There are a vast array of methods authors use to create the worlds, each one different from the other and suited to that particular person. There is no one, fool proof way. The only thing they all have in common is that building worlds takes time, a lot of time. If you’re aren’t willing to put the work in then the end result will most probably be an unconvincing, drab world that the reader can’t engage with. Detail is the key, if you don’t have detail then you don’t have a world.
Some authors use a preexisting, or ancient, civilisation as a template and then build from that, changing things to suit the kind of world they want to make, such as in Guy Gavriel Kay’s novel ‘Trigana’, which is based on the Roman Empire. Others focus on much smaller aspects first, a town or place, an institute like an academy of magicians, as an example, and build up from there, piece by piece. Others will focus on a particular period of history, such as the Wars of the Roses, like George R.R. Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’. All methods are equally effective, depending on the type of story you’re writing.
Then there’s the method I use, which is to build everything from scratch, from the civilisations, right down to the creatures and the plants. In o’Nagimara, the fantasy series I am writing, the only creatures from the real world are humans, and even they are only in it because they kind of have to be, it’s very difficult to write a whole saga with an entire cast of non-human characters that readers can engage and relate to. It’s possible of course, but I fear it is beyond my capabilities as a writer. There’s dragons, elves, and goblins in it, but these are taken from fantasy and myth, so I don’t count those, plus only the dragons are of any consequence in my series, elves and goblins play only a minor part. The only flora in O’Nagimara from the real world is grass, there are trees but they’re all fantastical ones.
I won’t lie, it takes a long, long time, lots of thought space taken up thinking about how a particular animal you’ve made would live in an environment, how it would adapt to it, change it, how it would interact with other creatures etc. It took me three years of non stop world building to get where I am now, and I’ve only made a third of the lands that make up the whole of O’Nagimara, I have enough to write book one, and enough notes on the other countries to be able to get by for now, but there is still so much still to be done. Now don’t get me wrong, if I didn’t have a full time job then this would have taken me far less time, but we all have to work. Hopefully one day writing will be my job. But for now it’s not.
Now this method isn’t for everyone, and may not be suitable for the kinds of stories other people write, like my mate Rob Knipe, for example. He is writing a fantasy novel that centre’s around a game called Fistball, which is a football/rugby variant mixed with swords, armour, killing, orcs and other such creatures (it’s fab, keep an eye out for it, one day it’ll be on the shelves of Waterstones). Rob doesn’t need to build everything from scratch, he has taken the work of authors like Terry Pratchett as inspiration, and built and expanded upon them to create his own. And it works (check out his blog here).
But for the kind of novel I want to write I need to do it this way. I want to create something individual, something that hasn’t been seen before. I want to create impossible cultures, unlike anything that has gone before. I want to create alien landscapes, take the reader to a place they’ve never been before, to places that will stretch their imaginations. Think the film Avatar, how the world of Pandora was alien but felt organic and familiar, that’s what I’m going for, but I intend to make things even more surreal. So I have one land where all most of the light is bent towards a single point near the land’s centre, leaving the rest of it in darkness. There’s a land that is covered in ever-moving vines and the people that live there use the vines to predict things, such as future events, or someone’s fate, or the weather, by interpreting the shapes and patterns they see in the vines. There’s a land with unending wind currents that run through the land that the creatures that live there have adapted to by all having some ability to fly or glide, to ride the winds. Another land has water that provides all the nutrients a living thing needs to survive, and glows with a golden light. These are just examples, and there are many more, but creating environments like this would not be possible if I didn’t create everything from scratch, as life on Earth has not adapted to these places and would feel out of place.
And so I build spend most of my free time either writing the novel or world building. Thankfully I enjoy it, but it’s not for everyone. However, if you keep reading, some of my methods may be of use to you, they can be adapted and changed to suit various needs, or can be used simply as inspiration to develop your own method. So without further adieu here’s the first part of my, long winded, method for world building.
Step One: A Unique Feature.
The first thing I do is come up with something that will define the land I’m building, whether it’s an aspect of the environment, like its water or shifting vines, or a dominant creature, like a dragon or something, or something completely surreal, like bending light or anti-gravity rocks. This idea doesn’t necessarily have to be the thing that ultimately defines it, but it gives you a starting point to build from, something to get the cogs turning.
Step Two: The Environment.
Once I have an idea the next thing I do is try to imagine what kind of environment such a thing would exist in, or create. So if the feature I have is a creature, what environment would it live in. Using a dragon as an example, a dragon would need a large domain with lots of game to hunt in, one with varying height to justify it developing the ability to fly, probably one with forest too so it can burn it down while searching for food and trapping prey with flames. Its scales would need to be similarly coloured to its environment as it would most likely use them for camouflage, so it’d either be the colour of the mountains or the leaves of the forest.
If my idea a feature of the environment I think about what kinds of plants and animals would live there, how would they have adapted to this feature, what would they look like because of it, and build from there. If my idea is a surreal one I would think of things in a similar way, but I would first think of how how it affect the landscape and terrain, so in the land with the unending wind currents I’ve thought about how the constant wind would wear down the rock and sculpt the landscape around it.
Environment is key, once you have an environment you can begin populating it.
That’s it for part one. Stay tuned for part two, coming soon.