June 10, 2010

Some thoughts on world-building

Yesterday afternoon a writer friend and I met at the library for a mini writers' conference. Up until now, I've flattered myself with the thought that Reyem, the fantasy world where my books take place, is very well-developed, well-rounded, and fleshed out. After all, I have a map of the North Continent, the alphabet of one of the languages, and I have developed four separate cultures for the four countries on the Continent.
Then my friend shows up with his world maps, his stack of binders full of information about everything from the technology to the plant and wildlife of his fantasy world, and several volumes' worth of information still in his head. Needless to say, I didn't do a whole lot of bragging about how developed my fantasy world is.
But, it did get me thinking about the importance of world-building as a fantasy writer. It's not enough to take your reader on a grand adventure with a wonderful cast of characters if they're doing it in a vague or shallow world. (You can click here to read my thoughts on the importance of descriptive detail in your writing.)
So fantasy writers, let's start at the beginning. What is the first thing you do when you start developing a new world? How do you get the process started? What methods work for you? What aspects of world-building are the most important to you?


  1. Actually, I'm not sure I agree. A too well-developed world can be irrelevant and distract from the story. After all, we don't read books because we want a field guide. Sometimes I think it IS enough to have a grand adventure and wonderful cast of characters, and leave the world to itself.

    Then again, what do I know?

  2. Lewis didn't do much of that and Narnia is one of the best-loved fantasy worlds ever.
    Tolkien did, and Middle-Earth is one of the best-loved fantasy worlds ever.

  3. I figure out what it looks like--where all the countries are, what their names are, and what prominent landmarks are in them.
    I'm still fleshing out Absor--what's helped me is making a goal to write at least one story about every country. Then when I get to that story, I start working in detail about the country's geography, their culture, etc. I just discovered that one country is similar to ancient Turkey. I'll have fun with that!!
    Probably the two biggest aspects of my cultures are the clothes and the music. I like assigning specific styles of music to the countries and I enjoy coming up with variations on clothing for each country.

  4. I usually start with the people, actually--first the main characters, and then their respective races if appopriate. And when it comes to that, I usually try to be deliberately non-cliche. For example, my elves in "Heir of Dishonor" are not blond or silvery Anglo Saxon creatures--they're Asian. My humans are of African or Middle Eastern flavor, and my dwarves are VERY British. :)

  5. @Lostariel

    I think you are correct in that 99% of readers (if not more) don't expect a novel to be a field guide as that is not what they read it for.

    However, my theory is that the novel should be a window into a fictional world. It is a tool used by the writer to introduce someone to the world you have created.

    The reader first falls in love with your characters, is swept away by the story but then becomes obsessed with the world. It is the obsession that builds what I like to think of as a power franchise and allows you to earn alot of money as a writer if used correctly.

    I hope that makes sense =)


What are your thoughts on this post? I'd love to hear your comments, questions, or ideas, even if you don't agree with me. Please be aware that I reserve the right to delete comments that are uncivil or vulgar, however.