Tenet 1: Build only what you need
So you want to write a fantasy story? Great. One thing you’ll need is a world to set it in. The term for doing this is world building. It’s a bit of a misnomer because the world part isn’t what you think. It’s a frame of reference thing.
For example, the Lord of the Rings and the Wheel of Time and many other stories require a whole world to tell their tales. But Thieves’ World doesn’t. For that, you need a very detailed city and lots of characters.
Harry Potter, on the other hand, only requires the bits that are different from the modern world. So you need the school he goes to and some idea about magic and potions and the back story of some characters.
My point here is world building varies from story to story and gets me to my first point: build only what you need because building a whole world can take months or years and drive you mad with all the details. So I’ll repeat myself: build only what you need.
How do you do that? Well there’s no one way to do it. You can read articles online and even a book entitled, Planet Construction Set, which will outline aspects to consider. But all that’s not needed to get started. A simpler — and in my mind — an easier way is to think of the world as a character in your story. Is the world modern? Medieval? Futuristic? Steampunk? Ancient Greece? Set in a specific period or location? In each case you’ll need different information to define the world.
What’s the technology level? What races or groups exist? What religions and government? As you answer these questions, you’ll quickly sketch out and define the world and provide yourself with a skeleton for the information that will come later. Of course, to answer these question you may have to do some research on religion, government, technology, and so on.
Don’t be afraid to do it. I will serve you better later.
That begs the question: how do I know when I’ve built enough? Answer: you won’t. Or more precisely, you can’t know, at least unless you start writing. You’ll hit points where you need more than you’ve got. That’s okay. You can stop and work those parts out. I don’t recommend skipping over that point in the story; it will likely lead to extra rewrites and revision. I also don’t recommend that you start writing until you have a general sketch of the world; otherwise, you’ll be working without a net and decisions you matter later will introduce inconsistencies, which will lead to rewrites.
- Here’s how I’d answer these questions for my fantasy world:
- Is the world modern? No
- Medieval? Yes with magic thrown in.
- Futuristic? No
- Steampunk? No
- Ancient Greece? No, but there are influences of ancient Greece in the world like the name of the country, Thalacia and its capital Andropolis.
- Set in a specific period or location? Specific period, no? Location yes; Thalacia
- What’s the technology level? Medieval, no black powder weapons. But magic which can simulate modern technology if I let it. I decided not to because it would ruin the flavor I am trying to achieve. Magic as seasoning, not entree. When I write stories focused on my favorite wizard, then magic can be the entree.
- What races or groups exist? Lots of them: elves, humans, dragons, giants, dwarves, gnomes, lizard men, goblins, and other associated fantasy races.
- What religions and government? Religions: several, the christian sect, jewish, muslin, and various pagan religions, plus most other races have their own beliefs. There are also older religions that have died out from humans of past centuries.
- Governments: Most races have some form of government, monarchies mostly. Humans government vary worldwide; in Thalacia, the feudal monarchy prevails. And most other races have a similar form of government with a strong single leader, like a king or thain or tribal chief or matriarch, depending on the race.
Once you know all this, or at least some of it you can think about maps. And that is the topic for another post.