will give you all a launching off point for you to create your own worlds and avoid old, stale cliches. Worldbuilding is hard, takes time, and is one of the bigger parts of writing a fantasy or science fiction novel. If you have any questions about anything, please feel free to email me! I’d love to hear about the amazing worlds you’ve created and help you in any way I can. Cheers, and happy writing!