Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Worlds of Wonder: How to Design a Fantasy World

When J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and its sequel, The Lord of the Rings, he brought to life a richly detailed fantasy world. Designing a world from scratch is no easy task; it takes times and patience. It can also be very enjoyable if you know the process. To write a fantasy story, you first have to create a world for it to take place in. This requires three basic steps: designing the world, creating its inhabitants, and developing it societies.


Designing your World

The first step is to design the world itself. To begin with, you will need to decide on the ratio between the land and the oceans. Oceans are generally massive bodies of water that separate continents, while seas are smaller bodies of water that are near certain lands. Bays and gulfs are typically bodies of water sounded by land on two or three sides, like the Gulf of Mexico. Map out your continents and be sure not to devote more space to land than water.
Next, you must place your lakes and rivers. Place the lakes on the terrain first, and make sure that a river feeds into and out of it. Most rivers flow downhill, i.e., from north to south, though is not always the case. The New River in West Virginia actually flows north.
Once this is complete, place hills and mountains on your land. Mountains should run parallel to a coastline, regardless of how far inland they are. Small hills or foothills generally precede mountain ranges, but they don’t have to. You may also place some of your ranges around your rivers. It is common for valleys to be shaped by the path of the river that flows through it. Try not to go overboard when positioning mountains near rivers because that is where most cities will eventually be placed.
Next, you will want to place your forests, deserts, swamps, and arctic lands. Forests generally cover a generous portion of a world not yet encumbered by heavy industry. Swamps and marshland are located near a sea or ocean. Deserts are near the equator and arctic land is near the poles. To get an idea of how certain maps should look, do an image search on the internet for fantasy maps, such as middle-earth. 
Map of my fantasy world, Braith.
Now that the land beneath your feet is designed, what do you see when you look above? Cosmology is important because you have to describe what the inhabitants of your world see when they look in the sky. Obviously, they see stars in the night sky, but what else do they see? Is there a moon? Several moons? In my fantasy world, called Braith, there is single forest moon called Keommi. Now consider what your people see in the sky during the day? A single sun, or are there two like the desert planet of Tatooine in Star Wars? Deciding on these factors help to determine the measurement of time because all time scales are based on cosmology. While it might not be necessary to the story, you will want to keep these things in mind. For example, a world with three suns will have different cycles of day and night than a world with just one. You can choose to ignore this rule, because people are more interested in story that cosmological fact checking. However, it can add an interesting element of a story if, for instance, your world has a night that lasts thirty hours. Or thirty days, like in Alaska.


Peopling your World

Now that the world has been designed, it’s time to create people to inhabit it. Like a great number of fantasy stories, you can populate your world with a race of humans. You can also give your world classical fantasy archetypes, such as elves, trolls, goblins, ogres and dwarfs. Or you can create entirely new races. Be creative, but make sure you can justify the race’s existence. In other words, does a being with arms and legs designed for climbing have any business living in a world comprised entirely of plains and grassland? A few other things to consider when creating a race include intelligence, interests, special skills, physicality, and demeanor. Are they savage or refined, good or evil, friendly or aggressive? These factors can also determine their dress and weaponry.
Once you have decided on races, you can further break them down by ethnicity. Everyone on earth is of the human race, but we have many different ethnicities that separate us not only socially, but physically as well. Asians have yellowish skin, slanted eyes, and dark hair. Caucasians have light skin, wide eyes, and angular faces. You can do the same with your races. For example, a race of elves in one area may be tall with short, pointed ears and fair skin, while another type of elf could be much shorter, with dark hair and ears with higher points.
Next, you have to decide what each race’s interests are. What do they do for recreation? Do they like sports, or board games? Do they design sculptures? Do they enjoy drinking? Many of these things will determine details of the society and culture of these people. If you decide that a certain race is adept at building statues and monuments, that will determine their culture ant the appearance of their cities.
After that, you may want to decide the religion of each race. Do they pray to a pantheon of gods like the Greeks and Romans, or is their belief structure monotheistic like Christianity?
Lastly, what kinds of animals roam your world? They will likely be broken down into two categories: wild and domestic. Dragons are popular in fantasy, and they are often wild. You can draw wild animals from popular archetypes as well (such as a griffin or centaur), or you can take ordinary animals and make them huge. Tolkien did this to great effect when he introduced readers to Shelob, an enormous and ancient spider that lives deep within a mountain.
Now it is time to decide on what types of domestic animals inhabit your world. In fantasy, the most popular domestic animal is the horse. Without the horse, our heroes would take forever to get anywhere. Sometimes the races you have created will demand the need for a unique creature. For example, in my world there is a race of warriors called The Fere, who stand seven- to-eight feet tall and weigh in the neighborhood of five-hundred pounds. No horse could carry such a person, so I had to create a creature called a Bharma, which serves as a Feran’s steed.
Once all these elements are in place, you have a strong base on which stable societies can stand.


Developing your World’s Societies

The last step in world design is the aforementioned society. Of course, there would be no society without a government to rule it. Societies often depend greatly on technology. Technology often determines how much power a government wields. For example, the Roman Empire ruled the world because they built roads and sophisticated plumbing systems. Fantasy worlds are usually pre-industrial, with the highest technology being steelmaking. If one society has discovered steelmaking before the rest, they could have very well gained control of the world by strength of the sword. Many nations still in existence today were created in the same fashion. As a world builder, you must also decide what level of weapon technology has been developed. Are weapons made from steel or a lesser metal such as bronze? How advanced is the bow, or siege weapons? You must also decide what kind of machines your people have created. Researchers have only recently discovered that the ancient Greeks developed very sophisticated machines. Modern researchers even had to run several experiments to discover how these machines operated. Do not think that because your fantasy world is pre-industrial that its people cannot invent amazing devices.
Next, you must consider the types of government that rule your different nations. Monarchy and feudalism are the most common forms of government in fantasy. However, there are many more options from which to choose. Do a little research and find out which ones work best.
Now, you must decide on a monetary system. The most common type of currency in fantasy is coins. The type of metal each coin is made of determines its value. Gold is generally the most expensive. Just remember, the rarer the metal, the more it is worth. You can even invent a metal even rarer that gold, if you wish.
Finally, it is time to place your cities and define the borders of your nations. Remember to place most cities near a water source. Cities must have some form of fresh water nearby to facilitate their survival and prevent the spread of disease. Where the city sits determines it subsistence system-i.e., a city’s means of survival. If a city is located in open plains, grazing and farming is that city’s subsistence system. A coastal city will subsist by means of fishing and boating. Cities near a forest will have logging. Cities near the mountains will have mining (these are the people who will mine for metals that become currency, among other things). Cities located near seas in colder climates will have whaling and sealing. Any city by a river will have fishing. The size of the river will determine how fruitful the fishing will be. A city can have as many subsistence systems as the surrounding terrain allows. The more forms of subsistence, the bigger the city will be.
Now that your cities are developed, you will need to insert roads between them. The largest cities will be the ones that sit on main roads, at central locations, or at a crossroads. These areas will likely be major trade routes, especially if they have several subsistence systems. The more business a city gets, the larger it becomes. The size of the city will grow to meet consumer demand.
Lastly, you will have to name your cities. Whatever names you choose, be sure that all the cities of a particular kingdom or nation sound similar. For example, you wouldn’t want to have a city named Woodville located near a city called Hoka-kuru. When it comes to naming cities, the best bet is to get ideas from the names of actual cities or ones from fantasy novels. You can also keep some city names simple. For instance, I have a city located next to a river, so I named it Riverhaven.
Now that you have developed your societies, you must decide what people in them do for a living. You will already have a list for some of these professions because the growth of a society dictates that everyone has some part in its development and ongoing functionality. Most people have a trade in which they serve their function to society. All you have to do is prepare a list of those trades/professions, and where they’re most likely to be performed. Obviously, if your character lives in a port town surrounded by plains, his occupation would not be mining. He could be a farmer or a fisherman. But he could also own a bar, work in the local tannery (always situated on the edge of town because of the smell), be a grocer, or some kind of holy man in a church or similar house of worship. As a side note, in most medieval cities, the church was generally the tallest building and was located in the center for all to see. You might wish to do the same, especially if religion is given great reverence in your world.

Adding The Details

These steps are a good starting point, but you have actually only laid the foundation. Now it is time to build the house. This is the point where you add the details:

Architecture
Architecture can be based on archaic structures from a number of different cultures. Perhaps you can choose to combine different elements of each. Try using unusual designs and shapes as well. A good starting point is to look at pictures of architecture from all over the world, both past and present.

Language
Tough to do, and not always necessary. Tolkien created an entire Elven language, but he was a linguist. Most writers are not. If you want to play around with this, start by basing your language on actual languages such as Latin. When you create letters for the language, it might be a good idea to base them on sounds rather that equivalent letters of the English alphabet. In other words instead of the letter A equaling (insert character here), perhaps a certain letter in your new language will equal the ch or sh sound.

Clothing
Like architecture, draw your inspiration from pictures of clothing in different parts of the world, and in different time periods.

Food
For foods, stick with basic meats, fish, fowl, fruits and vegetables. But try to create some of your own as well. You can also name meat that comes from a fantastical creature in your world. Maybe Griffin meat is popular in your world, but it probably wouldn’t be called that. After all, cow meat is not called such, it is called beef. For example, on my world, Bharma meat is called Roce (pronounced rohs).

Magic
Very popular in fantasy is the use of magic. You should develop rules for the magic in your world. What kinds of magic are there? Do your research and learn of the different kinds of magic in fantasy and history, then decide what elements to add. What are your magic users called? Wizards? Soothsayers? Do they use wands? Staffs? Spells? There is a wealth of ideas for fantasy magic out there. Just pick out the bits you like and cast aside the rest.

History
Look at the history of the world and try to find trends that define a moment in time and make it worthy of note. You will want to start by developing a time scale. Perhaps you can start with the year 1, followed by initials such as P.H. (for Pre-History). You will also want to divide your timescale into ages or eras. A new age is usually marked by some kind of great change, such as the fall of a major empire, the end of great war, or the development of a new technology. Your timeline should mention wars, battles, famous people, infamous people, technological developments, or the construction of a monument or world wonder.


Even though a small percentage of these details will actually make into your stories (or novels, more likely), they are still important. As the writer, you must believe fully in your created world as in the real one. If not, it will show in your writing-because if you don't believe in your own creation, your reader won't believe in it either.

1 comment:

  1. "Most rivers flow downhill, i.e., from north to south, though is not always the case." Well, *all* rivers flow downhill, of course. North-to-south is not necessarily downhill; north is only "up" according to the arbitrary cultural convention we have of putting north on the top side of most maps. The fact that many major rivers in the world flow in a generally southerly direction is a quirk of geography, having to do with the relative arrangement of continents, oceans, and mountain ranges; it isn't a consequence of the fact that rivers flow downhill.

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