What you are about to read is not the ultimate guide for world building. It’s neither ultimate nor even a guide. It’s just a collection of random thoughts that crossed my mind about this topic, based on my personal experience. That’s why you will find me referring to my work to demonstrate practical examples.
So, how do you do world building?
You draw a map for your kingdoms, give their cities some majestic names that have ‘th’ in their suffix or end with ‘or’. Oh, and don’t forget! You should have at least one character whose name has an apostrophe in the middle of it (Because Ka’rim sounds more epic than Karim). And viola! Your fantasy world is ready!
A simple matter, isn’t it?
Well, you still have a few more elements to consider in your checklist. So, if you allow me, I will take you on a brief tour to Gorania, the universe of my Fantasy trilogy.
An Imaginary World or an Alternate Reality
Alternate reality is more common in sci-fi and sometimes in historical fantasy, like setting your story in England after William the Conqueror fails in his invasion (and thus not earning his nickname), or in France after Hitler’s victory in World War II, or in Earth after the Apes take charge of the planet. It may sound axiomatic that making a ‘believable’ world using this approach is less demanding than creating an imaginary universe.
When I started building Gorania, I used a top-down approach, in which I thought of the main features of that world:
– Medieval setting
– Divided into six realms
– The only world known to mankind
The last point is a key one. Because In Tales of Gorania, Masolon (the protagonist) is actually an Outsider who comes from lands beyond the Great Desert; a fact that incites the bards’ imagination to weave tales about the Demon who strikes fear into the hearts of outlaws.
As the plan was to set the three books in Gorania, I zoomed in on its six realms. Whenever a thought came to my mind about any of those realms, I wrote it down. Trust me; writing notes helps you visualize your world in your mind. Don’t expect your readers to feel engaged in it if you don’t have a clear picture of it in the first place.
Questions, questions, questions
To give your world more depth and make it more believable, you should find answers to a list of questions. The length of the list is up to you to decide, but keep in mind, the more questions you answer, the more convincing your universe becomes.
I didn’t follow any sequence when I thought of my ‘checklist’ to be honest. A few questions even came to my mind after I had already started writing the story. Below is the checklist I improvised:
– Number of kingdoms: why six? Why not seven? Why not five?
While it may sound ridiculous, the answer to that question helped me find a role for each kingdom to play in the plot. Yes, you have the free will to create a universe of a hundred realms, but personally as a reader, I won’t bother recalling the fancy names of the other ninety-nine realms as long as the story goes fine in the ‘main’ kingdom of the story.
To make things clear, I’m not saying that you should have at least one scene in every place you mention. But tell me something I should remember about that city/kingdom. Does it have a religious importance to the people of your universe? Is it renowned for dark sorcery? Did a major battle happen there?
– Geology and weather of those kingdoms:
As my trilogy goes along three Goranian years, I had the chance to show the dusty autumn of one kingdom, the rainy spring of another, and the frozen winter of a third one. Of course, you’re the one to decide the laws of nature governing your world. You may make summer last for seven years as it happened in Westeros.
I drew a crude map for Gorania at the very early beginning, but along the four years I spent writing the three books, the map acquired more details and evolved to what it eventually became. Some mountains, hills, rivers and even cities didn’t exist until I felt I ‘needed’ them.
Diplomacy: nothing in Gorania stays the same—enemies in book1 forge an alliance in book 3 to wage war against a new enemy. And of course, any change in diplomacy has its impact on traveling and trade between kingdoms. And when trade is affected, the coin becomes scarce and the commoners grow restless. And you can never predict what may happen when a city is in turmoil (I was in Egypt in 2011 when the 25 Jan Revolution happened, so I have an idea).
Language: according to Goranian history, the six realms were once unified and since then, their people have been using one common tongue. But on some occasions, some characters may talk with the ancient tongue of his homeland.
The checklist goes on: people looks, social hierarchy, bits of history of each kingdom, past heroes, religion, resources used, distances between kingdoms. For the last point in particular, I use the “Measurement String” in Auto REALM (a map-building program) to ensure the consistency of travels durations between cities.
A very helpful resource is that loooong list of questions on SFWA. To my bad luck, it was too late when I found that guide; I was already done writing my trilogy. Anyway, you can find that page from here.
More Points to put into consideration
Inspired by real world?
Your background and knowledge pour into your writings to some extent. Even if you write fantasy; there will always be a part of reality in that piece of fiction you write. You must have heard that A Game of Thrones draws from Wars of the Roses. No? Come on! York Vs Lancaster; you may find this a bit familiar, especially when you know that Yorkists picked the white rose as their badge while the Lancasters chose the red one.
The names of my Goranian kingdoms tell you how I have come up with those fictional realms. Byzonta, Rusakia, Bermania, Skandivia—you get the idea now. It helps my readers visualize my world, but I should bear into mind that it also sets some sort of expectations. Although it’s a fictional realm, a snowy Rusakia would sound more believable than a sandy dusty version of it.
Don’t let your world building checklist make you overlook a few basics, like the rule of ‘show, don’t tell.’ It’s not enough to tell me that the tavern was noisy and smelly. “The smells struck Masolon first when he stepped inside. The smell of the sweaty men cramming the tavern. The smell of mutton served to their creaking tables. The smell of burnt incense battling the other two smells. The incense was losing the battle, Masolon had no doubt, yet those sweaty men were still devouring and gulping and jabbering. Amazing thing what those men could do with their mouths at the same time.”
One common mistake you should avoid is throwing too much info dump, especially in prologues and first chapters. Remember, you’re not writing a history book; let your readers enjoy the experience of exploring your world a bit by bit. Make their journey a memorable one.
That’s all for today, folks! Please feel free to share your thoughts, or shoot me with your questions.